Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: AP
the national interest

The Left Is Gaslighting Asian Americans About College Admissions

I support affirmative action, but stop denying it discriminates against Asians.

Photo: Intelligencer. Photo: AP

The Supreme Court announced last month it would hear a challenge that Harvard discriminates against Asian American applicants. One problem raised by this news is the strong likelihood that the Court, now firmly controlled by conservatives, will strike down all racial preferences in college admissions. I’d like to call attention to a second, related problem: The institutions that crafted these policies, and the liberals who have defended them, have relied overwhelmingly on dissembling and lies. Whatever the legal merits, the political case for Harvard’s system, and the similar systems used by its fellow elite institutions, has been formed by a stream of insultingly dishonest propaganda.

I come to this issue as a somewhat squishy supporter of affirmative action. I regard some racial preferences as more effective and justifiable than others; policies like promising to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court (or other political bodies with a public representative function) strike me as obviously sensible. I support typical hiring preferences — it’s difficult to attract underrepresented minorities to a workplace or school if it doesn’t already have a critical mass. Some of these preferences have downsides. Liberals used to speculate about some grand bargain that would trade away affirmative action for some other, more effective way to close the scandalous gap between white and Black America; I don’t believe any such trade is possible. Ending affirmative action will probably just mean less social equality, period.

Harvard’s admissions policies make me especially queasy, because the burden rests so heavily on Asian Americans. Still, it advances the important goals of exposing students to a somewhat broader range of colleagues and helping to lift more underrepresented minorities into positions in the power elite, which remains heavily white.

I can accept the trade-offs as the necessary cost of this policy. What I can’t accept is the refusal by Harvard and its defenders to admit what the policy is.

The facts, as presented by the plaintiffs, are crystal clear. Asian Americans admitted to Harvard have higher standardized-test scores than any other group including whites. Harvard itself found in a 2013 internal study that, if it admitted applicants solely on the basis of academic merit, its share of Asian American students would explode from 19 percent to 43 percent. Preferences for legacies and athletes have propped up the white share of students admitted. (One analysis finds the effect of those “pales in comparison” to the diversity benefits stemming from racial preferences.) Asian Americans are punished by both forms of preferences.

Harvard’s method for tamping down its Asian American applicants to an acceptable level has controversially involved using a subjective “personal” score, gauging qualities such as “likability, courage, kindness and being ‘widely respected.’” According to Harvard, Asian Americans systematically score worse by these measures than any other racial group, weighing down their admittance rate despite higher academic scores.

Liberals have not denied these facts uncovered by the plaintiffs. Instead, they have engaged in a mix of evasion and deceit.

In a New York Times debate a decade ago, an official spokesperson from Harvard implied that Harvard does not discriminate against Asian Americans without saying so directly:

Harvard College welcomes talented students from all backgrounds, including Asian-Americans. Our review of every applicant’s file is highly individualized and holistic, as we give serious consideration to all of the information we receive and all of the ways in which the candidate might contribute to our educational environment and community. The admissions committee does not use quotas of any kind.

Even as plaintiffs produced clear evidence that Harvard uses its personality measure to hold down its Asian American population, its defenders have employed the same indirect approach. They will suggest Harvard does not hold Asian American applicants to a higher standard and then change the subject to something more congenial to their preferred conclusion. Their arguments tend to employ a jargon-heavy, elliptical style George Orwell derided in “Politics and the English Language”: obfuscatory rhetoric that avoids directly engaging with facts that discomfit the party line.

A few examples can usefully stand in for the whole of the genre. Take a New York Times op-ed by a law professor who has advised colleges on designing federally compliant affirmative action. Here is the closest the author comes to addressing evidence of discrimination:

The Asian-American students who have brought the case argue that colleges should focus only on grades and standardized test scores. But, according to Harvard, a large majority of its 40,000-plus applicants are academically qualified, and applicants with perfect grade point averages or standardized test scores far exceed the number of seats in its entering class. The proportion of Asian-American students in Harvard’s admitted classes has grown by 27 percent since 2010, and they make up nearly a quarter of the admitted class of 2022 (overall, Asian Americans make up about 6 percent of the United States population).

The author could deny Harvard holds Asian Americans to a higher standard. Alternatively, she could concede that the discrimination exists but defend it as a necessary cost of maintaining a diverse campus. Instead, she simply notes that Harvard has many qualified applicants and that it has many Asian American students — two facts that in no way rebut the allegation.

The law professor goes on to fret that Asian American applicants “would be disadvantaged by compulsory colorblindness because it would stifle more nuanced discussions about intraracial differences in culture and access to opportunity that may have molded their individual experiences.” Why would Asian Americans who apply to Harvard want something so simple as a better chance of admission when it would deprive them the opportunity to craft personal essays about their identity designed to tug at the heartstrings of an admissions officer?

The defenses of Harvard are enamored of this method of “rebutting” the charge of anti–Asian American discrimination by immediately raising, and then knocking down, some thematically related but importantly different set of charges. “The narrative that underlies the Students for Fair Admissions lawsuit — that Asian Americans need higher SAT scores to get into elite schools — is powerful,” argues one Washington Post op-ed. “But it is also deeply misleading. It feeds the myth that elite universities have required scores for applicants and that meeting these requirements should guarantee acceptance. In reality, in elite admissions, a high SAT score is generally a necessary but insufficient condition.”

If you read this passage carefully, you’ll notice the author has not directly refuted the claim that “Asian Americans need higher SAT scores to get into elite schools.” Instead, she raises the claim then changes the subject to an unrelated claim that SAT scores alone determine college admission while bludgeoning the reader into submission with a string of authoritative-sounding terms like “narrative,” “misleading,” “myth,” and “reality.”

A longer essay in Vox introduces the allegation charge in its very first sentence:

I first heard about the “penalty” my junior year of high school. I was sitting in an SAT prep class because I had barely broken 1000 on my first practice SAT. During a snack break, another Asian kid in the class said to me, “You know we have to do better than even the white kids, right?”

“At the time, I didn’t understand just how pernicious it was to think about affirmative action in those terms,” the author confesses. “Not only does that frame gloss over the reasons why race-conscious policies are necessary; it’s also the first step toward arguing that all race-conscious policies are unfair.”

Okay — but is it true? Over the course of nearly 3,000 words, the author returns to the allegation several times without answering this question. The question returns as a story Asian Americans are told before the immediate segue to the white affirmative-action critics using this story for their own ends:

Many of us know race-conscious policies are necessary to remedy systemic racism. But we are also told that Asian Americans are penalized for those same policies.

It’s a tension white affirmative action opponents have exploited, time and again, to make their argument against race-conscious policies and to seek a broader coalition for their movement.

Later, he describes the charge of discrimination as a “misunderstanding”:

The story on which this movement is built contains some fundamental misunderstandings. The idea that affirmative action doles out bonuses and penalties obscures the far more complicated reality of how the policy actually works.

Yes, reality is complicated. But one identifiable aspect of this complex reality is systemic discrimination against Asian Americans. The author won’t acknowledge it.

Later still, we encounter the charge as a “myth”:

The myth of a racial bonus/penalty persists, especially in more isolated Asian-American communities, where anecdotes about anti-Asian discrimination inform a certain worldview.

It is not clear whether “myth” here means a factually untrue claim or a factually true claim that supports wrong policies. But in all these cases, the ambiguity, far from undermining the author’s goal, instead serves it.

Some Harvard defenders concede discrimination against Asian Americans has taken place but insist this has nothing to do with Harvard policy. “If admissions officers exhibited unconscious or conscious bias against Asian Americans, then this must be addressed,” insists another Vox essay, as if Harvard’s downgrading of Asian American applicants was the work of a handful of bad apples, “But even so, it is important to recognize that the problem would be racism, not affirmative action. To conflate the two represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the issues.”

Likewise, a column in The Chronicle of Higher Education headlined “Actually, Race-Conscious Admissions Are Good for Asian-Americans,” concedes that Harvard gives Asian American applicants lower personal ratings than any other group. Yet the author denies that this reflects any systemic bias:

While the personal rating is not a measure of personality, some Asian-Americans have assumed that implicit bias is at play, such that admissions officers see them as boring, one-dimensional nerds. But simply demonstrating a lower average score on a single admissions measure is not evidence of intentional discrimination.

Imagine a liberal in any other context being presented with evidence that a a minority group is faring systematically worse on a subjective personality measure and concluding that this does not reflect a pattern of discrimination. What would critical race theory say?

The excerpts I am quoting from these columns do not represent the bulk of their texts. They deal with the awkward question of Harvard’s discrimination against Asian Americans as perfunctorily and evasively as possible so they can focus on their preferred themes: Most Asian Americans support and benefit from affirmative action; white conservatives are using Asian Americans as a “racial mascot” to dismantle affirmative action; Asian Americans will or must not be “used.”

Somewhat in tension with the assertions that Asian Americans overwhelmingly support affirmative action, activists warn that many Asian Americans are expressing opposition anyway. They attribute this belief largely to “misinformation.” The media has “perpetuated misinformation about affirmative action and Asian Americans by reporting on false claims of affirmative action as discriminatory,” warns a paper by UCLA’s Civil Rights Project. An NBC News story headlined “Experts say framing affirmative action as anti-Asian bias is ‘dangerous’,” presents conservative efforts to highlight discriminatory treatment of Asian Americans by elite schools as “misinformation.”

Liberal rhetoric has focused relentlessly on the motives of conservatives in exploiting the treatment of Asian Americans as a wedge against affirmative action, which is a fair enough point: Conservatives are highlighting discrimination against Asian Americans when they just as strongly oppose policies that disadvantage white people.

But the obsession with political motives also doubles as a window into the left’s own motives. Liberal activist groups have a well-articulated fear that the disproportionate burden affirmative action places on Asian Americans will drive them away from the Democratic Party and undermine the policy politically and legally.

One could imagine a different strategy in which liberal groups forthrightly concede that affirmative action reduces opportunities for Asian Americans at elite schools but defend it anyway. Asian American students, after all, benefit from exposure to students of diverse backgrounds. Instead, they have calculated that Asian American support for liberalism in general and affirmative action in particular can’t withstand an honest depiction of the policy’s effects.

Their belief is they must present Asian American with a stark choice: ignore the evidence of their eyes and ears or join with the reactionaries. What they haven’t thought through, apparently, is the possibility that many Asian Americans will be unable or unwilling to reject conclusions that are perfectly obvious to them.

The Left is Gaslighting Asian Americans on School Admissions