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How Harvard’s Dishonesty About Its Racial Discrimination Will Fuel Populism


No one can safely predict whether the courts will find that Harvard University has illegally discriminated against Asian-Americans in its admissions process. It is a fair bet, however, that the exposure of Harvard’s layers of dishonesty will further fuel populism in our politics.

The first layer of dishonesty is inherent in Harvard’s choice to use race as a factor in deciding which students to admit. Harvard, in the vanguard of progressive meritocracy, has a mission to staff the ruling class with “the best and brightest.” Racial preferences are at best in tension with this philosophy, which is why there is now less support for meritocracy (even at Harvard). The erosion of a meritocratic ideal would be a victory for the populist left.

From a political perspective, Harvard and other elite institutions are largely able to get away with this layer of dishonesty. The public generally does not believe college admissions should be solely based on test scores. The political problems arise more after this initial layer is peeled away, revealing others.

The second layer of dishonesty arises from the way colleges implement racial admissions preferences. The Supreme Court has told colleges and universities that racial quotas and point systems are unconstitutional, but that “individualized assessments” including race are permissible.

However, as University of California at Los Angeles law professor Richard Sander noted back in 2003, and “as every admissions officer in American higher education must know, this distinction is either very naive or very cynical. Nothing could be easier than to dress up a point system – or a racial quota, for that matter – as an ‘individualized assessment.’”

He observed: “In California, where the voters banned (through Proposition 209) the use of race in state university admissions in 1996, disguising affirmative action is an art form,” adding that “the lure of skirting the law without consequences has proved irresistible.” In short, elite institutions (including elite law schools) want racial quotas and, upon being told they are illegal, have simply set about dishonestly circumventing the law.

The third layer of dishonesty arises from the specific manner in which Harvard is alleged to be skirting the law. The plaintiff in the current trial claims Asian-American applicants had higher ratings on academics and extra curricular activities, but Harvard’s admissions officers consistently scored Asian-American applicants lower than others on personality traits like “positive personality,” “likability,” “kindness,” and “humor.”

According to Harvard’s own 2013 study, Asian-Americans were the only racial or ethnic group to see a projected decrease in representation with the inclusion of extracurriculars and personal ratings. Given that Asian-Americans have become an increasing share of America’s top students, Harvard’s apparent ceiling would suggest, as Avik Roy acidly jokes, that Harvard believes Asian-Americans are becoming worse people over time.

Harvard and other elite institutions have created a landscape in which tutors and college counselors encourage Asian-American kids to avoid sounding “too Asian” in their applications, to omit activities like playing the violin. Such institutions claim to be acting with the grand and benevolent intent of advancing social justice. Harvard stands accused of pursuing that intent by relying on the most obvious racial stereotyping of Asian-American kids as dull, nerdy grinds.

The fourth layer of dishonesty arises from the fact that Asian-Americans are the demographic apparently suffering from this supposedly benign discrimination. You may have noticed that the American left has pretty strong opinions about how their fellow Americans should think of immigrants (legal or not) and their children. (Aside: I tend to agree and find the left’s antipathy to assimilation and teaching citizenship to citizens to be larger problems.) The left considers those concerned that the working class may suffer from competition with low-skill immigrants to be ignorant at best and nativist at worst.

Harvard, one of the flagship institutions of progressive America, may claim to share those opinions but does not act in accordance with them. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 (which Democrats generally oppose reforming) ushered in a new wave of Asian immigrants. Unsurprisingly, the number of Asian-Americans attending college has skyrocketed in recent decades. It is the classic narrative of immigrants working hard and maximizing their talents to succeed in America and to boost their offspring to even higher heights.

Yet Harvard seems to hold Asian-Americans’ hard work against them. It is this facet of Harvard’s policy that has led many to recall Harvard’s history of discrimination against Jews, which lasted until the 1960s. It is fair to say that Harvard’s policy toward Asian-Americans has not been quite as vicious or clumsy, though this may be largely because overt quotas are now illegal.

What effect will these accumulated levels of dishonesty have on our political discourse? Whatever happens in court, Harvard’s reputation is unlikely to be damaged significantly. After all, Harvard remains in high esteem despite its history of discrimination.

Nor should we expect that Harvard’s exposure will significantly affect Asian-Americans’ politics in general. Most people are not single-issue voters. There is no need for the right to wallow in the discredited notions of “false consciousness” that inform books like “What’s The Matter With Kansas?”

But the lawsuit against Harvard, however it ends, has exposed to the general public the layers of dishonesty in which Harvard and other elite institutions engage in the cause of social justice. The lesson this elite university and others really teach is that working hard and playing by the rules are for the little people, not the future Masters of the Universe. The lesson will contribute to continued distrust in institutions and more populism.