The Justice Department plans to invest more resources in investigating a complaint of racial discrimination at American universities. Naturally, so-called liberals are dismayed.
One of the results of the increasing diversity of the United States is that questions involving race and ethnicity no longer amount to whites vs. blacks or whites vs. everybody else — there are more players at the table. But don’t tell that to the editors of the New York Times, who immediately tried to present the question as the Trump administration working to stir up white racial resentment. The Times reported that the DOJ would target “affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants,” even as it concedes three paragraphs later that relevant policy document “does not explicitly identify whom the Justice Department considers at risk of discrimination because of affirmative action admissions.”
The Times talks a good game about diversity, but one wonders whether any of the Asian editors on its staff were given the opportunity to consider that sentence.
In reality, as the DOJ itself has now confirmed, the directive involves a complaint filed by a group of 64 Asian-American organizations, a complaint made during the Obama administration, which never got around to resolving it. The DOJ has not received any new policy direction on affirmative action as a general practice, much less as it specifically relates to white students.
There are questions — legitimate ones — about the ways in which affirmative-action policies in college admissions disadvantage white applicants relative to their black and Hispanic counterparts, questions that are of particular interest when applied to affirmative-action programs that disproportionately benefit wealthy black and Hispanic applicants from abroad rather than the members of struggling domestic minority populations these policies are intended, in theory, to serve.
But the children of white working-class families who pay a racial penalty when competing for college spots against the children of Nigerian college professors and Colombian oil executives are not the only ones with a legitimate complaint. The de facto discrimination against Asian and Asian-American students is spectacular, undeniable, and shameful. They are in effect subjected to the same quota system that the Ivy League once used to keep down its Jewish population — the “bamboo ceiling,” some call it. Asian-American groups pursuing litigation against these policies have demonstrated that students of Asian background on average have to score 140 points above white students to have similar chances of college admission — and 270 points higher than Hispanic students, and 450 points higher than black students. The “Asian penalty” is especially heavy in places such as California’s prestigious state universities.
The DOJ is absolutely in the right to take up this question.
It is possible to walk and chew gum at the same time on the broader issue of preferences in college admissions: We can understand and appreciate — and try to do something about — the fact that African Americans and, to a significant but lesser extent, Hispanic Americans on average do not do as well as white Americans across many metrics, one of which is educational attainment. At the same time, we can acknowledge the practical reality that dickeying around with admissions criteria at relatively elite and selective institutions is not the best way of addressing that — the aspiring lawyers who have to go to No. 15 UCLA instead of No. 14 University of Texas are going to do fine in life without a racial bonus — and that the use of racial considerations violates the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which explicitly and categorically forbids racial discrimination at institutions that receive federal funds, as well as the basic American premise that all citizens are to be treated equally. The fact that the United States has, to its shame, at times failed to live up to its ideals is no reason to abandon the aspiration toward a national legal and cultural norm of nondiscrimination.
Using racial criteria in college admissions is the wrong tool for advancing the educational and economic interests of African Americans and Hispanics. It is also unjust and does violence to one of our best and finest national ambitions. If the reporting of the New York Times is any indicator, we can expect the debate around this to be — to continue to be — vicious and dishonest. But there is more at work here than white resentment, and more at stake than the deans’ ability to luxuriate in the warm bath of their own sanctimony.