Max Boot’s Weak Defense of Harvard’s Affirmative Action

Commencement ceremonies at Harvard University, May 24, 2018. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
He makes four arguments, none of which is compelling.

Harvard University faces a lawsuit over its discrimination against Asian-American applicants. I wrote about the issue for Bloomberg Opinion, concluding that the courts ought to apply the prohibition on race-conscious admissions that Congress pretty clearly included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Washington Post columnist Max Boot has by contrast written in defense of Harvard’s practice. He makes four arguments, none of which strikes me as compelling.

First, he says that admissions should not be based on grades and test scores alone. “You don’t necessarily want a student body made up entirely of bookworms . . .” This point is often made in defense of race-conscious admissions policies, but it always seems to me to be an attack on a strawman. Who argues that colleges should ignore musical talent, charitable works, or athletic ability? And where’s the evidence that positive non-academic qualities are generally correlated with race? From the proposition that not all students should be bookworms, it does not follow that therefore colleges should put a thumb on the scale for whites over Asians and for blacks and Hispanics over whites. But that logic would have to be valid for Boot’s argument to be pertinent to the controversy.

Second, Boot suggests that rewarding Asian Americans for their test scores would amount to punishing African Americans, Latinos, and whites who grew up “in cultures — whether in the inner city or Appalachia — that stigmatize rather than celebrate learning. Many minorities must also cope with racial discrimination, crime, broken homes, and police abuse to a far greater extent than Asian Americans do, and they lack access to test tutors.” This argument runs into the same problem as the one I just mentioned: Race isn’t a proxy for overcoming disadvantage. A differential standard on test scores that is applied by race benefits Hispanics who grew up in an intact family in a wealthy neighborhood and punishes Asians who didn’t. (The Supreme Court, by the way, has rejected this kind of remedial justification for racial preferences, in part because it frowns, for obvious reasons, on using race as a proxy for other variables.)

Third, Boot suggests Harvard’s thumb on the scale is light.

You can’t achieve a diverse class simply by taking the top test scores. Harvard found in a 2013 review that if it selected solely based on academic achievement, the number of Asian Americans would rise from what was then 19 percent to 43 percent — compared with a U.S. population that is just 5.7 percent Asian. The Supreme Court ruled in 2016 that schools could take race into account as long as it is one factor among many, and Harvard appears to be doing just that.

Obviously it is true that race is one factor rather than the only thing Harvard considers. Even if it is running a quota system for blacks and Hispanics, it wants the most qualified ones to fill the slots. The “only one factor” defense of race-conscious admissions (and race-conscious hiring) is also a pretty common one — not least in Supreme Court cases — but it too seems directed at a strawman.

Note, however, that the last sentence of this Boot passage is meant to leave the impression that Harvard is not placing much weight on race. But the preceding sentences not only provide no evidence for this claim, but undermine it. What Harvard is saying — what institutions always say when defending their affirmative-action policies in court — is that it hardly looks at race, and not doing it would have shockingly large and negative effects on the composition of the student body.

Fourth, Boot makes the argument from diversity: “There is, moreover, value in a diverse student body. You learn more about life if you go to class with people who are different from you — who have different abilities, different geographic origins, different social classes, different sexualities, different religions, different political views, and, yes, different ethnicities.”

Among the costs to college affirmative-action policies that Boot does not consider is that it involves institutions of higher learning in rampant dishonesty and hypocrisy.

Boot has only so much space to make his case, so it would be unfair to infer from the fact that he does not substantiate or specify the alleged benefits of this diversity that it cannot be done. As Peter Schuck points out, however, the justices of the Supreme Court — who notoriously labor under no length constraints — have not been able to advance much beyond platitude in making this case.

One problem is that making the diverse-viewpoints argument for affirmative action can start to trade on stereotypes about what “black viewpoints” or “Hispanic viewpoints” are. In one major case, the Supreme Court made an ingenious effort to get around this difficulty, arguing that “when a critical mass of underrepresented minority students is present, racial stereotypes lose their force because nonminority students learn there is no ‘minority viewpoint’ but rather a variety of viewpoints among minority students.” But this argument is limited by the danger that an admissions process that uses different standards for applicants of different races may serve to reinforce rather than dispel stereotypes.

Boot makes the diversity argument more attractive by broadening its focus beyond race. But in the process he sacrifices a plausible relation to the controversy at issue. Are we really supposed to believe that Harvard is trying with all its might to ensure that the campus has plenty of Pentecostals, Italian Americans, and Trump supporters?

Among the costs to college affirmative-action policies that Boot does not consider is that they involve institutions of higher learning in rampant dishonesty and hypocrisy. Perhaps that is the kind of thing that will make Boot, who mentions in his article that he has changed his mind about this issue, reconsider it once more.

Ramesh Ponnuru is a senior editor for National Review, a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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