In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Carolyn Chen, a professor at Northwestern, argues that Ivy League Schools are not admitting enough Asian Americans. Asian Americans are, she acknowledges, overrepresented at Ivy League schools, just not enough.
Asian-Americans constitute 5.6 percent of the nation’s population but 12 to 18 percent of the student body at Ivy League schools. But if judged on their merits — grades, test scores, academic honors and extracurricular activities — Asian-Americans are underrepresented at these schools. *
What is the problem?
Debates about affirmative action and other admissions policies usually take into account two concerns: the rights of applicants (or fairness) and recruiting students who will learn from each other as well as from the curriculum. Most of the arguments against affirmative action are motivated by the former: they say that affirmative action is unfair and a violation of applicants’ rights. Chen’s only explicit comment on why it is a problem that Asians are not more overrepresented in Ivy League colleges comes at the end of her article, and seems to be an afterthought (I will address it specifically later). But a concern with fairness seems implicit throughout her article, which begins with the observation: “If you are Asian, your chances of getting into the most selective colleges and universities will almost certainly be lower than if you are white.”
But the kind of fairness advocated by the opponents of affirmative action and by Chen is superficial and weak. Chen is worried that colleges are using ethnicity as a criterion, but it is no less unfair that they are using intelligence (in the form of standardized test scores). It is well established that intelligence is more than 40% heritable and possibly as much as 70% heritable. This means that when schools select smart kids, they are selecting kids who won a genetic lottery. There is also reason to believe that conscientiousness is largely heritable, so when we pat someone on the back for being hardworking, we are rewarding him at least in part for his genetic endowment. Life and academia pile rewards on those whom nature has already rewarded; race-based admission is no more unfair than talent-based admission. As Peter Singer wrote in Practical Ethics:
So equality of opportunity is not an attractive ideal. It rewards the lucky, who inherit those abilities that allow them to pursue interesting and lucrative careers. It penalizes the unlucky, whose genes make it very hard for them to achieve similar success.
However, Chen’s explicitly stated concern (the afterthought) about the under-overrepresentation of Asians in Ivy League schools is more pragmatic, and more deserving of serious discussion: “If our most renowned schools set implicit quotas for high-achieving Asian-Americans, we are sending a message to all students that hard work and good grades may be a fool’s errand.”
That is, meritocracy provides an incentive to hard work and better performance.
This is almost certainly true, and it is one of the most important principles of political and economic philosophy. But there is no sign that affirmative action is discouraging whites or Asians from pursuing scholastic achievement, and it is also not leading to any decline in affluence of these groups. In fact, Asians have the highest median income of any ethnic group in America. (This is why I am inclined to think of any difference in admission standards between whites and Asians as affirmative action: Asians occupy a similar position with respect to whites as whites occupy with respect to blacks and Latinos.) Hard work and intelligence are very strongly rewarded by the academic system and by the workplace, even in the presence of affirmative action.
Racism, ethnocentrism, and paranoia
Chen makes powerful comparisons to the Jewish quotas of the early twentieth century.
In the 1920s, people asked: will Harvard still be Harvard with so many Jews? Today we ask: will Harvard still be Harvard with so many Asians?
The comparison is misleading, though. In the years between World War I and World War II, antisemitism was rampant in the West, and even the U.S., which had traditionally been viewed as highly tolerant of Jews, was swept with antisemitism. In the 1910s and 1920s, it was possible for Ford to say publicly: “here the Jew is a threat” and to print 500,000 copies of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. There is currently no such agitation against Asian Americans. At worst, people think they’re a little shy.
Exploring the dimensions of what she perceives as racial paranoia, Chen goes on to ask:
Yale’s student population is 58 percent white and 18 percent Asian. Would it be such a calamity if those numbers were reversed?
The answer is: It depends on who we’re thinking of. For whites, obviously, absolutely not. It would hardly make a difference. For Yale I suspect it would be a blow. Yale would be identified with a segment of society that makes up a small, affluent slice of society. At present, it at least appears to be more of a reflection of America. For Asian Americans, I think it would be worse. The most successful–the ones at Yale–would have less interaction with whites, whose large numbers in America’s workforce and populace make them important.
Some concluding thoughts
The supposed Asian quota is a slightly different issue from affirmative action in this respect: If it is true that the real merits of many Asian American applicants are being disregarded by Ivy League schools for reasons of race, the Ivy League should eventually be the worse for it. Going to New York University instead of the Ivy League did not prevent Jonas Salk from curing polio in the days of the Jewish quotas, and one of today’s prestigious schools–Brandeis–was founded in response to the quotas. Perhaps (and I do mean perhaps — I am skeptical that the situation with Asian Americans bears any resemblance to the situation with Jews in the ’20s) … perhaps it is time to consider founding an elite school that has no Asian quota.
*Chen, Carolyn. “Asians: Too Smart for Their Own Good?” New York Times. 19 December 2012