The Asian plaintiffs in SFFA were not mere stalking horses for whites; Asians were the demographic facing the most material harms from race-conscious admissions
Asian Americans being punished rather than celebrated for buying into the idea that the US is a meritocracy isn't going to age well.
"But I do think the idea that Asians have simply taken more slots than they deserve is driving the politics of affirmative action in places like New York and California, where the stakes are higher than they are at Harvard."
Also Northern Virginia, whose magnet school, TJHSST, is the subject of a lawsuit that is currently being appealed to SCOTUS from the 4th Circuit (Coalition for TJ vs Fairfax County).
So first the usual preamble to any article about affirmative action that I have personal experience with this issue. My father is Bengali* by background. When I was applying for schools, I was specifically advised to put mixed-race instead of Indian. In retrospect, I'm pretty certain a few of the schools I got rejected from I would have gotten into if my name was John Smith.
But notice I said if my name is John Smith, not if I was black. I've seen it remarked upon the past few weeks that pivoting to talking about legacy admissions it some sort of dodge. I'm truly baffled as to how this is a dodge. I'm not trying to be snarky. How is consideration of legacy not a form of white affirmative action? Like truly. I mean all you have to do is look at the older alumni at any top level schools which are clearly overwhelming white (and wealthy). How is it then that legacy does NOT fail the same test SCOTUS just applied to affirmative action for prospective black students? I never thought I was "owed" a place at any elite level school. But to this day, I'm firmly of the belief that it's as likely that a wealthy white student got into my top choice school with slightly worse grades** as it is that black student.
To answer your question Josh, the problem Harvard and Yale (and other elite schools) is facing is they want to have modern 21st century values built on top of 19th century infrastructure. They have institutions built to essentially be finishing schools for the WASP upper class. And confronting this paradox would involve I think a very necessary rethink of what Havard or Yale or Princeton etc. are supposed to be in the first place. And if they did do that rethink I suspect the conclusion would be that if they want to live up to their supposed ethos, they need to expand their student body to be 2x, 3x, heck 10x its size and be American versions of McGill. But that would require confronting the fact that the 19th century versions of these institutions need to fully not exist anymore. An expanded student body would make so much of this issue so much less fraught.
*Since Modi took power, I've been more prone to saying I'm Bengali and not Indian. If someone says my background is Indian, I don't take any offense. But I've just on a personal level felt more a need to find subtle ways of distancing myself from the Hindu Nationalist in charge of India.
** The school in question was Georgetown. I actually found out later that I got in from the "wait list", but at that point had committed myself to going to College of William & Mary. And something I wish was discussed more was the USC water polo scandal. Because it involved some reasonably famous Hollywood celebrities the "People magazine" angle took more of a front seat. But it was clearly much more far reaching and involved a whole number of failsons and faildaughters of wealthy parents getting basically bogus athletic scholarships to get into schools they had no business attending.
There's basically no way of getting around that pretending this isn't happening makes us liberals sound like complete lunatics.
Are college admissions flawed because they are attempting to optimize something that cannot be optimized? That is, they are trying to select the "best" applicants, but there must be a lot of uncertainty around which specific applicants will do well and which won't. It seems better to instead impose a minimum set of requirements and randomly select applicants that meet them, a la the public universities with automatic admission.
I think the Texas policy of admitting the top 10% of high schoolers counts as an example of this approach, and it seems to be working pretty well from what I've heard.
The difficulty I have with the SFFA case and decision is that the evidence presented very clearly identified a mechanism by which Asian applicants were being discriminated against - the admissions department used the opaque personality score to systematically discriminate against Asian applicants. Josh identifies a couple of possible reasons above, ranging from the admissions officers are all racist and just really believe Asians have bad personalities, through to it being an attempt to balance demographics (i.e. an actual conspiracy to discriminate via this mechanism.) Through this mechanism, Asian applicants were specifically disadvantaged compared to their white peers.
Either way the remedy seems clear - the personality scores are an unlawfully discriminatory and the plaintiffs are entitled to relief, probably monetary damages for the individuals who can demonstrate probable determinative discrimination in their applications, and potentially some sort of restraint on Harvard's ability to use arbitrary 'personality' scores going forward. At least in the Harvard case this all seems resolvable without reference to the policy of boosting applicants from under represented minorities.
Beyond that this seems like another case of the supreme court going beyond what is necessary to resolve the case and instead taking the opportunity to shift public policy to their preference.
(This is all separate from the condescending rhetoric about the plaintiffs being dupes for white conservatives - I'm very sure the plaintiffs hold a sincere objection to affirmative action, it's a very common opinion held by many people from all backgrounds. But holding an opinion and being entitled to relief are two different things.)
Re footnote one: Orwell invented a perfectly good description of the process - doublethink.
"The numbers need not even move that much — if Harvard dropped preferences for athletes and legacies at the same time as it dropped racial preferences, that would have the effect of reducing the white share of the admitted class while leading to more admissions of racial-minority applicants (including a further increase in the Asian share of the class.)"
This is a common belief but it's simply not true. If you read Espenshade and Chung. 2005. "The Opportunity Cost of Admission Preferences at Elite Universities" in Social Science Quarterly, you see that the projected racial composition of elite universities without race-based affirmative action is nearly identical regardless of whether or not universities keep legacy + athlete preferences.
1. Espenshade and Chung are using data that is now 25 years old and so the system may have changed somewhat.
2. Espenshade and Chung assume that anything that mattered for admissions would continue to matter. Notably, SAT still matters in their counterfactual model. But as we saw in anticipation of SFFA v Harvard, schools are reacting to the end of affirmative action by dumping SAT.
However there is no particular reason to think these two limitations are driving the finding that legacy + athlete are orthogonal to race.
Good piece Josh! It’s just beyond me that we’re essentially punishing kids who are smart just because they happen to be Asian.
Good piece, Josh.
Saying someone got in "because of affirmative action" is often understood to mean that person didn't actually *deserve* (whatever that means) to get in, which is, of course, insulting.
So while accurate, footnote 1 misses the point. I haven't heard many objections to discussions of who affirmative action helps in conceptual discussions of its merits; the objection seems only to arise when it is used pejoratively to discredit or ostracize a specific person.
It all depends on how you look at it but I find the statistics that use the number of accepted students rather than applicants as the denominator to be pretty misleading when discussing people's chances of gaining admission. The number of students who get accepted solely because of affirmative action at places like Harvard has to be a tiny fraction of the number of white and Asian applicants who get rejected, certainly nothing like the 28% and 15% cited in the study.