Last week I was invited to speak at the annual conference of the Education Writers Association, with the topic of my panel being the perspective of Asian-Americans on Affirmative Action policies in college admissions. Despite having the only white face among the four presenters, I believe my analysis made a useful contribution.
A couple of months ago, the issue had unexpectedly moved to the fore of the national debate. Democrats in the California State Legislature had unanimously backed SCA-5, a proposed 2014 ballot measure intended to repeal Prop. 209 and thereby restore Affirmative Action, banned in 1996. Since the 1990s, California had effectively become a one-party Democratic state, and many expected the voters would roll back that controversial legacy of the Pete Wilson Era. Every Asian in the Legislature is a Democrat and every Asian had supported the repeal without hesitation.
But once word of the proposal filtered out into the general Asian-American community, massive opposition spontaneously erupted, and within three weeks nearly 120,000 Asians had signed an electronic petition denouncing the proposal. Their intense hostility centered on the restoration of racially-conscious admissions policies for the prestigious state university system, reflecting their widespread belief that this would eventually result in the establishment of “Asian Quotas,” denying Asian students an equal chance for admission to public universities.
When over a hundred thousand individuals unexpectedly join a grassroots protest, politicians pay attention and within a few days every Asian legislator had reversed course and declared opposition to the measure. California Asians are a core Democratic constituency, usually backing that party’s candidates in the 75% range, and the stunned Democratic leadership quickly tabled the suddenly divisive proposal, which threatened to split their electoral base.
During the weeks that have followed, liberal advocates of Affirmative Action policies argued that Asian-American fears of a looming Asian Quota were totally mistaken, the product of dishonest conservative propaganda and misleading coverage in the ethnic media. Indeed, these were exactly the arguments advanced by two of my fellow panelists, OiYan Poon of Loyola University and Robert Teranishi of UCLA. But although my presentation did not focus on the particulars of the recent California controversy, I think I demonstrated the underlying roots of the concern that had so galvanized the Asian community.
In late 2012 I had published The Myth of American Meritocracy, a lengthy critique of the admissions policies of America’s elite academic institutions. One of my central points was the overwhelming statistical evidence for the existence of “Asian Quotas” at Harvard, Yale, and the other elite Ivy League schools.
Over the last twenty years, America’s population of college-age Asians has roughly doubled and Asian academic achievement has reached new heights, but there has been no increase whatsoever in Asian enrollment in those elite universities and indeed substantial declines at Harvard and several other Ivies. Meanwhile, other top colleges such as Caltech that admit students based on a strictly meritocratic and objective standard have seen Asian numbers increase fully in line with the growth of the Asian population. These results were summarized in one of my graphs, soon afterward republished in a contentious New York Times symposium inspired by my findings.
(The public ethnic and gender enrollment history for Harvard and every other American university is now conveniently available on our website).
Ivy League schools admit their students by a totally opaque and subjective process, only somewhat related to academic performance or other objective factors, and leading American journalists such as Pulitzer-Prize winner Daniel Golden have documented the powerful evidence that this system is laced with favoritism and even outright corruption. In recent years, Asian enrollments at all the Ivies have converged to a very narrow range and remained relatively constant from year to year, a remarkably suspicious result that seems strongly suggestive of an implicit Asian Quota. Indeed, the statistical evidence for a present-day Asian Quota is arguably stronger than that for the notorious Jewish Quota of the Ivies during the 1920s and 1930s, the existence of which was widely denied at the time by university administrators but is now universally accepted.
During the late 1980s and early 1990s, there had been widespread accusations of a similar policy of anti-Asian bias in admissions at the University of California system, but the passage of Prop. 209 outlawed the use of racial factors in admissions, and recent statistics indicate that Asian students are now admitted to leading UC campuses closely in line with their academic performance and without any numerical ceiling on their numbers. Asian parents in California can see with their own two eyes obvious evidence of an Asian Quota at most of America’s top national universities leading to their deep concern that a similar policy might eventually return to the University of California campuses.
Furthermore, Asian elected officials, Asian activists, and most Asian-American advocacy groups have kept silent on the likely existence of Asian Quotas at elite universities, thereby squandering any credibility they might have had during the contentious California debate. My own long article ran over eighteen months ago and despite its original publication in a magazine with a tiny circulation, quickly accumulated over 200,000 pageviews while the analysis was soon widely discussed in the New York Times and numerous other prominent publications. Indeed, Times columnist David Brooks ranked the piece as perhaps the best American magazine article of the year. But not a single Asian officeholder or traditional advocacy group took any notice or made any effort to hold the Ivies accountable on a matter of greatest concern to their own community.
In my writings, I have repeatedly noted that although the Ivies freely release their ethnic admissions and ethnic enrollment statistics, they refuse to release their ethnic application totals, data which is freely provided by the University of California and other universities. I strongly suspect that the reason for such reticence is that admission rates for Asians have plummeted relative to all other groups during the last twenty years, a necessary consequence of a determined effort to sharply restrict Asian numbers even while the Asian population has doubled. Asian elected officials or prominent activists could easily apply enormous pressure on the Ivies to release this simple data, but not a single one has chosen to do so.
Such timidity is far from surprising. Most prominent Asian activists are either affiliated with universities or have close ties with individuals who are. Regularly denouncing the perceived misdeeds of “white supremacists,” rightwingers, or even merely Republicans is an easy position to take given that those groups possess negligible influence within the academic community. But Harvard University and its peers dominate higher education like a colossus, and leveling criticism against such targets is hardly conducive to academic career advancement. Thus Asians found in ethnic studies departments readily seek out the most obscure and insignificant examples of anti-Asian discrimination in throughout the wider world but remain totally silent about the massively visible biases in the most prestigious portions of their own academy.
To date, the stonewalling of the Ivies on this issue has largely succeeded and the entire topic has disappeared from the mainstream media and public discussion, although ordinary Asians remain just as unhappy as ever about the obvious racial discrimination their children face in applying to most elite universities. Unless either the media or prominent political figures begin putting pressure on Harvard and its fellow elite universities to reveal their ethnic admissions rates, I see no likelihood that this situation will change. And ordinary Asian families will become more and more doubtful that their interests are being represented either in government or in the media. Hence the backlash over SCA-5.
Meanwhile, most other elected officials seem to pay as little attention to the details of college admissions matters as do their Asian counterparts. For example, Sen. Ed Hernandez, the SCA-5 sponsor, had claimed that his effort to reestablish Affirmative Action in California university admissions was necessary to stem the ongoing erosion of Hispanic enrollment at those institutions. But just a few weeks later, all of California’s leading newspapers carried headlines declaring that Hispanic enrollment had reached an all-time high in the UC system, surpassing white numbers for the first time. Somehow I suspect that Sen. Hernandez would have a very difficult time gaining admission to an elite California university either with or without Affirmative Action.
[ Clarification: In this column I pointed out that most Asian-American advocacy groups, including all the "traditional" ones, have kept entirely silent on the issue of Asian Quotas in higher education. Although this is correct, I should have emphasized that some newer such groups have actually been very vigorous on this issue, including efforts to force the Ivies to release their applicant data and recently helping to organize the grassroots resistance to SCA-5 in California, with the most prominent of these being the 80-20 Initiative and one of its founding members, Dr. S.B. Woo, former Lt. Gov. of Delaware. Indeed, Dr. Haibo Huang, another leading 80-20 activist, had persuaded EWA to invite me to the panel and gave his presentation just before mine. Another relatively new Asian-American organization quite active on the issue of Affirmative Action is The Asian American Legal Foundation. My criticism was entirely directed toward the older and more traditional Asian advocacy organizations]