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White men have no grounds to complain about affirmative action schemes – they're benefiting from them

Asian American applicants are heavily over-represented among high-achieving students, so the only way we can create balance on our campuses – or so the argument goes – is by limiting their admissions

Jonathan Zimmerman
Monday 14 August 2017 16:59 BST
Affirmative action could actually be hurting those it is trying to help
Affirmative action could actually be hurting those it is trying to help (CC)

True or false: in 1978, the US Supreme Court allowed colleges to give a leg up in admissions to members of groups that had been kept down by historic discrimination?

If you said “true”, think again. In Regents of the University of California v Bakke, the court said that colleges could consider race to enhance student diversity but not to compensate for prior discrimination.

That’s how we arrived at our curious cul-de-sac on affirmative action, which has made it harder for Asian Americans to get into elite colleges. At many schools, meanwhile, it’s also more difficult for women to gain admission than for men.

That’s a travesty. And those of us who believe in affirmative action – for African Americans and for other historically underprivileged groups – should be the first to admit it.

When news broke that the Trump administration was seeking lawyers to investigate and litigate “intentional race-based discrimination” in higher education, most of my fellow liberals saw it as a sop to President Trump’s white base.

But White House officials have since clarified that their intent is to find lawyers inside the Justice Department who could examine a 2015 complaint by a coalition of 64 Asian American associations claiming that Harvard University discriminated in its admission policies. A lawsuit against the school on behalf of Asian American applicants is pending.

Research from Princeton University sociologists shows that Asian Americans need SAT scores 140 points higher than white students – when all other things are equal – to get into elite colleges. Asian American applicants are heavily overrepresented among high-achieving students, so the only way we can create balance on our campuses – or so the argument goes – is by limiting their admissions.

Ditto for teenage girls, who are outpacing boys in our secondary schools. As several recent studies have confirmed, high school girls study more – and, not surprisingly, get better grades – than high school boys do.

So it’s also harder for them to get into elite colleges, which want to maintain a gender balance as well as a racial one. In 2007, US news and world report found that the college admission rate for girls was 13 per cent lower than that of boys. And in 2014, The Washington Post reported that 64 elite schools – including Brown, Amherst and Wesleyan – made it harder for girls than for boys to get in.

So now men enjoy affirmative action, vis-à-vis women. And most of the recipients of this assistance are whites, who also receive an advantage when competing head-to-head with Asians.

Affirmative action for white men? Really?

We can debate the degree to which discrimination continues to influence the lives of Asian Americans and women. But we can’t deny that they have experienced discrimination for many centuries, which is why so many of us bridle at the higher bars they face in college admissions.

Asians were banned from our shores before any other racial or ethnic group was. They were segregated in urban ghettos and lynched by violent mobs. Women were denied the right to vote, to inherit property and to practice most professions.

That’s obviously different from the experience of white men, who historically have benefited from every advantage that America confers. We can disagree about how much this pattern continues to influence present-day life chances. But the pattern itself is clear.

True, the Bakke decision rejected prior discrimination as a rationale for affirmative action. Compensating minorities for the prejudice they experienced would cause “innocent bear the burdens of redressing grievances not of their making,” the Supreme Court ruled.

But surely, we can ask our colleges to avoid placing burdens on groups that have already borne them. I’m fine with giving an advantage to a black or Latino student over a white man – when all other things are equal – to enhance diversity on our campuses. But benefiting the white male over a superior Asian American or female candidate makes no sense; indeed, it makes a mockery of affirmative action itself.

And, in the end, that benefits Trump and his supporters. The worst thing my fellow liberals could do is to circle the wagons around our present system, which has worked against some of the same groups that we claim to represent. Every college admissions process is a zero-sum game, meaning somebody has to lose. The only way to defend affirmative action is to be much more honest about who wins and why.

Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania and is co-author of “The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools.” This piece originally appeared in the Washington Post.

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