The Trump Justice Department is investigating a complaint by some Asian American groups that Harvard University discriminates against Asian students by requiring them to have higher scores than all other ethnic groups in order to gain admission. This complaint is backed by some of the same groups that have sued universities in the past, claiming that their admission policies discriminated against white people
Affirmative action has been a perennial target for those people who have the bizarre idea that black and Hispanic people have it easy, getting preferential treatment all over the place. But as Daniel Golden, who has studied college admissions policies and has a book The Price of Admission writes, this new case pits minority group against each other while the real beneficiaries of current elite college admissions polices, rich whites, stand in the shadows, hoping to benefit even more from the elimination of affirmative action.
Asian Americans are indeed treated unfairly in admissions, but affirmative action is a convenient scapegoat for those who seek to pit minority groups against each other. A more logical target would be “the preferences of privilege,” as I called them in my 2006 book, “The Price of Admission.”
These policies elevate predominantly white, affluent applicants: children of alumni, big non-alumni donors, politicians and celebrities, as well as recruited athletes in upper-crust sports like golf, sailing, horseback riding, crew and even, at some colleges, polo. The number of whites enjoying the preferences of privilege, I concluded, outweighed the number of minorities aided by affirmative action.
By giving more slots to already advantaged students, these preferences displace more deserving candidates from other backgrounds, including Asian Americans and middle-class whites, without achieving the goals of affirmative action, such as diversity and redressing historical discrimination.
Jared Kushner, President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, has become the poster boy for this practice. As I reported in my book, Harvard accepted Kushner soon after receiving a $2.5 million pledge from his father, a real-estate developer and New York University graduate. While sources at Jared’s high school told me that he wasn’t near the top of his class, and didn’t always take the most challenging courses, a spokeswoman for Kushner Companies has described him as “an excellent student” and denied that his father’s gift was intended to improve his chances of admission.
Who takes the places of the spurned Asians? As far back as 1990, an investigation of Harvard by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights pointed to recipients of so-called “white affirmative action.”
Harvard admitted Asian-American applicants “at a significantly lower rate than white applicants” despite their “slightly stronger” SAT scores and grades, it found. Accounting for most of the admissions gap was “preference given to legacies and recruited athletes — groups that are predominantly white.” In that era, Asian Americans composed 15.7 percent of all Harvard applicants but only 3.5 percent of alumni children and 4.1 percent of recruited athletes.
Unlike affirmative action, the preferences of privilege aren’t inherently race-based, which makes it tougher to challenge them legally.
Swan Lee, one of the leaders of the coalition of the groups targeting Harvard, makes what seems on the surface to be an appealing case, saying “If one group of students are held to higher standards based on their appearance, that’s not right.” Phrased in that over-simplified way, who could disagree? But it is not that simple. My own view as an Asian American is what I wrote back in 2016 in a post titled The dirty little secret of preferential treatment in US higher education.
What irks me about those people who complain that under-represented minorities get preferential treatment in college admission is that they focus solely on unequal treatment at the point of admission and ignore everything else. What I would like to ask them is whether they would trade their entire life history with that of a black student just in order to get what they see as an unfair edge in admissions. Of course they wouldn’t. Being born black in America means having to fight stigma and discrimination every step of the way, even if you belong to an affluent family, and anyone who does not concede that is oblivious to reality. They tend to ignore the fact that wealthy people not only get all these advantages all their lives, they then get them even more at college admission time.
Asian families tend, for a multiplicity of reasons, to be over-represented in higher education and so it is harder for them to gain admission to elite institutions than even white students. When our children were applying to colleges, we knew that it would be tougher for them. But it would have been madness for us to not realize that they had had tremendous advantages all their lives that gave them a huge educational edge up the point of college admissions. To ignore all that and demand equal treatment on the basis of ‘fairness’ would have been an abuse of that term.
This move by the Justice Department is just one more step in the Trump administration’s pandering to white resentment, this time using Asian Americans as a cover, and it will not be the last.