Whenever the subject of affirmative action in education comes up, it is always assumed that this is used to give preference to under-represented minorities (African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans) in admissions to colleges.
But in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Jonathan Zimmerman points out that white people are the beneficiaries of affirmative action too, though it is not called that.
According to the Princeton sociologist Thomas J. Espenshade, Asian-Americans need SAT scores about 140 points higher than white students—all other things being equal—to get into elite colleges. Everyone knows that black and Hispanic students get a leg up in the college-admissions sweepstakes, but how many people realize that white students, too, benefit from affirmative action when going head-to-head with Asians?
That just doesn’t make any sense. African-Americans and Hispanics have suffered discrimination across our history; whites haven’t. But if we make whites compete on a level playing field with Asians, the argument goes, our colleges will become, well, “too” Asian.
That’s exactly what American university leaders said about Jews in the early 20th century, of course, which is why elite institutions used quotas. Fortunately, those quotas started to come down in the late 1950s and early 1960s, as did similar limits on Jewish faculty members.
When it comes to any social statistic that is disaggregated by ethnicity, there is an implicit tendency in the US to view the statistics for whites as the norm and the desirable state and to view those of other groups in comparison to them. If the other groups do better, they are labeled over-achievers. If they do worse, they are under-achievers.