Recently, Students for Fair Admissions, a new nonprofit organization, filed a lawsuit alleging that Harvard University discriminates against Asian-American applicants. Every year, Harvard admits roughly the same proportion of white, black, Latino, and Asian students. Never will you see a bumper crop of students from any one ethno-racial group that will scramble what appear to be Harvard’s finely balanced racial demographics. You’d almost think that this remarkable stability was the product of a deliberate design. And indeed, that is precisely what Students for Fair Admissions claims is going on: In the name of ethno-racial diversity, Harvard is, in effect, imposing a limit on Asian-American enrollment. This quota forces high-achieving Asian-American applicants to compete not against all students irrespective of race, but against one another. The result is that at least some Asian Americans who would have been admitted under a colorblind admissions process have been forced to go elsewhere. Harvard insists that there is no quota system at work, and that crafting a diverse cohort of undergraduate students is central to achieving its educational mission.
But there is no question that Students for Fair Admissions has hit a nerve. Critics of affirmative action are often accused of defending white privilege, or failing to be sufficiently sympathetic to the challenges facing those who belong to racial minorities. By focusing on Asian Americans who’ve been disadvantaged by racial preferences, Students for Fair Admissions is suggesting that, in their efforts to achieve diversity, Harvard and schools like it have in fact been punishing minority strivers. Those who lead elite colleges and universities are generally unfazed by accusations of “reverse discrimination” against whites. The accusation that they are imposing a quota on Asian-American students has an entirely different resonance — for one thing, it brings to mind the quotas that once limited the numbers of Jewish students, a comparison that Students for Fair Admissions makes explicitly in its complaint.
One response to this discomfiting charge of anti-Asian racism is to say that Harvard ought to admit more Asian-American students at the expense of white students, and not at the expense of black and Latino students who benefit from racial preferences. Yascha Mounk, a fellow at the New America Foundation and a writing instructor at Harvard, made that case in an op-ed in the New York Times. “In a meritocratic system,” Mounk insists, “whites would be a minority.” This position is almost impressive in its thoughtlessness.
The strongest, most coherent argument for racial preferences is that we subsidize selective higher-education institutions, directly and indirectly, to cultivate future leaders. To this end, these institutions have an obligation to enroll a student body that reflects the diversity of the population at large. Say we accept this premise. Why would we accept race as the right lens through which to measure this diversity? The problem with racial preferences in elite education is not that we have too few Asians or too many whites at Harvard. It is that a racial lens obscures the things that really matter.
Though racial preferences have long attracted a great deal of attention, it is worth remembering that in the universe of American higher education, these preferences have an impact on a quite small number of students. There are more than 3,000 four-year colleges in the United States, and the vast majority of them are nonselective, which is also to say that racial preferences don’t enter into the picture. Of colleges and universities that are at all selective, only a handful have far more applicants than seats to fill. It is these very elite institutions where racial preferences play a meaningful role, and even among these schools there are distinctions to make. As Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. observe in their book Mismatch, the preferences given to black and Latino students tend to be far more modest at the most selective schools, such as Harvard, than at somewhat less selective schools, as the most selective schools are in a better position to attract the most highly qualified black and Latino applicants. The gap in academic achievement between these students and their white and Asian counterparts is small. At less selective schools, however, the gap is far larger, as the pool of highly qualified black and Latino applicants is simply smaller. In other words, it is unlikely that black and Latino undergraduates at Harvard are appreciably less qualified than the Asian-American students Harvard just barely rejects. But if the goal of racial preferences in elite higher education is to educate leaders who will reflect America’s diversity, is Harvard coming close to succeeding?
In Postethnic America, the Berkeley intellectual historian David Hollinger wrote of America’s “ethno-racial pentagon,” a scheme in which individuals are invited to identify themselves as white, Latino, African American, indigenous, or Asian American, yet the internal diversity within each of these blocs is discounted. The old melting pot that was to turn us all into Americans has been discarded, and we’ve wound up embracing what Hollinger calls a “quintuple melting pot,” in which the children of Togolese and Jamaican and Haitian immigrants are simply black, and the children of Taiwanese and Hmong immigrants are simply Asian.
Relying on this ethno-racial pentagon masks enormous differences within these sprawling, pan-ethnic mega-groups. For example, among American adults of Taiwanese origin, 74.1 percent had attained at least a bachelor’s degree, while 4.8 percent had less than a high-school diploma, as of 2010. Among those of Hmong origin, 37.9 percent had less than a high-school diploma, while only 14.7 percent had at least a bachelor’s degree. The Asian-American students who are most “overrepresented” at elite universities tend to be drawn from the most highly educated Asian-American subgroups and from densely populated metropolitan areas with large Asian-American populations. Placing even the slightest emphasis on geographical or class diversity would tend to disadvantage affluent Asian-American applicants from affluent suburbs, even in the absence of any anti-Asian bias.
These differences across subgroups are just as pronounced, if not more so, among African Americans and Latinos. A 2007 study published in the American Journal of Education found that 41 percent of first-year black students at Ivy League universities were either first- or second-generation Americans, more than three times the share (13 percent) of black Americans who are either immigrants or the children of immigrants. Then there is the fact that, as Jerome Karabel observes in his 2005 book The Chosen, most minority students at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, the most selective of the Ivy League universities, come from high-income families. There is, of course, nothing wrong with the fact that affluent Americans of Ghanaian or Nigerian origin are flourishing academically. It’s just not obvious that these young women and men are in a much better position to represent black Americans who are the descendants of slaves than, say, similarly situated Americans of Cambodian origin. What does this have to do with whites? Believe it or not, whites have subgroups too. And while some white subgroups are indeed overrepresented at the Harvards of the world — the children of academics come to mind, though somehow I suspect our academic friends have no quarrel with them — others are severely underrepresented.
Research from the economists Caroline Hoxby and Christopher Avery finds that a large majority of America’s low-income, high-achieving students never even apply to a selective college or university, perhaps because they sense that to do so would be a futile exercise. These students tend to be from rural areas and small cities, where they have fewer opportunities to rub shoulders with other high achievers. And Hoxby and Avery find that 70 percent of this population is white. The underrepresentation of these students strikes me, at least, as a bigger problem than anti-Asian bias. But you’d never know it if, like Mounk, all you saw were race.