The distinction is remarkably subtle, and will likely be missed by many despite their best efforts to understand it. They may be able to parrot the words, but they just wont be able to wrap their heads around Harvard prof Jeannie Suk Gerson’s message: The trial is not about affirmative action, but whether Harvard discriminates against Asians. But does this distinction make a difference?
The question that remains for trial is whether Harvard has gone beyond what the Supreme Court has said are permissible ways to consider race in admissions—and, specifically, whether it has shown a special bias against Asian-American applicants.
Affirmative action can be best characterized as “merit plus” with the goal of achieving a more diverse student population in the belief that diversity of race, gender, nationality brings different perspectives to education, which is inherently beneficial for all. Some agree. I do. Others don’t. But that’s not the case on trial.
Some will argue that this case is a sham because it was brought by a group headed by Edward Blum, a notorious anti-Affirmative Action activist. But that doesn’t change the facts or the evidence, even if Blum’s motive may be unseemly.
Documents that came out in discovery in the lawsuit, and which were made public this past summer, revealed some startling facts. In 2013, Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research conducted an internal investigation of race bias in its admissions process and produced reports suggesting that it was biased against Asians.
Among the most striking findings was that Asians were admitted at lower rates than whites, even though Asian applicants were rated higher than white applicants in most of the categories used in the admissions process, including academics, extracurriculars, and test scores. One exception was the “personal rating.”
There are certain realities at work here that just don’t fit into the social justice paradigm. Asian applicants are disproportionately qualified to be admitted to Harvard. Is this because their Tiger Moms push them to work harder? Is this a cultural belief in the “bourgeois” values of hard work, education, sacrifice and achievement? Are Asians just smarter than others? The reality is that they are disproportionately well-qualified, and whatever it is, it’s not just by accident.
But then, many Asians don’t want to find themselves in the position reality puts them. They don’t want to be the wedge against complaints about Affirmative Action. They don’t want to be in opposition to diversity for other racial groups. They want to be an integral part of the marginalized, standing together in solidarity. But then, they don’t want to be denied admission to Harvard because they’re the target of discrimination for their efforts.
It has served Harvard’s interest for people to think that, unless it wins this case, affirmative action will be eliminated, and that Harvard’s treatment of Asian-American applicants was necessary to attain an acceptable level of diversity among its undergraduates.
By characterizing the trial as a war against Affirmative Action, Harvard tries to evoke a knee-jerk reaction in its favor from those who support diversity as an article of faith. If diversity is a core aspect of its mission, then this isn’t about Asians but about eliminating the mechanism to achieve its goal of diversity.
But to understand the stakes of the case, it is important not to conflate two separate concepts: the legal issue of affirmative action and the factual issue of whether Harvard discriminated against one particular racial group.
Gerson draws the lines, asks the questions, makes the assertion, but never quite explains how these finely-honed concepts play out in real life so as not to have the net result of discriminating against Asians so that there are enough diverse chairs for others.
But answering these key factual questions does not entail upending the consideration of race as a factor in evaluating black or Latino applicants, or other groups that would be unacceptably underrepresented in the absence of race-conscious admissions.
The basic notion underlying affirmative action is that there will be well-qualified applicants from every group at issue in the mission of diversity, a circumspect way of saying that whose “diversity” is sought changes from time to time, as waves of empathy elevate one victim over another. But there are only so many seats to fill at Harvard, and so there will be losers when a seat is given to one student rather than another, even if both are well qualified. That’s just a hard, cold fact of life.
The price of diversity is that an objectively better qualified Asian applicant will be rejected, purportedly due to their subjective “personal” qualifications. Gerson is right, that the two concepts are different. But Gerson is wrong, and doesn’t even try to argue otherwise, that eliminating discrimination against Asians won’t mean that the seats that would otherwise hold students of other races won’t be available.
The focus of the trial will be Harvard’s discrimination against Asians, whether the deliberate mark-down of Asian applicants on their “personal” qualifications was a subterfuge for discrimination to reject applicants because of race. Or, as Gerson wryly notes:
An unfortunate upshot is that, for Harvard to be right, it must be true that Asian applicants really did have worse personal qualities than white applicants—a suggestion that Harvard officials denied in depositions.
Of course, Harvard can’t explain what exactly these potentially worse “personal qualities” mean.
According to Harvard, this rating “reflects the wide range of information . . . that bears on applicants’ personal qualities,” and “may shed light on the applicant’s character.”
This attempt at rationalizing its use of “personal qualities” as an indicator for character* is not merely offensive, but ridiculous, as reflected in the wiggle words (“may shed light”) atop the vagaries. Is there any doubt that Harvard has to cut better qualified Asians to make room for lesser qualified white students? Black students? Latino students? Every other demographic it seeks to round out its diverse mission?
Affirmative Action isn’t on trial here. What’s on trial is the belief system that it comes without cost, without collateral damage, without someone getting screwed because of the very immutable characteristics that the woke dedicate their tears to eradicate. In this instance, the price is paid by Asian applicants, who worked hard, studied hard and excelled.
No matter how many words are murdered in denial of the obvious, Harvard has no choice but to discriminate against Asians if it’s to succeed in its mission of diversity. That may well be the price Harvard, and society, is prepared to pay, but this trial is about the Asian kid who got screwed. Of course she did, no matter how hard some want to believe in their fantasies.
*Not to press the point too hard, but what does Harvard mean by “character,” yet another vagary that sounds warm and fuzzy and illuminates nothing.