Stop Making Asian Americans Pay the Price for Campus Diversity

Deep down, I suspect we all know that it would be quite possible for students to get a sterling education at a university where every student was a white person from Colorado. Few graduates would muse that their education was incomplete because there were no kids from the Northeast or the South around. Any benefit would be auxiliary at best, not worth founding an admissions policy upon.

Yet many will say that if we stop evaluating students in part on race, we abandon social justice. Do we, though? I think that in the 2020s we should maintain a social justice mission in admissions, but base it on socioeconomics. Yes, that would mean middle- and upper-class Black and Latino students would no longer get special consideration. But on that, we must question the tacit, Jesse Jackson-esque “Yale or jail” assumption in much of the discussion of racial preferences, which sometimes implies that students not admitted to one of a few tippy-top schools are somehow seriously hobbled from achieving career success.

A 2012 study co-authored by the Duke University economist Peter Arcidiacono (who is participating in the suit against Harvard as an expert witness for the plaintiffs) suggests that Black students placed in schools to which their grades and test scores might not ordinarily gain them admission who initially choose to pursue majors in engineering, natural sciences, or economics are less likely to graduate in those majors. The implication, then, is that they would have successfully completed those subjects at a still respected but less competitive school. Other studies have suggested similar phenomena in law school and medical school.

To be sure, without racial preferences, the number of Black and Latino students at selective universities does go down. However, it does not eclipse. And there’s no tragedy in Black and Latino students attending other excellent if somewhat less selective schools. Theodore Shaw, a U.N.C. School of Law professor and the director of U.N.C.’s Center for Civil Rights, warns that eliminating racial preferences would have “severe” effects on Black and Latino students’ opportunities. But this seems to imply that students at schools other than the most selective ones are significantly hindered from attaining meaningful education, training, career opportunities and connections. The dedicated and talented people who teach at and staff such universities would be surprised to hear this.

Racial preference in university admissions was an admirable experiment in the era that immediately followed the civil rights advances of the 1960s and ’70s, when a much larger proportion of Black America lived in poverty and legal segregation was a recent memory. But there will always be those who question, with good reason, whether their effort should count for less than the same effort from someone else in deference to matters of history they did not experience. One need not be a bigot to feel that way.

Racial preferences should now be thought of like chemotherapy, a cure that can cause side effects that should be applied judiciously. We’ve applied the cure long past that point, and have drifted toward an almost liturgical conception of diversity that makes less sense by the year.

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