He’s quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor,” read the reviewer’s note on one application. Another said that an applicant’s “scores and application seem so typical of other Asian applications I’ve read: extraordinarily gifted in math with the opposite extreme in English.” Admissions staff typically ranked Asian-Americans lower than whites in “personal qualities” and repeatedly described them as “being quiet/shy, science/math oriented, and hard workers.”
These comments appear in a federal civil rights complaint charging Harvard University with discrimination against Asian-American applicants. The complaint documents a pattern of bias, at Harvard and other Ivy League colleges, that, in its methods and its impact, closely parallels the imposition of de facto Jewish quotas at these schools in the 1920s. By spotlighting how racial preferences for other minorities have ironically contributed to this reprise of Harvard’s bigoted past, with Asians playing the role of modern-day Jews, the plaintiffs hope to prompt the Supreme Court to overturn Bakke v. Regents of the University of California, its 1978 decision allowing the use of such preferences in college admissions. For, as the complaint starkly illustrates, whatever merit affirmative action may once have had, it is a policy relic of an essentially biracial society of the 1970s that has become ludicrous in the multiracial America of 2016.
The Harvard case and a companion case against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were brought by Students for Fair Admissions (SFA), an advocacy group representing Asian-American and other students rejected by top colleges that employ racial preferences. SFA is an offshoot of the Project on Fair Representation, which has brought high-profile challenges to race-conscious policies in education, voting, and other areas. Among its successes is the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which, while reaffirming the holdings in Bakke and in Grutter v. Bollinger that campus “diversity” is a “compelling interest” that can justify the use of racial preferences, significantly strengthened the “strict scrutiny” test to which such preferences are subject: not only must a college show that the consideration of race is “narrowly tailored” to achieve the diversity goal, the Court held, but this showing must now also include proof that “no workable race-neutral alternatives” exist for doing so.
The Harvard lawsuit, with an eye on eventual Supreme Court review, urges the justices to go a step further and overturn Bakke. Laying out a damning indictment that, in using race-based preferences rather than race-neutral alternatives to increase African-American and Latino enrollment, Harvard and the other Ivies have established quotas limiting Asian enrollment, the complaint asserts: “Given what is occurring at Harvard and at other schools, the proper response is the outright prohibition of racial preferences in university admissions—period.” The complaint stresses a particular irony in the use of racial preferences at Harvard. The Bakke decision had held up the Harvard admissions program, touted in Harvard’s amicus brief in the case, as a model of individualized assessment in which race was just one of many nonacademic and subjective “plus” factors, and no quotas were imposed. In fact, the SFA complaint documents, the “holistic” Harvard Plan was conceived in anti-Semitism—and now cloaks similar anti-Asian prejudice.
Read on, to grasp in detail how shameful Harvard’s anti-Semitic policies actually were. Back then — as today, with the Asians — the problem was an unevenly distributed (if you’re counting ethnic noses) intellectual talent pool. Ever since Bakke, the court has pretzeled itself trying to account for this disparity, and failing signally. It’s time to stop worrying about it, and to embrace meritocracy again.