Have progressives poked a sleeping giant? A thousand New Yorkers showed up Sunday at City Hall to protest Mayor Bill de Blasio’s bid to substitute de facto racial quotas for a merit-based admission test at the city’s elite public schools.
Two things make the protest striking. First, the protesters were Asian-American. Second, the big local dailies, save for the New York Post, didn’t cover it.
New York is not the only place where Asian-Americans are revolting against racial preferences as a tool to help minorities. Four years ago, a backlash by Asian-American lawmakers in California helped defeat a proposed constitutional amendment that would have repealed a state prohibition against considering race in education and other government functions. Meanwhile, a lawsuit accuses Harvard of discriminating against Asian-American applicants in violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
“For years Asian-Americans have been viewed as the ‘model minority’—you know, quiet and well-behaved,” says Chunyan Li, a professor of accounting at New York’s Pace University. “But when we see the effects of social engineering on the future of our children, we can get nasty against the politicians too.”
It wasn’t supposed to work like this. In theory, only the white patriarchy loses from affirmative action, and all people of color share the same interests, regardless of their history or socioeconomic status or achievement.
But affirmative action as practiced today by the American education establishment is blowing a big hole in these assumptions. As Ms. Li notes, many Asian-American families now see that one minority’s floor is another’s ceiling—and that the effect of race-based admissions is to set one group against another. It is all the more galling for the signal it sends, which is that if you happen to be the wrong minority, you will be penalized for your hard work and achievement.
Certainly this is the implication of Mr. de Blasio’s effort to change the admission standards for the city’s eight most selective public high schools. At the moment, admission to these schools is determined by the Specialized High School Admissions Test. The progressive dilemma is that the outcomes on this test do not match their desired racial outcome.
Take Stuyvesant, the best-known of New York’s specialized schools. Asian students account for 72.9% of the student body, against 2.8% for Latinos and 0.7% for blacks.
Asian-American parents—who aren’t always as affluent as the stereotype—fully understand what this means: Any change that introduces criteria other than merit will mean that qualified Asian applicants will be denied seats in favor of unqualified black and Latino ones. The signs Asian-Americans waved at Sunday’s protest reflected this understanding: “Keep the test,” “Excellency is color blind,” and “I also have a dream.”
As these Asian-Americans were protesting in New York, a lawsuit by a group called Students for Fair Admissions has been working its way through pretrial discovery. The suit accuses Harvard of unlawfully discriminating against Asian-Americans today in the same way the Ivy League once limited the admission of Jews.
The group notes that roughly 20% of applicants Harvard admits are Asian-American today, just as in 1993—when the Asian-American population was half what it is now. The higher percentage of Asian-Americans represented at universities that do not use race (e.g., 43% at Caltech) suggests Harvard is deliberately keeping the number low. A 2009 Princeton study of admissions at leading universities found that Asian students had to score 140 points higher on their SATs than whites to have the same chance of getting in.
In addition to the lawsuit, a 2015 complaint filed by a coalition of more than 60 Asian-American groups has led to an investigation by the Justice Department’s Office of Civil Rights. Asian-Americans are questioning the orthodoxy of racial preferences.
Harvard argues that it is a private university and its admissions practices are “trade secrets” it should not have to make public. But the Civil Rights Act applies to private institutions as well as public ones, and Harvard wants it both ways: It takes half a billion public dollars a year, yet it does not want to have to explain what looks to be a glaring gap between qualified Asian-Americans and admitted Asian-Americans.
This Friday, Students for Fair Admissions will file for summary judgment, arguing that the facts are so compelling that a trial is not necessary. The district court is not likely to agree. But given the intensive discovery process—Students for Fair Admissions has taken 40 depositions and looked over thousands of internal documents—a trial would be of great interest to the Asian-American community, and could prove highly embarrassing for Harvard.
“We may be considered the successful minority,” says Ms. Li, “but we are still very small politically.” Perhaps that’s beginning to change, as Asian-Americans awaken to what the last acceptable racial discrimination is doing to their children.