“The Asian problem” continues to be a thorn in the side of the diversity bureaucracy that runs America’s elite college campuses. The Wall Street Journal reports on the latest efforts by Asian-Americans to convince the authorities that affirmative action—at least as currently practiced—is essentially a repackaged form of anti-Asian discrimination, the successor to academia’s infamous anti-Jewish bias of the early-to-mid 20th century:
A coalition of Asian-American organizations asked the Department of Education on Monday to investigate Brown University, Dartmouth College and Yale University, alleging they discriminate against Asian-American students during the admissions process. […]
In an accompanying petition, the group said it filed this complaint because even if it hits a legal wall it will generate social and political pressure. After the Department of Education started investigating Harvard in 1988, its admission rate of Asian-Americans jumped to 16.1% in 1991 from 10.8%. After students filed a complaint against Princeton in 2006, its admission rate increased to 25.4% in 2014 from 14.7% in 2007.
This conflict will probably persist as long as affirmative action does (and with Justice Scalia’s passing, it seems unlikely that the Supreme Court will deal the body-blow to racial preferences that many admissions offices feared) because affirmative action partisans don’t have a clear or consistent answer to the Asian students’ concerns. Is affirmative action designed to give a boost to groups of people who have faced discrimination in the United States? Surely this applies to Asians as much as Hispanics. Is affirmative action designed to increase ethnic diversity? It’s unclear why Asian-Americans contribute less to the diversity project than other racial minorities. Is the apparent bias against academically qualified Asian applicants simply the result of a neutral “holistic” process that evaluates students on the basis of nebulous character traits? That is, of course, the precise justification Ivy League schools used to cap Jewish enrollment.
The core problem, as Dennis Safran has pointed out, is that the logic of affirmative action that applied in “the essentially biracial society of the 1970s” has become strained to the point of breaking in “the multiracial America of 2016,” where the number of identity groups with claims to marginalized status has multiplied, and where class status increasingly rivals racial status as a determinant of academic and professional success.
In the long run, however, the vituperative wars about the role of race in admissions probably distract from more important injustices in the higher education system. Prohibitive tuition costs—driven up by federal regulations, short-sighted student loan programs, and, to some extent, and campus diversity bureaucracies—probably present more of an obstacle to the Ivory Tower than race-based admissions policies for the vast majority of students. And degrees from the Ivy League still carry far too much cultural cachet, delivering special opportunities to their graduates not because of their talents but because of their access to elite social networks. If our society put less weight on where people went to college, the stakes in the racial preference debates would fall considerably. So as important as affirmative action is as a social and political issue, it should not distract from the fact that we have a higher education system that is fundamentally broken for students of every skin color.