This article is a second draft. I had originally set out to write an essay defending meritocracy in the United States. I was responding to New York City’s mayor, Bill de Blasio, who had just proposed a two-pronged plan aimed at getting more African-American and Hispanic students into the city’s eight highly competitive elite public high schools. His proposal pivots on the Specialized High Schools Admissions Test (SHSAT), which is the sole means these institutions have to grant entry to students.
De Blasio is taking aim at the SHSAT. First, he wants to expand something called the Discovery program, which offers elite-school admissions (and tutoring) to underprivileged kids who just miss getting the necessary SHSAT scores. Second, he wants to eliminate the color-blind SHSAT altogether and instead force the schools to offer admission to the top 7 percent of students from all the city’s middle schools. It is de Blasio’s hope that his plan will raise the black and Hispanic presence in these schools from around 10 percent to approximately 45 percent of the total student population.
The problem, I thought, is that nothing could be fairer than a single objective measure that tests each applicant’s academic ability. After all, the SHSAT was deliberately designed to provide some kind of uniform standard for students in New York City. Since the quality of the lower schools varies so widely, along with the quality of teachers and administrators, there is no reasonable way to gauge the relative abilities of students using grades, recommendations, or interviews. That is why, for 47 years, there has been one test, citywide.
De Blasio’s proposal would prevent the admissions of thousands of students who could score high enough to get into these schools regardless of their class rank. And it would replace them with students who, under more objective circumstances, didn’t measure up.
American meritocracy, I believed, needed defending against well-meaning but unjust liberal plans such as his.
But as I began to do research, my certainty was rocked by some painful facts. First, while many applicants to these schools work hard and pass the SHSAT fair and square, an unknown number come from families that can afford specialized tutoring for the test—tutoring that can cost somewhere between $500 and $5,000 in total. Whatever the better-off students represent, it’s not meritocracy.
Second, and more important, what does pass for meritocracy in the present-day United States is a system that has already been largely disfigured by policies similar to the one de Blasio is championing. This is most evident in the country’s colleges and has recently been exposed in acute form at Harvard University. In October and November of last year, the admissions process of the country’s leading academic institution went on trial in a federal courtroom in Boston. By next summer, a judge will rule on whether the university uses discriminatory practices in picking its students.
And that brings me to the most painful truth of all. It became clear that what I had thought of as a liberal war on meritocracy was in fact a war of a very different sort. For both the proposed changes to New York’s elite schools and the policies in question at Harvard do grave and disproportionate harm to one demographic group above all others: Asian Americans.
Because Asian Americans outperform every other group academically, they have become an obstacle to those who want student bodies to have a particular racial composition. In this light, Asian Americans are viewed by progressives as crowding out other minorities—namely African Americans and Hispanics—who, because of historical wrongs, are supposedly more deserving of opportunities to attend top schools. “The systems and structures give you what you get,” said the New York City Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza, de Blasio’s point man. “And what I’ve found is that what you get is low performance for kids of color, low opportunities for kids of color, poor kids, kids that have historically been underserved.”
In reality, these schools and universities are now discriminating against Asian Americans in their admissions policies and showing an unfair comparative preference to people of all other races, including whites.
Since the 1980s, there’s been large and consistent growth in both the Asian-American population and the number of Asian Americans attending college. Last May, the Center for Equal Opportunity (CEO) did a comparative study of the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Harvard. The CEO wanted to know whether these schools were putting a limit, or ceiling, on the number of Asian Americans they accept. The study found that until the 1990s, all three schools reflected the general demographic growth trends among Asian Americans. In the early 1990s, however, Harvard’s incoming classes went from being about 21 percent Asian American to about 17 percent and stayed that way for the next few decades even as the percentage of Asian Americans going to college kept growing. MIT showed a similar drop-off. And then there’s Caltech, which is forbidden from using either race or alumni preference in choosing students. In 2015, Caltech had an undergraduate population that was 43 percent Asian American—the same percentage of Asian Americans attending other elite state universities in California.
This proves without a doubt that the ceiling is real. And a 2009 study by sociologists at Princeton showed in part how it is maintained. Researchers found that Asian-American students needed to score approximately 140 points higher than equivalent white students to gain admittance to elite universities.
But there’s much more than that to keeping Asian-American numbers down on campus. At Harvard in particular, the attack on Asian-American applicants is so clear, deliberate, and systematic as to be disturbingly similar to the most bigoted chapter in that institution’s history—its campaign to purge Jews from its student body throughout the early decades of the 20th century.
There are differences between the two episodes, to be sure. The limiting of Jews was an overt part of a broad cultural wave of bigotry and anti-Semitism, while the campaign against Asians Americans is cloaked in the language and ideology of diversity. But in any event, academia—as represented in New York’s elite high schools and Harvard University—is once again singling out one group of people for exclusion and perpetrating a great sin against thousands of individuals who are poised to seize the American dream.
Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), founded by the legal activist Edward Blum, filed a case against Harvard in late 2014. Arguments began in Federal District Court in Boston on October 15, 2018. The suit alleges that Harvard uses its admissions process to disadvantage Asian applicants in a number of ways. Whichever side loses this case is likely to appeal, and Blum has said he’ll take the fight to the Supreme Court if necessary.
The suit makes six claims in total. All arise from Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which states: “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Because Harvard receives tens of millions of dollars in federal funds annually, it must comply with Title VI.
Among SFFA’s claims are that Harvard is intentionally discriminating against Asian-American applicants, that it uses “racial balancing” to attain specific levels of racial representation in the student body, and that the university illegitimately uses the race of applicants as more than a mere “plus factor” in weighing an individual’s chances at admission. What is the “plus factor”? It was established by the Supreme Court in 2003 in the Grutter v. Bollinger case as the standard of permissible consideration of race in admitting someone to a university.
SFFA also alleges that Harvard is using race as more than a mere “tie-breaker” to pick candidates to fill the last available seats, meaning that if two students have exactly the same grades and scores, race can be used to break the tie. This standard was established by the high court’s 1978 Bakke decision.
Finally, the suit alleges that Harvard has failed to explore race-neutral options for achieving diversity—a rule established by the Court in 2015’s Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.
In the courtroom, SFFA presented its analysis of six years’ worth of Harvard-applicant data. Through the discovery process, it also found a rich source of information in several reports generated by Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research (OIR) in 2013. The reports were initially commissioned when Harvard found itself under attack for its Asian-American admissions policy, and what they found evidently proved so damning that the school seems to have buried at least one of them (even though it contained some good news for the university).1 These OIR reports go straight to the heart of the first count of discrimination. They show mathematically the degree to which Harvard is giving an advantage to white applicants over Asian-American ones.
Students applying to Harvard are rated “holistically” in a system that takes into account academic performance, extracurricular activity, athletic achievement, and personal qualities. Admissions officers assign numerical ratings for each of those categories to every applicant.
One report revealed that if Harvard used only academic performance as a determining factor for admission, its student body would be 38 percent white and 43 percent Asian. In reality, Asian admissions for the year in question made up 19 percent. Tellingly, as we’ve seen, the 43 percent estimation is the same percentage of Asian students seen at Caltech.
A second report showed that when the effect of preferences for legacy students and recruited athletes are factored in, white admissions shoot up to 48 percent while Asians drop to 31 percent. Add in extracurricular and personal ratings, and Asian Americans fall to 26 percent while whites rise to 51 percent. This study also compared white and Asian-American applicants who were not athletes or legacies. It found that while Asian Americans had better test scores, stronger academics, and higher extracurricular ratings than whites, they received significantly lower personal ratings.
What are personal ratings? They are purported to assess qualities such as character, “effervescence,” good-roommate potential, courage, and maturity. Harvard claims that personal-ratings scores do not take race into account. But it’s hard to see what else besides race could be driving down these scores for Asian Americans, given the fact that they excel in so many other aspects of the admissions process. And SFFA documented cases in which Harvard’s admissions readers described Asian Americans in stereotypical terms as reserved, numbers-oriented, and so on. One reader wrote of an Asian-American applicant: “He’s quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor.” The outcome of the case largely rests on whether the lower-score phenomenon exposes racial consideration as a pure detriment for Asian-American applicants.
As for SFFA’s claim of racial balancing, Harvard’s internal reports included a breakdown of its student body’s current racial composition and compared it with similar data from prior years. It reflected the fact that across Ivy League schools, Asian Americans have made up a consistent 18 to 20 percent of the student population for at least 10 years. Once again, in California, where racial preferences are not permitted, the number of Asian Americans in classes at elite colleges has climbed to 40 percent.
On whether or not Harvard used race as more than a “plus factor” or a tiebreaker in considering applications, the university scarcely offered up a defense. In fact, Harvard’s own expert witness stated that candidates get an approximate 200 percent increase in their chance of admission if they indicate that they’re Hispanic and a 300 percent increase it they’re African American.
Nor did Harvard strenuously deny the potential efficacy of using race-neutral alternatives for achieving diversity. The university’s own studies show that if it did away with preferences for legacy students, children of faculty and staff, and other special cases and instead just went with preference for students of lower socioeconomic status, Harvard could have a class with Hispanic and black percentages comparable to what they are now. But there would be one important difference: That class would be approximately 31 percent Asian American, not the current 19 to 22 percent.
Some of the trial’s most explosive revelations came from the testimony of William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s dean of admissions for more than 30 years. Fitzsimmons was testifying about the university’s policy regarding what it calls Sparse Country: 20 states in the U.S. whose students are underrepresented on Harvard’s campus. In trying to recruit from these areas, the school takes the extra step of sending letters encouraging those Sparse Country students who’ve scored at least 1310 on their PSAT (a test usually taken in 11th grade) to apply to Harvard.
The plaintiff’s lawyer pointed out that the only students in Sparse Country who didn’t receive letters of encouragement even though they had scored 1310 were Asian Americans. Asian males, for example, were sent letters only if they scored at least 1380. As Jeannie Suk Gersen of Harvard Law School pointed out in the New Yorker, this fact seems to suggest that Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans even before the formal admissions process begins. According to Gersen, Fitzsimmons defended this practice simply by offering vague pronouncements about the importance of diversity.
Fitzsimmons was also asked if he was aware of Harvard’s history of focusing recruiting efforts on areas with small Jewish populations. “I’ve certainly heard the charges,” he said.
What Fitzsimmons refers to as “charges” is a comprehensively documented historical reality, as irrefutable as the stock-market crash of 1929 or the fall of the Berlin Wall. As detailed in Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen, an authoritative account of Ivy League admissions, Harvard President Abbott Lawrence Lowell (1856–1943) worked tirelessly, beginning in 1922, to institute an anti-Jewish admissions policy at the university. By 1926, he had succeeded.
Lowell’s multiphase discrimination scheme brought the Jewish portion of the student body down from 28 percent in 1925 to around 12 percent in 1933. To do this, he instituted methods almost identical to those that are today on trial in Boston and being proposed in New York.
He started out with his own top-7-percent plan, one disturbingly similar to de Blasio’s. It was the recommendation by the Committee on Methods of Sifting Candidates for Admission, a body organized by Lowell. Lest there be any doubt about the committee’s purpose, incorporated into the notes of a Harvard faculty meeting on June 2, 1922, are Lowell’s words: “The primary object in appointing a special Committee was to consider the question of Jews.” He later wrote of the meeting:
We…attained by far the most important object, which was that of making substantially every member of the Faculty understand that we had before us a problem, and that that problem was a Jew problem and not something else. We had also brought the Faculty to the point of being ready to accept a limitation of the number of Jews, for their own benefit as well as that of the college, if the Committee should, on investigation, report that it is necessary. I have no doubt that they will so report, because I think I know the situation well enough to be persuaded that there is no other solution.
In April 1923, the Committee issued its final report. It didn’t grant Lowell what he wanted most: the leeway to restrict Jews at will. But, as Karabel explains, it did feature a “recommendation that Harvard admit students ‘whose scholastic rank places them in the highest seventh of the boys of their graduating class’ and ‘who have satisfactorily completed an approved school course’ at ‘schools which do not ordinarily prepare their pupils for college examinations.’” This was the best Lowell could get at the time, a tool to bring in students from parts of the country with fewer Jews.
Not satisfied, he next moved to put a ceiling on incoming class size in general. This would allow him to introduce nonacademic criteria in deciding who gets awarded scarce seats in the class. A newly formed committee recommended limiting the freshman class to 1,000 students and using personal interviews and teacher’s letters to determine students’ “aptitude and character.” These subjective categories gave Lowell the cover he needed to turn away Jews for being Jews.
But Jewish enrollment at Harvard still rose. Ironically, this was in part a result of the failed top-7-percent plan. “Of the 276 students admitted under this plan, 42 percent were Jews,” Karabel writes. “Designed to bring Harvard ‘a new group of men from the West and South,’ the plan was in fact admitting more Jews from the Middle Atlantic states and New England.”
Finally, on January 11, 1926, after much campaigning on Lowell’s part, Harvard’s Board of Overseers approved the Report of the Special Committee Appointed to Consider the Limitation of Numbers. It made reductions on class size official and proposed that “the application of the rule concerning candidates from the first seventh of their school be discretionary with the Committee on Admission.” In other words, if a school had too many Jews, admissions officers could selectively reject its top 7 percent.
Moreover, the committee ended (forever, as it turns out) an admissions policy based solely on academic achievement. “It is neither feasible nor desirable to raise the standards of the College so high that none but brilliant scholars can enter,” the report stated before going on to say that “the standards ought never to be too high for serious and ambitious students of average intelligence.” The faculty approved the plan and determined that a photograph of each candidate was “required as an essential part of the application for admissions.” Additionally, they requested that Henry Pennypacker, Harvard’s chairman of the Committee on Admissions, interview as many applicants as he could to determine “character and fitness and the promise of greatest usefulness in the future as a result of a Harvard education.” We see here the forerunner to today’s personal-ratings score, which is also untethered from any objective measure of student achievement.
Pennypacker soon met with Dean Clarence W. Mendell of Yale. Harvard was “now going to limit the Freshman Class to 1,000,” Mendell later reported. “After this year they are going to discontinue—for the East at least—the ‘first seventh’ arrangement which is bringing in as high as 40 percent Jews. They are also going to reduce their 25 percent Hebrew total to 15 percent or less by simply rejecting without detailed explanation. They are giving no details to any candidate any longer.”
It wasn’t until 1949 that Massachusetts passed the Fair Educational Practices Act, which stripped away much of what Lowell had put in place. And it wasn’t until a few years after that that public polling revealed anti-Semitism to be dramatically on the wane. Sometime in the 1950s, Harvard’s anti-Jewish admissions system was finally rolled back.
The similarities between the old campaign of discrimination against Jews and the current campaign against Asian Americans go beyond the methods of exclusion. Foremost is the fear of the targeted group’s academic success and increasing numbers on campus. At a 1918 meeting of the Association of New England Deans, with deans from Brown, Tufts, Bowdoin, and MIT in attendance, Dean Frederick Scheetz Jones of Yale said, “I think we shall have to change our view in regard to the Jewish element…. A few years ago, every single scholarship of any value was won by a Jew. I took it up with the Committee and said that we could not allow that to go on. We must put a ban on the Jews.”
There are no comparatively explicit statements from officials about there being too many Asian-Americans on campus today. But what other motivation could there be for limiting their numbers? Even if defenders of the ceiling on Asian-American students frame the policy as being for the overall good, that means they’ve figured discrimination into their idea of virtuous school policy.
And that, too, is reminiscent of Harvard’s move against Jews. Lowell himself successfully convinced one wavering faculty member that he was not advocating discrimination against the Jews per se. He was instead calling for “discrimination among individuals in accordance with the probable value of a college education to themselves, to the University, and the community.” It was just that “a very large proportion of the less desirable, upon this basis, are at the present time the Jews.”
There’s another similarity, a very powerful one whose understanding is almost lost to time. While Americans today largely consider their Jewish neighbors “white,” in the early 20th century, this wasn’t the case at all. And the popular scientific racism of the time, as Karabel points out, posited that Jews were “partly ‘Asiatic’ in origin and hence not genuinely Caucasian.” So the Jew was in fact a type of Asian who was “contaminating America’s racial stock.” In 1920, Theodore Lothrop Stoddard wrote The Rising Tide of Color Against White World-Supremacy, a massively influential racist tract that warned of invasion by “Asiatic elements like Levantines and Jews.” Stoddard described Jews of “dwarfish stature, flat faces, high cheekbones, and other Mongoloid traits.” If, on elite campuses, Asians are the new Jews, then Jews were once the old Asians.
Stoddard was a Harvard man, and his brand of eugenics held sway with Lowell, as did the anti-immigrant fervor of the time. Indeed, Lowell was a vice president of the Immigration Restriction League, and the passage of the restrictive Immigration Acts of 1921 and 1924 put the wind at his back.
This gets at the essential difference between the engineers of those anti-Jewish policies and the people behind the anti-Asian policies in place today. While Lowell’s anti-Semitic crusade was consonant with the rising nativist tide of the era, the liberals who are privileging white students by keeping Asian Americans out of elite schools are staunchly opposed to the racially tinged nationalism ascendant on the American right.
The history of left-wing social policy is the history of unintended consequences. The benefit that anti-Asian admissions policies grant to whites falls into this category. But the harm that ceilings, quotas, and academic double standards do to Asian Americans is the policy itself—and that policy exposes the emptiness of the left’s embrace of diversity. The kind of classroom that progressives are interested in creating is precisely as diverse and organic as a store-bought bouquet of human flowers.
In the months since Bill de Blasio’s initial announcement of proposed admissions changes for New York’s elite high schools, the idea has inspired a formidable local backlash. Parents of students at I.S. 187 in Brooklyn are planning a lawsuit of their own. The Pacific Legal Foundation, a libertarian nonprofit, will take on the case and challenge de Blasio’s expansion of the Discovery program. Joshua Thompson, an attorney at Pacific Legal Foundation, told the Wall Street Journal, “We’re concerned the expansion of Discovery is done for the purpose, and has the effect, of discriminating against Asian kids.”
De Blasio wants to save 20 percent of the seats at each specialized high school for Discovery students. While this is technically an “expansion” of the program, he will change the qualifying criteria (using a more extreme definition of poverty) so that much Discovery assistance will just happen to transfer from disadvantaged Asian-American students to disadvantaged African-American and Hispanic ones. The Department of Education estimates that elite offers to African-American and Hispanic students would double, from 9 percent to 16 percent. Currently, black or Hispanic students represent 70 percent of students citywide. While Asian American students make up approximately 62 percent of students at the specialized high schools, they make up just 16 percent of the students in the city.
I.S. 187 is a predominantly Asian “feeder school” for the city’s eight elite high schools. Forty-four percent of the school’s students were considered economically disadvantaged in the 2016–17 school year. Under the “expansion,” these students would no longer be considered eligible for Discovery. De Blasio says that the law governing Discovery-type programs allows him simply to make the change in policy. Pacific Legal won’t fight that contention. Rather, it plans to challenge the move as violating the civil rights of Asian Americans.
De Blasio’s hope of eliminating the single standardized test and granting admissions to the top 7 percent requires legislative change at the state level in Albany, so he cannot act on that part of his scheme as readily. But the consequences of such a policy, should it also come to pass, would have further devastating effects on the students of I.S. 187. Last year, 205 kids there achieved the required SHSAT scores and received offers from elite schools. If the top-7-percent plan were operative, only about 24 students would have gotten offers.
In all this, again, we see shadows of Lowell. There is the top-7-percent plan, of course. But also, making new schools eligible for Discovery at the expense of the schools that used to get help reminds us of how Harvard, in the ’20s, tailored its recruitment-targeting efforts to non-Jewish areas.
De Blasio is facing a tough fight. In addition to dealing with the lawsuit against changing Discovery, he must reckon with the fact that local leaders such as Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and President of the United Federation of Teachers Michael Mulgrew are set against scrapping the test.
Not all Asian Americans, however, are against changing the way things are done. The Coalition for Asian American Children and Families has released a statement calling for an end to the SHSAT on the grounds that it increases segregation, but the group would like to see something more nuanced than de Blasio’s plan of student replacement. And outside the courtroom in Boston, during the Harvard trial, some Asian-American protestors also defended that school’s admissions process. These were largely, it must be said, Harvard students and employees.
It is not always easy for Americans to figure out where their political passions run counter to their well-being. It can also be hard to determine how much relative weight to place on interests and ideals. When it comes to this dilemma, American Jews and Asian Americans once again have much in common. Jews in large numbers continue to vote faithfully for a Democratic Party that drifts ever further into anti-Israel activism and the functional anti-Semitism of intersectionality theory. And as the American Enterprise Institute’s John Yoo pointed out in the Los Angeles Times, 73 percent of Asian-American voters voted Democratic in 2012 and two-thirds voted Democratic in 2016. Yet it’s the progressive Democratic base that backs the discriminatory policies in New York and Cambridge.
American Jews are no strangers to political activism, either for the betterment of their own people or for others. Jews have mobilized on behalf of some of the most worthy causes in our nation’s history, including the civil rights of African Americans. Sadly, Jewish organizations have not yet explicitly taken up the cause of Asian Americans and their fight against the biased culture of academia. While most left-leaning Jewish groups consistently support affirmative-action policies, the overall historical picture is more complicated. At the time of Regents v. Bakke, both the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee supported Allan Bakke, who was refused admission to the School of Medicine at UC Davis because the university needed to fill a number of spots with minority students (at a time when affirmative action was still permissible in the state).
Liberal Jewish activists often wield the Torah command “Love the stranger” in defense of affirmative action. But it is also permitted to love those who are not so very strange to us. In their achievements against tough odds, their passion for learning, their stunning success in the United States, and the very obstacles they face, Asian Americans today are so movingly like the American Jews of the past. Their cause is wrapped up in our own.
Progressives are working to make the American meritocracy into a self-protecting system of demographic determinism that stands in the way of recognizing actual achievement. Race-based discrimination is not only what academia practices but also what it teaches. To earn a degree from an elite school is increasingly to be indoctrinated into a philosophy of racial (and gender) identity and all its moral compromises. To call such a system “meritocratic” is a perversion of the term.
Minorities in today’s United States enjoy more personal and political freedom than the minorities in any other country at any time in history. The language of identity politics and liberation can be especially seductive to those minority groups that have benefitted greatly from America’s commitment to equality of opportunity. But leftist sloganeering cannot paper over flagrant injustice done in the name of diversity. It is faithfulness to our Constitution that brings the United States ever closer to the full realization of our founding ideals. And only that faithful adherence to it can deliver Asian Americans from the biased academic system that now, temporarily, seeks to hold back their full potential.
1 The report found that Harvard was helping low-income students more than the administration had realized.
Abe Greenwald is senior editor of Commentary.