Sometimes it’s the crime you didn’t commit that nails you

That’s the theme, or at least the punchline, of Preston Sturges’ classic movie “The Great McGinty,” among other works of art. It may also end up being the kicker in the class action lawsuit against Harvard for discriminating against Asian-Americans in undergraduate admissions.

Harvard wants to admit African-Americans and Latinos more or less in proportion to their representation in the U.S. population. It can’t do so if it makes admissions decisions based solely on the objective factors colleges traditionally have relied on — grades, standardized test scores, and extracurricular activities. Using these criteria, Black and Hispanic representation would fall well short of proportionality. And Asian representation among Harvard undergrads would dwarf their representation in the general population.

Using the traditional subjective criterion of alumni interview doesn’t help. Alums seem to like Asian American candidates about as much as they like Whites, Blacks, and Latinos. Imagine that.

Thus, the only way Harvard can depress Asian-American admission rates without simply saying “we’re only going to admit this many,” is for the admissions office to rate applicants subjectively, based on their personality. The factors that determine the personality rating are: likability, helpfulness, courage, kindness, positive personality, people like to be around them, the person is widely respected.

Harvard’s admissions office evaluates applicants on these characteristics without the benefit of knowing the applicants or, as I understand it, having spoken seriously with most of them. In lieu of real knowledge, they resort to stereotypes, viewing high achieving Asian-American candidates as insufficiently “well-rounded” or, as MIT’s dean of admissions said of one candidate, “yet another textureless math grind.”

So viewed, Asian-American applicants fare significantly worse than other applicants in terms of personality. How much worse? Just enough to admit the desired number of Blacks and Latinos pursuant to Harvard’s point system.

When word of Harvard’s slur against high achieving Asian-Americans gets out, the Asian-American community is unlikely to be pleased. Wesley Yang, writing about the Harvard case in a New York Times op-ed called “Harvard is wrong that Asians have terrible personalities,” tells us that “until very recently, Asian-Americans have been politically quiescent and largely deferential to a status quo that works against them.” Now, he observes, that’s starting to change. Harvard’s insult will likely accelerate this development.

It’s one thing to know that you suffer a disadvantage in the admissions process because of your race or ethnicity. I’m pretty Asian-Americans understand this. It may be one reason why they strive ever harder to achieve, making it all the more difficult for Harvard to reject them based on objective considerations.

It’s another thing to be told that you suffer a disadvantage because of personality shortcomings Harvard believes you, and a wildly disproportionate number of others of your race, labor under. In other words, because Harvard believes “Asians have terrible personalities.”

The irony is that, in my view, Harvard has nothing against Asian-Americans or the Asian-American personality (assuming there is one). What Harvard’s doing here isn’t quite the same thing as the old restrictions on Jewish representation at Ivy League schools. Those were based to a significant degree on rank anti-Semitism.

Harvard’s admissions officers have nothing against Asian-Americans. They would, I’m pretty sure, be delighted to have Asian-American neighbors and would have no problem with them belonging to their country club.

Their only quarrel with Asian-Americans is that they perform so well and achieve so much that they stand in the way of Harvard’s obsession with admitting Blacks and Latinos in desired numbers. Were this not the case, Harvard’s evaluation of the personality of Asian-American applicants would, like the evaluation by Harvard alums, be no worse than its evaluation of other applicants’ personality.

Harvard’s real offense isn’t raw animus against Asian-Americans. Rather, it’s the willingness to discriminate against this group based on their race in the name of achieving racial balance.

But if Asian-Americans conclude that Harvard (and liberal elites generally) dislike them, Harvard will have only itself to blame.

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