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Harvard Case Provokes Thinking

Terry H. Schwadron

Oct. 12, 2019

The judge in the Harvard admissions case took care in crafting 140 pages of legal argument to decide that the college’s race-conscious admissions process does not intentionally discriminate against Asian-American applicants.

Federal Judge Allison D. Burroughs ruled for the college against the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions on four separate accounts in a decision that seems bound to go to the Supreme Court for ultimate review. There is too much riding on affirmative-action thinking, for and against, for the case not to do so.

So, much of the 140 pages was legal argument to set the stage for the coming battle, recalling the long, twisted history of affirmative action to cite all the Supreme Court cases and lay groundwork for appeal.

As we all probably remember, this case, in effect, pit one minority group — Asian-Americans — against blacks and browns rather than against majority whites. And unlike other challenges to affirmative action policies, whether in universities, unions, corporate hiring and advancement or even sports, that one single note helped to distinguish the category of challenge.

To me, the case seems singularly important because as a society soon to be without much of a racial majority of any kind, we’re headed for a demographic showdown over the meaning of race and representation altogether.

The sticking point here, according to the plaintiffs, was that Harvard College uses applicants’ “personal scores,” a supposed rating of personal traits that including outgoing-ness and any desire to participate in community, as well as academic records, sports and volunteer work, legacy status, the ability to pay the bills and the usual array of traits that colleges claim matter.

Indeed, in his new book about college admissions, The Years That Matter Most: How College Makes or Breaks Us,Paul Tough argues that his year with Trinity College admissions personnel proved to him that the most important factor in forming an academic class was the college pressure to ensure that enough students could afford tuition rather than any affirmative action protocols.

In any case, Harvard has repeatedly denied those allegations as the case has wound through five years of national attention. Along the way, there were moments of insight into previously secret information about the college admissions process. And the announcement of appeal means that there will be years more of this argument before any new review by the Supremes.

Meanwhile the same group representing plaintiffs has pursued cases at other universities, including University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and University of Texas, Austin.

There are two real practical questions of note here that live outside of the case itself: What happens to us as a society if we drop affirmative action thinking altogether or conversely decide that it is such an important issue that we need to keep it central. And what happens when shortly, there is no majority race in the United States — despite the best efforts of the Trump administration to return us to days of white domination.

I saw construction unions in Los Angeles pitting black workers against brown workers, with the black majority holding the leadership in construction unions actively fighting to keep out Latino workers seeking to join the union. I reported on tensions between black neighborhoods and Korean-American shop owners in particular neighborhoods in that city. In New York City, we see an active, but apparently ineffective campaign by Mayor Bill de Blasio to simply dump an admission test to boost the numbers of black and brown students getting into the city’s elite academic high schools.

It all feels like what we hear about the Balkans, with Serbs and Croats fighting over apartments, and Sunni v. Shia Arabs taking up arms against one another, and Israeli authorities trying to calm religious fervor for declaring anyone coming from families of other than particularly Orthodox sects from even calling themselves Jews.

What is it about humans that insist so on economic success for themselves that they cannot even recognize that another racial, ethnic, religious or sexual orientation group might be put at risk by their greed. The truth is that 99 percent of all those who go to college do so just fine without going to Harvard, and that going to Harvard is no guarantor of economic well-being later in life.

What drives those parents who are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to cheat their students’ way into particular name colleges — or worse, starting at birth to cheat their way into the appropriate New York City private kindergarten that they believe will feed the private education system all the way to the Ivies?

In her opinion, Judge Burroughs focused in on the argument that Harvard disadvantages many Asian-American students by evaluating them with negative subjective descriptors like “bland,” “quiet,” and “not exciting.” Though she acknowledged stereotypes faced by many Asian-Americans, Burroughs found that the plaintiffs never did prove it.

Still, she ruled that the admissions process is “imperfect” and suggested a number of changes, including more bias training for admissions officers and clearer guidelines on the use of race.

What happens when we ignore affirmative action is that majorities run statistically wild — and society misses the opportunity to hear from people of different backgrounds in forming national policy. The Trump Cabinet and judicial appointees provide just such a lilywhite picture. No one serious about Sports would argue for a whites-only participation policy, nor should journalism, academia, government, or corporate America. Affirmative action simply should be seen as a societal good — even with its procedural warts.

But we had better get it right pretty quick, because demography alone is going to pit our various less-than-majority groups constantly against one another in pursuit of jobs, water, housing, food and survival.

Let’s Make America Proudly Diverse.


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