Suing For An Affirmative End To Affirmative Action

The anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions is suing Harvard and UNC Chapel Hill, claiming that their admissions policies discriminate against Asian students:

The lawsuit filed against Harvard cites an Asian-American student who was denied admission despite being valedictorian of a competitive high school, achieving a perfect ACT score and a perfect score of 800 on two of the SAT II subject exams, and participating in numerous extracurricular and volunteer activities. The applicant, the lawsuit states, was “denied the opportunity to compete for admission to Harvard on equal footing with other applicants” due to his race.

The suit cites statistical evidence to claim that Harvard holds Asian applicants to a “far higher standard than other students” and that Harvard uses “racial classifications to engage in the same brand of invidious discrimination against Asian Americans that it formerly used to limit the number of Jewish students in its student body.”

The data are unassailable:

To get into the top schools, Asians need SAT scores that are about 140 points higher than those of their white peers. In 2008, over half of all applicants to Harvard with exceptionally high SAT scores were Asian, yet they made up only 17 percent of the entering class (now 20 percent). Asians are the fastest-growing racial group in America, but their proportion of Harvard undergraduates has been flat for two decades.

The discrimination against an entire race of students is simply unmistakable. Fixing it could be accomplished not at the expense of racial diversity, but in curtailing affirmative action for athletes and legacy admissions. And there’s evidence that the discrimination is based, in part, on racist stereotypes:

A new study of over 100,000 applicants to the University of California, Los Angeles, found no significant correlation between race and extracurricular achievements. The truth is not that Asians have fewer distinguishing qualities than whites; it’s that — because of a longstanding depiction of Asians as featureless or even interchangeable — they are more likely to be perceived as lacking in individuality. (As one Harvard admissions officer noted on the file of an Asian-American applicant, “He’s quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor.”)

Why is that kind of thing not an outrage to liberals usually accustomed to seizing questions of racial discrimination with alacrity?  Kaitlin Mulhere peruses what ending racial discrimination against Asians would actually lead to:

Between 1992 and 2013, Harvard’s Asian-American enrollment ranged between 14 percent and 20 percent. On the other hand, CalTech, an elite college that doesn’t consider race in its admissions policies, saw its population of Asian students grow from about 27 percent in the 1990s to more than 40 percent last year. In 2008, Asian Americans composed 27 percent of Harvard’s applicant pool, 46 percent of applicants who earned above 2200 on the SAT and 55 percent of those students who earned about 2300 and sent scores to Harvard. … “In light of Harvard’s discriminatory admissions policies, [Asian Americans] are competing only against each other, and all other racial and ethnic groups are insulated from competing against high-achieving Asian Americans,” the lawsuit reads.

That seems utterly undeniable to me. But Scott Lemieux disputes the contention that affirmative action is ipso facto discriminatory:

It may well be salutary for universities to experiment with different means of achieving a diverse student body. At least some may find formally race-neutral means that work well. What these lawsuits seek, however, is not merely to encourage experimentation but to forbid taking race into account altogether. That is a different story.

On this question, the argument that affirmative action is categorically illegal under the Fourteenth Amendment or the Civil Rights Act is simply wrong. Neither text explicitly forbids affirmative action. And it is illogical — not to mention ahistorical — to argue that racial classifications intended to promote diversity are the legal equivalent of racial classifications that sought to uphold a white supremacist caste system. Opponents of affirmative action are hardly underrepresented in the ordinary political process, and this is where they should make their case.

Yes, the suits seek an end to all affirmative action. But the courts could provide a less extreme remedy that both gave Asian-American candidates a fair shake and kept a race-neutral way of encouraging diversity. Racial classifications may not be as bad as those upholding white supremacy, but they are unjust in any case. And the maintenance of a clear racial burden for Asian-Americans undermines equal opportunity in a corrosive way. Rick Kahelnberg makes the case simply enough:

“It’s one thing if an affirmative action program discriminates against whites, who have had lots of advantages in American history. It’s a very different thing to allege that affirmative action is discriminating against Asian-Americans, a minority group that has been subject to official and private discrimination throughout American history.”

Sam Sanders, meanwhile, asks whether Asian Americans are actually all that worried about affirmative action policies hurting them:

A recent poll of Asian-American adults in California found that about 70 percent of them supported “affirmative action programs designed to help blacks, women and other minorities get better jobs and education.” But there’s inconclusive nationwide data on Asian sentiment about affirmative action, and a lot of times, the percentage of support changes depending on how questions about affirmative action are worded.

And even in California, polling might not tell the entire story. Recently, a push to bring affirmative action back into California public universities was squashed after some groups in the state – including Chinese-American groups – strongly opposed the measure.

The way Jeff Yang sees it, this lawsuit isn’t really about helping Asians in the first place. After all, “Jane Dou” – as he calls the rejected Harvard hopeful – “didn’t end up at the center of the Harvard suit accidentally”:

She was discovered through a broad-based campaign conducted by SFFA founder Edward Blum — a frustrated Republican congressional candidate who has chosen to make a career out of waging war on laws and policies that give “special privileges” to minorities. Dou was someone Blum wanted — a student willing to serve as a test case in a high-profile attack on affirmative action. It’s important to note that whatever its outcome, the lawsuit won’t help Dou. It’s almost certain that she’s been accepted by other colleges, and by the time the suit is resolved she will likely have graduated from one of them. What this lawsuit is really is just the latest attempt to derail an apparatus that has given hundreds of thousands of blacks, Hispanics and, yes, Asians a means to climb out of circumstances defined by our society’s historical racism.

So she should have somehow suspended her education so as to be a better plaintiff?

The arguments deployed to obscure what would, in the case of African-Americans and Latinos, be prima facie evidence for structural racism, are ever more inventive. But the reality – that if you’re an Asian-American trying to get into Harvard, you will be effectively as discriminated today as Jews once were – endures.