Racial Widgets

On the Harvard University campus (Brian Snyder/Reuters)
Affirmative action at Harvard

Harvard wants to discriminate among its applicants on racial grounds. A group of Asian Americans says,“No.” The Justice Department says “No.” There is an excellent case that the 14th Amendment says “No,” too, in spite of what the courts have held from time to time.

“No,” is the right answer. And it has been a long time coming.

Perhaps Harvard will get the message. It is, and long has been, as one of its more famous alumni likes to say, “On the wrong side of history.”

Hillsdale College, that bastion of conservatism, has accepted female and African-American students since it was founded in 1844. The enlightened Ivy League does not have so good a record. Harvard did not graduate its first black student until 30 years later — and Princeton didn’t until a century later. Columbia excluded women from its undergraduate liberal-arts college until 1983. The Ivy League treated Jews disgracefully and discriminated against Catholics, too. The managers of these schools, then as now, argued that they were using racial and other discrimination in the pursuit of beneficial social ends. Harvard magazine reports:

In August 1912, Harvard president emeritus Charles William Eliot addressed the Harvard Club of San Francisco on a subject close to his heart: racial purity. It was being threatened, he declared, by immigration. Eliot was not opposed to admitting new Americans, but he saw the mixture of racial groups it could bring about as a grave danger. “Each nation should keep its stock pure,” Eliot told his San Francisco audience. “There should be no blending of races.”

Eliot’s warning against mixing races—which for him included Irish Catholics marrying white Anglo-Saxon Protestants, Jews marrying Gentiles, and blacks marrying whites—was a central tenet of eugenics. The eugenics movement, which had begun in England and was rapidly spreading in the United States, insisted that human progress depended on promoting reproduction by the best people in the best combinations, and preventing the unworthy from having children.

The former Harvard president was an outspoken supporter of another major eugenic cause of his time: forced sterilization of people declared to be “feebleminded,” physically disabled, “criminalistic,” or otherwise flawed. In 1907, Indiana had enacted the nation’s first eugenic sterilization law. Four years later, in a paper on “The Suppression of Moral Defectives,” Eliot declared that Indiana’s law “blazed the trail which all free states must follow, if they would protect themselves from moral degeneracy.”

It is worth remembering that the policy of forced sterilization endorsed by the president of Harvard was confirmed by Harvard graduate Oliver Wendell Holmes, who, having had the best education that our finest institutions could afford him and achieving a place on the Supreme Court, considered the case of a young woman who had been remanded to a mental institution for “promiscuity” after having become pregnant as the consequence of a rape and concluded: “Three generations of imbeciles are enough.”

To the progressive mind, society is a vast factory, the machinery of which needs tinkering with from time to time. (By whom? By all the best people, those being Charles William Eliot, Oliver Wendell Holmes, etc.) The progressive mind has contempt for organic institutions and social arrangements that evolve according to their own logic over time, considering their practices and conceptions irrational, as indeed they consider irrational anything that is not under the discipline of a master plan. In a society as complex and populous as ours, it is impossible for the master-planner to account for genuine diversity, much less to consider cases on an individual basis. For that reason, it is inevitable that people with the mental habits of a Charles William Eliot or a Frederick Winslow Taylor will force people into crude categories, generally ones that are based on readily identifiable demographic features or quantifiable variables.

That isn’t always bad. Quantifiable variables such as scores on standardized tests are a useful way to establish standards (at least minimal standards) and to impose some limitations on processes heavy on subjectivity and therefore vulnerable to favoritism, prejudice, and other kinds of abuse. But behind the organizational theory is ideology, and Harvard insists on the use of race for ideological reasons rather than pedagogical ones. A statement put out by a group of Harvard students and alumni demanding that the university continue its racial discrimination insists: “Applicants’ opportunities to amass credentials that make for a competitive college application are greatly affected by race,” and that racial discrimination is necessary “given racial bias in standardized testing and endemic racial inequities.”

None of that is entirely true. The fastest-growing groups of black Americans are immigrants from Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere, many of whom have every opportunity to amass those educational credentials and whose progress in life has not been meaningfully impeded by race at all. The privately educated son of Nigerian professionals has a biography and a portfolio of resources that does not look very much like that of a black American raised by a single mother in East Tremont. One of them is more likely to end up applying to Harvard: A 1999 study of admissions in top U.S. universities found that more than 40 percent of the black applicants admitted were either immigrants, the children of immigrants, or from mixed-race families. Immigration in the subsequent two decades has changed the applicant pool even more dramatically.

Given Harvard’s lamentable history, and given the difficulty of sorting out the extent to which affirmative-action programs benefit the people they were actually designed to help, perhaps it is time to go another way and judge the applicants to this academic institution on academic criteria. Doing so probably would mean more Asian-American students at elite institutions.

“Harvard does not discriminate against applicants from any group,” the school’s administration insists in a statement. The claim is absurd on its face: If Harvard were not engaged in racial discrimination, then eliminating its race-based criteria would have no effect on the racial makeup of the student body. Harvard knows that this is not the case. Perhaps Lawrence S. Bacow, president of Harvard, would like to visit with some Asian-American students in the fourth or fifth grade and explain to them and their parents that, from Harvard’s institutional point of view, he doesn’t want too many of them.

Discrimination against African Americans continues. It remains a blot on our national character. And that discrimination is not limited to a few retrograde individuals. Black Americans routinely are failed by the most important social institutions in their communities. But students of any race teetering on the precipice of admission to Harvard are among the people in these United States that we could probably stand worrying about the least. They are going to be okay, even if they barely miss the cut and end up at Stanford or Michigan or the poor old benighted University of Texas.

The Asian-American plaintiffs have a convincing case on simple justice grounds. They should not be discriminated against in order to pursue someone else’s social ends.

One of the funny consequences of the fact that both our policy-making and our media discourse are dominated entirely by elites is that issues of interest to elite audiences take center stage. Who gets into Harvard matters a great deal to some people, and not because they have lifelong commitments to the pursuit of social justice.

Black Americans are not mainly held back by the fact that Harvard is hard to get into. If the powers that be at Harvard are curious, they could take a drive to the Boston exurbs to the Oxford school district, where the dropout rate for black students is 25 percent. (It is 0.0 percent for Asian students.) They might walk around the corner right there in Cambridge to the Schott Foundation for Higher Education, which tracks dropout rates and race, producing a great deal of worrisome data. They might visit New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Miami, or Atlanta, where the difference in dropout rates between black students and white students is more than 20 percentage points in every case. Not a lot of likely Harvard recruits in those dropout pools.

Worrying about who gets into Harvard is not going to do very much for black Americans corporately, and the Asian-American plaintiffs have a convincing case on simple justice grounds. They should not be discriminated against in order to pursue someone else’s social ends. That is unjust and, in the long term, impossible to defend, even if Harvard’s motives are goodhearted.

And on the question of managing human beings as racial input and racial outputs, Harvard might want to give serious consideration to the possibility that it is getting it all wrong now, just as it has so often for so long.

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