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Jewish Journal

Tolerating Intolerance

By David A. Lehrer, Hon. Richard J. Riordan, and Joe R. Hicks

August 30, 2013 | 9:35 am

Harvard Yard

In the wake of the celebrations and commentaries regarding the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” oration, it’s sobering to realize that we have almost become inured to allegations of discrimination and claims of subsequent disadvantage; they have almost become commonplace. Nearly every week brings a group ready to assert that its rights have been trammeled by the “system” or some other malefactor, and many of us yawn.

That makes it all the more surprising that one group, who appears to genuinely be the subject of widespread bigotry, seems relatively quiet---Asian Americans. It is astonishing that voices of protest haven’t been raised and indignation expressed about the treatment of Asian Americans in academia.

Asian Americans and their academic success have become the targets of “acceptable” bigotry and rank discrimination for some time, but it is only recently that social science research and some interesting “insider” revelations offer evidence that Asians are indeed getting the short end of the stick in higher education.

In a recently published article sociologist Frank Samson reported on some disturbing findings. A group of white students expressed support for university admissions policies that emphasized objective measures of academic success (i.e. grade point averages and standardized test scores) until they learned that those policies resulted in the continued increase of Asian American students as a percentage of the student population of a hypothetical university (where Asians would be a plurality of the students). The academic success of Asians was sufficient to undermine many of the respondents’ commitment to grades, test scores and other color and race blind criteria.

When told of the Asian students’ success, many of the participants moved up “leadership” as a relevant admission criteria and, in evaluating the applicant files, they expected “a lower minimum class rank to admit a white applicant and expect[ed] a higher minimum percentile test score to admit an Asian American applicant,” (the mock college applications were identical except for the race of the “applicant”).

This study came on the heels of a New York Timesarticle several weeks ago in which a former “external reader” of applications to the engineering program at UC Berkeley revealed that the subtle and not so subtle messages from the trainers of the readers were to consider race and ethnicity (despite the clear law in California barring such considerations) in evaluating applications. The author quoted one trainer who dismissed her query as to why an Asian student she had awarded a 2 to (a very high score)  was lowered to a 3----“Oh, you’ll get a lot of them” she was told.  As the author wondered, "Which them?..... Did she mean I’d see a lot of 4.0 G.P.A.’s, or a lot of applicants whose bigger picture would fail to advance them, or a lot of …. Asian applicants? (Berkeley is 43 percent    Asian, 11 percent Latino and 3 percent black)?"

The thrust of the Times’ piece was that Berkeley was encouraging, without being explicit, the admission of poor, ethnic and racial minority applicants except for Asians---discriminating against one minority group to promote others.

Other recent research data seem to indicate that rank discrimination against Asian applicants is occurring, far less subtle than at Berkeley, at America’s most elite universities, the Ivies. In an exhaustive tome published last year in The American Conservative, Ron Unz, its publisher, analyzed admits to Ivy League schools over the past few decades and found some startling data suggesting quotas on Asians are in place.

In almost every year between 1995 and 2011 the Asian enrollment in Ivy League schools has averaged 16.5%, this fairly constant admission rate contrasts with the quantum leap in the number of Asians in the United States over this same period. Census data reveals that Asian Americans have increased from approximately 7.3 million in 1990 to approximately 14.7 million in 2010, “growing at the fastest pace of any American racial group…..the college-age ratio of Asians to whites increased by 94 percent between 1994 and 2011.” Despite the vast increase in the potential pool of qualified Asian applicants, the Ivies admission rates have barely budged.

One might conjecture that there may not be numbers of high achieving Asian applicants among that increased population so perhaps nothing is awry. But there is a control group that demonstrates that there is no shortage of talented Asian applicants---- the Asian admits to a non-Ivy elite school, Caltech (which uses a strictly academic set of criteria for evaluating applicants). Their numbers have increased from approximately 22% of admissions in 1990 to around 40% in 2011.

The evidence suggests that there is widespread tolerance for discrimination that disadvantages Asians in university admissions---young people denied access to opportunities on the basis of their race. The notion that “you’ll get a lot of them” seems to have fostered an attitude that it’s permissible to turn away students on the basis of race by employing “holistic” evaluations that are in the words of one analyst “opaque….flexible… and allow enormous discretion;” these ostensibly race unconscious processes have “the disadvantage of deliberate obfuscation,” as former Supreme Court Justice David Souter has written.

It is time to end the bigotry against Asian kids which has been tolerated and justified by far too many for far too long. Bigotry and discrimination are unfair and illegal no matter the “benign” motives of the perpetrator or the race of the victims.

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