Politics & Policy

Staving Off the ‘Yellow Peril’

The University of California regents attempt to curtail Asian admissions.

In 1995, the regents of the University of California, at the urging of Ward Connerly and Gov. Pete Wilson, voted to bar racial preferences on all nine of the system’s campuses. A year later, the state’s voters passed Proposition 209, an amendment to the constitution that extended that ban to state and local governments. But today, the regents are expected to approve major changes in admissions policies that represent the most recent of many misguided attempts to circumvent Prop 209.

The move is breathtaking. It will drop the requirement that applicants take two SAT “subject tests”; if the students the school wants tend to do poorly on such tests, then it is best not to know just how poorly. The plan also sharply lowers the academic standards that applicants must meet to be eligible for a “full admissions review.” This review is where their distinctive “personal qualities” can be discerned and made to count for more than the weaknesses in their academic performance.

These changes are manifestly driven by the desire to bring in more black and Hispanic students. Remarkably, though, the university’s own projections indicate that the plan will do almost nothing to expand black enrollment and will be of very modest benefit to Hispanics. Even more remarkably, the prime beneficiaries of the changes will be non-Hispanic whites, whose share of total enrollments is predicted to rise by 20–30 percent. And the big losers will be Asian Americans, whose numbers will be reduced by 10–20 percent. The net effect will thus be to make the University of California substantially “whiter” than it has been.

That’s ironic, because when the battle for race-blind admissions began, opponents worried that Prop 209 would transform UC into a “lily white” institution. This dire prophecy proved ludicrously far from the mark. The big gainers were not white applicants; they were Asian Americans. Although only 12 percent of the state’s population, Asians accounted for 37 percent of UC admissions in 2008.

Also, while black and Hispanic enrollments at the most selective campuses (Berkeley and UCLA) did fall sharply, rises at places like Riverside and Irvine more than offset the declines. In fact, the Hispanic share of total UC enrollments has risen dramatically over the past dozen years, from 14 to 22 percent. Black students made gains too, though slight ones. More important, minority graduation rates have improved substantially, now that these students are no longer “mismatched” as a result of racial double standards.

Although these numbers indicate that blacks and Hispanics, particularly the latter, have fared well under race-blind admissions, university officials have long been tinkering with the rules in an effort to bring in more “underrepresented minorities.” Standardized tests have counted for less and less, and admissions have become more “holistic”–i.e., subjective. Demonstrating that an applicant has “overcome disadvantage” has become more important than demonstrating that he grasps quadratic equations and can write a literate essay.

It’s hard to believe that, as part of this mission, the regents are deliberately trying to do their bit to stave off the “yellow peril.” But proponents of racial preferences have let slip some highly unsavory attitudes on occasion. My wife, Abigail, appeared on Crossfire many years ago and was asked by liberal co-host Bob Beckel whether she would “like to see UCLA Law School 80 percent Asian.” In a 1995 interview, President Clinton said that “there are universities in California that could fill their entire freshman classes with nothing but Asian Americans.” In 1998, a writer for Newsday asked, “Since Asians outscore everyone, would we accept an all-Asian class?”

Nasty stuff, and not aberrational. If you truly believe that it is unjust that some groups are “underrepresented” at elite institutions, it follows inexorably that no groups may be “overrepresented.” Mathematically, when no one is underrepresented, no one is overrepresented. Since Asians have more than triple their “proper share” of places at the University of California, and quadruple their share at Berkeley and UCLA, they are the chief obstacle to “equity” in higher education.

A high-school counselor interviewed by Inside Higher Education denied that the university officials who dreamed up the new plan were motivated by anti-Asian prejudice. He contended that the drop in the number of Asians admitted is just “collateral damage.” The metaphor misleads. The new admissions policy is likely not motivated by a desire to cut back on Asian enrollments but by a desire to expand the enrollments of other groups. But if you can’t do much of the latter without a lot of the former, this is a distinction without a difference.

– Stephan Thernstrom is Winthrop Research Professor of History at Harvard University. His books include America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible and No Excuses: Closing the Racial Gap in Learning, both co-authored with his wife, Abigail.

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