Har­vard can dis­crim­i­nate – but we don’t have to buy into its ex­clu­sion

The Globe and Mail (BC Edition) - - OPINION - JEF­FERY CHEN

PhD stu­dent in his­tory at Stan­ford Uni­ver­sity. He com­pleted his first grad­u­ate de­gree, an MSt. in British and Eu­ro­pean His­tory, at the Uni­ver­sity of Ox­ford. His re­search fo­cuses on the com­mer­cial and cul­tural net­works bridg­ing Qing China and 18th-cen­tury Eu­rope.

How, goes a com­mon joke, is Har­vard like a fifties diner? Asians need not ap­ply. Since mid-Oc­to­ber, Har­vard has been in the dock for charges of ra­cial bias in its ad­mis­sions pol­icy. On trial is Har­vard’s al­leged use of “ra­cial balanc­ing” to re­ject Asian-Amer­i­can ap­pli­cants in favour of stu­dents from other ra­cial groups. Ac­cord­ing to the plain­tiff, Stu­dents for Fair Ad­mis­sions, a non-profit led by the con­ser­va­tive le­gal strate­gist Ed­ward Blum, Har­vard sub­jects Asian-Amer­i­cans to a re­stric­tive quota that holds them to a higher stan­dard than ap­pli­cants from other races. Un­der­ly­ing the many ques­tions sur­round­ing af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion and ra­cial pro­fil­ing is a larger prob­lem en­demic to all elite col­leges: how to in­cor­po­rate pro­gres­sive ideas about in­clu­siv­ity with­out tar­nish­ing the al­lure of ex­clu­siv­ity. Bat­ter­ing down the gates to Har­vard Yard is not the so­lu­tion. Rather, this case should serve for all as a mo­ment for self-re­flec­tion. To move for­ward, we need to in­ter­ro­gate the place of “elite” col­leges in higher ed­u­ca­tion and to un­der­stand the long ge­neal­ogy of the ra­cial prej­u­dice that con­tin­ues to haunt mi­nor­ity groups, in­clud­ing Asian-Amer­i­cans.

De­sire of­ten fol­lows ex­clu­siv­ity; and to have ex­clu­siv­ity, one must first ex­clude. This has al­ways been cen­tral to the Har­vard brand, whether it be based on class, re­li­gion, race or in­tel­lect. Although Har­vard has taken strides to ad­mit those of un­der­priv­i­leged back­grounds, this in­clu­sive im­pulse must al­ways be me­di­ated by self-preser­va­tion – of fi­nances, of the need for donor gifts; and of brand, of Har­vard’s self-con­cep­tion as a train­ing ground for the world elite, which, ow­ing to the eco­nomic and power struc­tures of pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions, in­evitably priv­i­leges Euro-Amer­i­cans over other races.

The cur­rent law­suit, how­ever, takes the wrong ap­proach to the is­sue. In su­ing Har­vard for deny­ing ac­cess, Asian-Amer­i­cans are only reify­ing the idea of Har­vard as a unique gate­way to suc­cess. This is the ex­act im­age Har­vard and the rest of the Ivy League try to im­press on prospec­tive stu­dents, although this is not borne out by any sta­tis­ti­cal mea­sure of ed­u­ca­tional ex­pe­ri­ence. By de­sir­ing en­try into so­cially ex­clu­sive col­leges, we help strengthen their col­lec­tive hold over our imag­i­na­tion.

Un­der­stand­able though Har­vard’s ad­mis­sions pol­icy may be given the na­ture of the in­sti­tu­tion, the plain­tiffs in the law­suit are right to high­light the con­tin­ued racism faced by Asian-Amer­i­cans. In the Har­vard ad­mis­sions doc­u­ments, Asian

Amer­i­cans are con­sis­tently ranked lower than other ra­cial groups on per­sonal char­ac­ter­is­tics such as lead­er­ship, like­abil­ity and orig­i­nal­ity. The bi­ases here show the con­tin­ued shelf-life of old ra­cial tropes.

There is lit­tle dif­fer­ence be­tween the com­ments made by ad­mis­sions of­fi­cers and the rhetoric em­ployed by pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tions of white Amer­i­cans to­ward, to use a case study, the Chi­nese. Writ­ing in the 1780s, Sa­muel Shaw, the Amer­i­can con­sul at Can­ton said that “though the Chi­nese can imi­tate most of the fine arts, they do not pos­sess any large por­tion of orig­i­nal ge­nius.” Past Amer­i­cans were also doubt­ful of Asians’ propen­sity for lead­er­ship. John Quincy Adams, the United States’ sixth pres­i­dent, un­der­stood China as a “slave em­pire” bound to a rigid, pa­ter­nal­ist hi­er­ar­chy – the same Con­fu­cian so­cial sys­tem Edgar Snow, a prom­i­nent Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist, once de­scribed as en­cour­ag­ing “timid­ity and steril­ity.”

To­day, schools with large Asian pop­u­la­tions are given all va­ri­ety of snide monikers: UCLA (Uni­ver­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at Los An­ge­les) is the “Uni­ver­sity of Cau­casians Lost Among Asians”; UBC (Uni­ver­sity of British Columbia) the “Uni­ver­sity of a Bil­lion Chi­nese.” The im­pli­ca­tion is that th­ese schools, in ac­cept­ing a large num­ber of Asian ap­pli­cants, have some­how suf­fered in qual­ity as a re­sult. The ad­jec­tives “lost” and “bil­lion” also con­jure up past pro­pa­ganda of Asi­atic hordes over­whelm­ing white Amer­ica. The con­fla­tion of “Chi­nese-Amer­i­can” with “Asian-Amer­i­can,” as we’ve seen in me­dia cov­er­age of the trial, pro­motes the stereo­type of an in­dis­tin­guish­able “Asian” mass that can be read­ily painted over with one ra­cial brush, although the Tai­wanese-Amer­i­can ex­pe­ri­ence is hardly equiv­a­lent to those, say, of Bangladeshi-Amer­i­cans.

A fruit­ful con­clu­sion to the Har­vard trial is cer­tainly not to re-es­tab­lish race-blind ad­mis­sions, which can only have a dam­ag­ing ef­fect on marginal­ized groups. In­stead, we should take this op­por­tu­nity to ques­tion whether col­leges whose brands are built on so­cial ex­clu­sion are truly the mark­ers of suc­cess they pur­port to be. The Ivy League, af­ter all, is a sports as­so­ci­a­tion that has no real sig­nif­i­cance other than as a brand­ing ex­er­cise, a de­lib­er­ate evo­ca­tion of a pre­colo­nial estab­lish­ment that is fun­da­men­tally at odds with the aims of so­cial jus­tice. The Ivies lost their monopoly on Amer­i­can aca­demic ex­cel­lence decades ago to in­sti­tu­tions such as Berke­ley, the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago and MIT, among many oth­ers. The dis­tinc­tion of the Ivy la­bel to­day is so­cial rather than aca­demic, an at­tribute prospec­tive stu­dents should crit­i­cally en­gage with be­fore buy­ing into the me­dia hype sur­round­ing the Ivy League. To move for­ward pro­duc­tively from this dis­crim­i­na­tion case, we must stop see­ing col­leges like Har­vard as the end-all of higher ed­u­ca­tion. We must also un­der­stand, if we hope to change them, that the ra­cial prej­u­dices aimed at Asian-Amer­i­cans to­day are not new, but re­pur­posed it­er­a­tions of long-held views.

To­day, schools with large Asian pop­u­la­tions are given all va­ri­ety of snide monikers … The im­pli­ca­tion is that th­ese schools, in ac­cept­ing a large num­ber of Asian ap­pli­cants, have some­how suf­fered in qual­ity as a re­sult.

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