Asian-Americans comprise the group most acutely victimized when colleges and universities dole out preferences in admission to African-Americans. The reason is obvious. Racial preferences minimize merit, as it has always been judged in this context — grades, test scores, and extra-curricular activities — and Asian-American students as a group are the most meritorious large racial/ethnic group of high school students.
Thus, it’s not surprising when lawsuits challenging preferential admission policies seek relief for Asian-American applicants. Nor is it surprising when a Department of Justice letter advising a university to stop using race-based preferences argues that the preferences illegally discriminate against Asian-Americans.
It’s also not surprising that some in the Asian-American community defend the use of racial preferences, even though they injure Asian-American applicants. After all, many in the White elites support such preferences. Why should those in the Asian-American elites, and those who aspire to elite status, be different?
I confess, though, to being surprised by the shocking dishonesty and overall poor quality of the defense of race-based preferences by some Asian-Americans. This article for ABC News by Kimmy Yam is Exhibit A.
The problem begins with the title — “Don’t use Asians to maintain white privilege, critics say after DOJ letter to Yale.” “Using Asians” is an odd way of describing a letter that, if heeded, will substantially boost the number of Asians admitted to Yale. And “white privilege” is a silly way of describing advocacy for an admissions policy that does not discriminate on the basis of race.
Yam and the “experts” she cites want us to believe that Asian-Americans aren’t harmed by, and may actually benefit from, race-based admission policies. But a 2013 study by Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research found that Asian-Americans would comprise 43.4 percent of the admitted class if they were judged purely on their academic merit. Asian-American representation at Harvard is only about half that number. The same researchers found that, even after accounting for the school’s preferences for the children of alumni and recruited athletes, Asian-American representation fell significantly short of the expected level.
The situation is similar at Yale. The Department of Justice’s letter to Yale states:
[T]he likelihood of admission for Asian American and White applicants who have similar academic credentials is significantly lower than for African American and Hispanic applicants to Yale College. For the great majority of applicants, Asian American and White applicants have only one-tenth to one-fourth of the likelihood of admission as African American applicants with comparable academic credentials.
If Kimmy Yam and her Asian-American “experts” nonetheless want to defend preferential admissions for Black applicants, that’s fine. If they tell us Asian-American applicants to elite institutions like Harvard and Yale don’t lose out due to race-based preferences, they are lying.
As for “white privilege,” Yam relies on a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). It found that 43 percent of white students admitted to Harvard were recruited athletes, legacy students and children of faculty and staff (ALDCs). It estimated that 75 percent of white students admitted from those categories, “would have been rejected if they had been treated as white non-ALDCs.” (Emphasis added for reasons discussed below)
We should eliminate recruited athletes from the discussion because athletic excellence is a form of merit. There is nothing wrong with colleges choosing to reward it in admissions.
The other components of the ALDC category (the LDCs) are being rewarded for reasons having nothing to do with merit. That’s problematic, though not illegal. However, favorable treatment of LDCs is not a valid argument in favor of racial preferences for Blacks. Nor is it even evidence of “white privilege.”
As Robert Verbruggen has explained, “the fact that a third of white Harvard students get in via ALDC preferences doesn’t mean a third of whites are occupying spaces that would otherwise go to the underrepresented minority groups that receive racial preferences. Without preferences, many white legacies would be replaced by white non-legacies — or by Asians.”
Furthermore, if all preferences were eliminated, many white legacies who now gain admission because of that status would be admitted without needing a legacy preference. A former admissions officer at an Ivy League school once told me that the legacy preference basically just offsets the racial preferences that white legacy applicants would otherwise be disadvantaged by.
In fact, at Harvard the legacy and athletic preferences aren’t pronounced enough to offset the racial preferences. Citing NBER’s model, Verbruggen notes that if legacy, athlete, and racial preferences are removed, whites actually receive 3 percent more Harvard slots than they do currently, because in today’s system they lose more from racial preferences than they gain from the others. Asian admissions rise more than 50 percent. Admissions crater dramatically for both blacks and Hispanics, falling more than two-thirds for the former and 40 percent for the latter.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the Asian plaintiffs in the suit against Harvard favor getting rid of all non-merit-based preferences, according to their lead attorney. However, their suit encompasses only race-based preferences because those are the only kind the law bars.
The Justice Department’s letter to Yale focuses only on race-based preferences for the same reason — not because the DOJ wants to uphold “white privilege.” The Justice Department has no business telling colleges not to use selection devices that don’t violate federal law.
But, as Verbruggen points out, eliminating preferences for legacies at Harvard would have a negligible effect on the number of Whites admitted even under Harvard’s current system of granting race-based preferences to Blacks. Thus, the current system isn’t fairly characterized as one of “white privilege.” The “privilege” is for extremely well-connected people, most of whom are White. The victims are Whites with fewer good connections and, of course, most Asians.
The attempt of Yam and her sources to analogize the treatment of Black and White applicants by elite colleges is as dishonest as their attempt to argue that Asian-Americans benefit from racial preferences at these institutions. As the DOJ’s letter to Yale states, “for the great majority of applicants, Asian American and White applicants have only one-tenth to one-fourth of the likelihood of admission as African American applicants with comparable academic credentials.”
The odds for White applicants increase if they are ALDCs. But, as we have seen, they still fall short of the odds for African American applicants. And Asian-American applicants, like Black ones, make up a very modest percentage of ALDCs.
Yam and her crew of Asian-American “experts” can’t get around these stubborn facts. Their efforts to do so are embarrassing.