Race-based college admissions consistently unfair to Asians

One of the unintended consequences of race-based affirmative action college admissions policies is the negative effect experienced most acutely by Asian-Americans.

Asian-Americans. (Non copyrighted image via U.S. SSA)

WASHINGTON, Oct. 8, 2015 − As the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. declared, the goal of the civil rights movement was the creation of a color-blind society in which men and women would be judged on the “content of their character, not the color of their skin.”

That goal, however, was soon replaced by federal policies ordering “affirmative action,” by which people would indeed be advantaged or disadvantaged in a variety of endeavors due to the color of their skin.

In college admissions policies and standards, affirmative action, as applied to minority students, in effect, gave them points for their minority status and considered judging them on the basis of their academic achievement or SAT scores as, somehow, unfair.

Many black leaders, particularly in the academic community, opposed such race-based programs. Professor Shelby Steele, for example, declared:

Good intentions can blind us to the effects they generate when implemented, In our society, affirmative action is, among other things, a testament to white good will and to black power…I think affirmative action has shown itself to be more bad than good and that blacks…now stand to lose more from it than they gain…The 1964 Civil Rights Act was passed on the understanding that equal opportunity would not mean racial preference. But in the late ’60s and early ’70s, affirmative action underwent a remarkable escalation of its mission from simple anti-discrimination enforcement to social engineering by means of quotas, goals, timetables, set-asides and other forms of preferential treatment.

Steele laments that this has all been transformed into a new form of racism, only in reverse:

By making black the color of preference, these mandates have again burdened society with the very marriage of color and preference (in reverse) that we set out to eradicate…I think one of the most troubling effects of racial preferences for blacks is a kind of demoralization. Under affirmative action, the quality that earns us preferential treatment is an implied inferiority. The effect of preferential treatment—the lowering of normal standards to increase black representation—puts blacks at war with an expanded realm of debilitating doubt, so that the doubt itself becomes an unrecognized preoccupation that undermines their ability to perform.

One of the unintended consequences of race-based affirmative action college admissions policies has been the effect felt by another minority, Asian-Americans. Consider the case of Michael Wang, a California student who came second in his class of 1,002 students. His ACT test score was 36, the maximum possible. He sang at Barack Obama’s inauguration and was the third-place winner in a national piano contest. Yet he was rejected by six of the seven Ivy League colleges to which he applied,.

“I saw people less qualified than me get better offers,”  says Wang. “At first I was just angry. Then I decided to turn that anger to productive use.”

Wang wrote to the universities concerned. “I asked, what more could I have done to get into your college? Was it based on race, or what was it based on?” He received vague responses−or none at all.

In May, Wang joined a group of 64 Asian-American organizations that made a joint complaint against Harvard to the Departments of Education and Justice alleging racial discrimination. That follows a lawsuit filed last year against Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill by a group of Asian-American students who made similar charges. Two more complaints have been filed by Asian-Americans since then, one against Harvard and nine against other universities.

The educational performance of Asian-Americans is outstanding. According to the complaint to the Department of Education, Asian-Americans make up 5.6 percent of the U.S. population but make up more than 30 percent of the recent American maths and physics Olympiad teams and Presidential Scholars, and 25 to 30 percent of National Merit Scholarships. Among those offered admission in 2013 to New York’s most selective public high schools, Stuyvesant High School and the Bronx High School Of Science, 75 percent and 60 percent respectively were Asian. The Asian population of New York City is 13 percent.

The Asian culture respects education and hard work. A study at the University of Utah shows that Asian-American parents are more likely than any other ethnic group to spend at least 20 minutes a day helping their children with their homework.

In “The Asian-American Achievement Paradox,” a study based on interviews with young Chinese and Vietnamese as well as Mexicans, whites and blacks in Los Angeles, Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou argue that it’s not just what happens at home that matters. They point to “ethnic capital” − the fact that these groups belong to communities that support education − as another part of the equation.

Asian-Americans do end up enrolled in leading universities, but not in the numbers that reflect their high school performance data. Thomas Espenshade and Alexandra Walton Radford of Princeton looked at the data on college admissions and concluded that Asian-Americans need 140 SAT points out of 1,600 more than whites to get a place at a private university, while blacks need 310 fewer points.

A coalition of Asian-American organizations states, “The discrimination in college admissions is the biggest civil rights issue Asian-Americans suffer from.” Harvard, in particular, has been criticized for some time.

A 2014 lawsuit by a group called Students for Fair Admissions compared the school’s treatment of Asian-Americans to its treatment of Jewish applicants nearly nine decades ago when Harvard expanded its admission criteria beyond academic achievement. This was used as a means of cracking down on the growing percentage of Jewish freshmen that then-President A. Lawrence Lowell feared would “ruin the college.”

As these current anti-discrimination cases proceed, the Supreme Court has announced that it would once again consider the case of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. In this case, a white applicant argues that students with lesser academic credentials were accepted while she, because she was white, was rejected. The court considered this case in 2013 but refused to decide whether the university’s admission plan, which combines race-neutral and race-conscious tools to achieve diversity, was constitutional. The court’s return to the subject after an appeals court sustained the hybrid plan “has struck many supporters of affirmative action as an ominous sign,” reports The New York Times,

The Texas case was brought by the Project on Fair Representation, a conservative advocacy group that is also involved in the cases being brought by Asian-American organizations. Its leader, Edward Blum, observes:

It has become apparent in America in 2015 that affirmative action is no longer a black and white issue. We are now a multi-racial, multi-ethnic nation and for colleges and universities to classify students by race and treat them differently by race no longer fits within the old paradigm.

In the view of black economist Thomas Sowell, affirmative action programs are largely responsible for the atmosphere of racial antagonism on many university campuses. He notes,

Minority students are systematically mismatched with institutions. It starts at the top colleges and universities, whose visibility and prestige make it politically necessary that they have a significant “representation” of blacks among their students… The drive to get a good-looking “body count” of black students leads the top colleges and universities to go way beyond the pool of black students who meet their normal admissions standards… Under those conditions, many black students discover too late that the “opportunity” to go to a big name school turns out to be a trap.

The way to end discrimination on the basis of race is clear:  end discrimination on the basis of race. Today, it is Asian-Americans who are being victimized in large numbers by race-based affirmative action admissions policies.

The Supreme Court has an opportunity to bring policies such as these to an end. In doing so, it would move us toward a genuinely color-blind society − exactly what Dr. King and the civil rights movement originally had in mind.

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Allan C. Brownfeld
Received B.A. from the College of William and Mary, J.D. from the Marshall-Wythe School of Law of the College of William and Mary, and M.A. from the University of Maryland. Served as a member of the faculties of St. Stephen's Episcopal School, Alexandria, Virginia and the University College of the University of Maryland. The recipient of a Wall Street Journal Foundation Award, he has written for such newspapers as The Houston Press, The Washington Evening Star, The Richmond Times Dispatch, and The Cincinnati Enquirer. His column appeared for many years in Roll Call, the newspaper of Capitol Hill. His articles have appeared in The Yale Review, The Texas Quarterly, Orbis, Modern Age, The Michigan Quarterly, The Commonweal and The Christian Century. His essays have been reprinted in a number of text books for university courses in Government and Politics. For many years, his column appeared several times a week in papers such as The Washington Times, The Phoenix Gazette and the Orange County Register. He served as a member of the staff of the U.S. Senate Internal Security Subcommittee, as Assistant to the research director of the House Republican Conference and as a consultant to members of the U.S. Congress and to the Vice President. He is the author of five books and currently serves as Contributing Editor of The St. Croix Review, Associate Editor of The Lincoln Review and editor of Issues.