Are Asian-Americans The “New Jews”?

Last week saw opening arguments before a federal district court judge in Boston in a closely-watched lawsuit against Harvard University. The plaintiffs, anonymous Harvard applicants suing under the name “Students for Fair Admissions,” claim that the university violated the Civil Rights Act by discriminating against them as Asian Americans.

The suit does not directly target affirmative action, which was established, and has been upheld, as a valid means of weighing the applications of marginalized groups in school admissions, job applications, and other areas where they have been historically shut out. But it is likely to end up before the U.S. Supreme Court, which may use the opportunity to fine-tune the permission it has earlier given to institutions of higher learning, in the interest of diversity, to consider race or ethnicity as factors when admitting students.

The lawsuit was first filed in 2014, but disputes over whether Harvard imposes quotas on Asian-Americans date back to at least the 1980s. The Education Department looked into the matter in 1988, but cleared Harvard of any wrongdoing.

Up until then, most cases about race in college admissions were brought by white plaintiffs who argued that they are harmed by “reverse discrimination,” pushed out of colleges by less-qualified non-white applicants. Those cases have led to restrictions in how affirmative action can be used, but no case has actually ended the practice in its entirety. This case relies on a group of high-achieving Asian-Americans arguing that a policy meant to help students of color is actually hurting them as members of an identifiable minority themselves.

The plaintiffs have cited preliminary drafts of reports in 2013 that Harvard itself conducted that found that being Asian-American was negatively associated with being admitted. Harvard says the reports are being misinterpreted.

In addition to many academic criteria considered by Harvard and other exclusive schools, “personal ratings” play a part in admissions. The plaintiffs in the current lawsuit assert that the personal ratings given to Asian-American applicants tended to significantly drag down their chances of being admitted.

For its part, Harvard contends that other factors, including an applicant’s intended major and parents’ occupations, weigh more heavily than race in determining which students are admitted. The university argues that once those factors are accounted for, the statistical support for the plaintiffs’ claim of discrimination disappears.

Ivy League universities’ admissions policies are not generally of great concern to most of our community, but the issue of discrimination — whether blatant or in the lawful pursuit of diversity — is an important one, and can come into play in many different contexts.

A good example of blatant discrimination, as it happens, is Harvard’s own history of restricting its admission of Jews in the 1920s. Jewish enrollment at Harvard had been growing rapidly at the time, leading to threats from some alumni that they would stop supporting the college. Harvard revamped its admissions policy in 1926, in part by putting more emphasis on “character and fitness,” as well as “racial characteristics.” The effective quota system only began to end in the 1950s. Today, Asian-Americans have been called “the New Jews.”

The judge in the Harvard lawsuit has expressed skepticism about whether the history of discrimination against Jews at Harvard, which was cited by the plaintiffs, is relevant to the current case, but agreed to allow limited testimony on the matter.

One aspect of that near century-old discrimination that may be relevant is the conflation of race/ethnicity with culture. At least part of the reason Jews were becoming an increasing proportion of Harvard students in the 1920s was because they came from a world that valued learning. While truly Jewish learning had and has nothing to do with the offerings of universities, those who descended from a culture where sefarim and study were ubiquitous were well-primed to carefully and critically read other types of books and intelligently evaluate ideas.

A somewhat similar culture of study and academic aspiration exists in some Asian groups, and likely plays a role in the increase in Asian-Americans applying to exclusive universities. Teasing out the influence of culture from the reality of race can be daunting but may be a necessary part of crafting policies that give proper due to both achievement and diversity but do not exhibit bias against any particular race or ethnicity.

The plaintiffs’ case is a compelling one, and even a narrow ruling in their favor affecting only Harvard will be welcome. And if the judge rules more broadly, and the case ends up before the highest court in the land, the resultant further clarification of the laws pertaining to protecting the rights of minorities will be a healthful thing for American society.