Like many colleges and universities, Princeton professes its devotion to “institutional equity and diversity.” The university’s website claims that the school “actively seek[s] students, faculty, and staff of exceptional ability and promise who . . . will bring a diversity of viewpoints and cultures,” before explaining that “examples of personal characteristics that confer diversity of viewpoint and culture include but are not limited to gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity, national origin,” etc.
The U.S. Department of Education may beg to differ. Since 2008, according to a spokesman, its Office for Civil Rights has been investigating whether the school “discriminates against Asians, on the basis of race or national origin, in its admissions process”—that is, whether students of Asian descent are being penalized for their background when applying to the school. Princeton, for its part, said through a spokesman, “We treat each application individually and we don’t discriminate on the basis of race or national origin. . . . We evaluate applications in a holistic manner, and no particular factor in the admission process is assigned a fixed weight. There is no formula for weighing the various aspects of the application.” One could be forgiven for wondering how the claim that the school “does not discriminate on the basis of race or national origin” does not contradict its mission to “actively seek students” who “bring a diversity of viewpoints and cultures,” though. After all, doesn’t trying to foster a diverse student body necessitate some form of race-based decision making?
This isn’t to single out the Tigers. Indeed, Princeton is far from alone in being accused of anti-Asian bias in admissions. In August of last year, an Indian-American student filed a complaint with the Department of Education against Harvard alleging anti-Asian discrimination in its admissions department. (The student ultimately withdrew the complaint in February 2012.) Michele Hernández, author of A Is for Admissions and former admissions staffer at Dartmouth, recently said that “after 10 years of [counseling] and 4 years in Dartmouth admissions, I don’t think it’s intentional, but I think there is discrimination. If you look at the numbers, you can basically see that [if you are applying to many selective colleges] you have to have higher-than-average scores if you are an Asian.”
Asian Americans routinely outperform all other groups, including Caucasians, in academic achievement, a pattern that has been observed since at least the mid-1980s. By eighth grade, “the percentage of Asian American students scoring in the upper echelons on math exams was 17 points higher than the percentage of white students,” reports the Washington Post. When it’s time to apply for college, the gap continues: In 2010, the last year for which data were available, the average SAT score for Asian Americans was 1636, versus 1580 for Caucasian students, 1369 for Mexicans and Mexican Americans, and 1277 for African Americans.
But as Asian Americans have risen through the academic ranks, some claim that they’ve become the “new Jews”—a group considered to be “overrepresented” in elite academia.
Data bear this out. A Center for Equal Opportunity study, cited on the Manhattan Institute’s website in the wake of the Harvard complaint, found that Asian applicants to the University of Michigan in 2005 had a median SAT score that was “50 points higher than the median score of white students who were accepted, 140 points higher than that of Hispanics and 240 points higher than that of blacks.” The center also found that “among applicants with a 1240 SAT score and
3.2 grade point average in 2005, the university admitted 10 percent of Asian Americans, 14 percent of whites, 88 percent of Hispanics and 92 percent of blacks.” As further evidence, consider that “after the state of California abolished racial preferences, the percentage of Asian Americans accepted at Berkeley increased from 34.6 percent in 1997, the last year of legal affirmative action, to 42 percent entering in fall 2006,” clear evidence that the group had been unfairly penalized under the previous regime.
Ironically enough, one of the most revealing studies of this phenomenon was conducted by one of Princeton’s own. In 2009, Thomas Espenshade, a Princeton professor of sociology, co-authored a report that revealed students of Asian descent did indeed face discrimination at colleges and universities beyond the Ivy League. According to Espenshade’s analysis, an Asian student needs to score 140 points higher than whites on the math and reading portions of the SAT, 270 points higher than Hispanics, and 450 points higher than blacks to have the same chances of admission at the nation’s top schools. “[A]ll other things equal,” Espenshade told Inside Higher Ed, “Asian-American students are at a disadvantage relative to white students, and at an even bigger disadvantage relative to black and Latino students.”
To supporters of affirmative action, the practice has two major benefits—one positive and one punitive. For one, they say that it’s a necessary corrective to grave historical injustices. Two—and this they don’t often say out loud—affirmative action punishes those who are perceived to have benefited from (or even personally perpetrated) the politics of racial supremacy.
But in both cases—even if one accepts those justifications—discriminating against Asians is indefensible. Indeed, it can be reasonably argued that Asian Americans have endured more discrimination than American Hispanics, who benefit from affirmative action as it is currently executed. And Asian Americans can hardly be accused of oppressing other racial groups en masse. As S. B. Woo, former lieutenant governor of Delaware and current director of the Asian-American advocacy organization the 80-20 Initiative, says, “there is no historical rationale that justifies forcing Asian Americans to bear the burden of preference, more than other Americans.” Indeed, given the historical injustices suffered by Americans of Asian descent—Japanese internment, the Chinese Exclusion Act—in an honest affirmative action regime, they would stand to benefit.
The times may be a changin’, though. This fall, the Supreme Court will hear a case brought by a white student who says she was denied admission to the University of Texas on account of her Caucasian background. Consequently, racial preferences in college admissions could be banned altogether—a real possibility, given the Court’s relatively conservative bent.
But until then, Asian applicants may continue to have to leap a higher bar than others. Unsurprisingly, the Associated Press reported late last year that increasing numbers of Asian applicants are neglecting to identify themselves as such—students of mixed descent, for example, fail to mention their Asian heritage at all, checking the box for “Caucasian” and leaving “Asian” blank.
Maybe they should check “Native American” instead.
Ethan Epstein is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard