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Harvard and the illusion of merit

Allan Bakke, an engineer and former Marine Corps officer, applied to UC Davis Medical School twice — once in 1973 and once in 1974. Both times, he was denied. In the same special program to which he applied, a number of minority applicants with significantly lower test scores were admitted. As his interviewer for medical school noted, Bakke “was very unsympathetic to the concept of recruiting minority students.” That same year, Bakke sued UC Davis in California state court, alleging that the special admissions program for minorities was unconstitutional. The case soon made its way to the Supreme Court, where in a 5-4 majority, the Burger Court upheld affirmative action in university admissions. Yet, an important clarification was drawn in the Regents of University of California v. Bakke decision: The program was not justified in its attempt to address historical racial inequities. Rather, as Justice Lewis Powell Jr. argued in his opinion, diversity served to enrich the experience of the entire student body, and adds a tangible value to the university experience that college admissions have a right to seek. As Jeff Chang describes in his book “We Gon’ Be Alright,” the Powell decision brought about a new understanding that “diversity displaced equity as the only viable defense of programs meant to address underrepresentation.” Affirmative action no longer stood as an attempt at reparations for historical injustices. It stood to enrich the dominant majority already in power. The Powell decision introduced a new understanding of diversity as a commodified, measurable feature of the modern university experience, and post-Powell, Americans considered diversity valuable insofar as it was a windfall for those in power.

Concurrent with that court decision, a tension was beginning to manifest in higher education. Colleges and universities had historically prided themselves on serving the best, the brightest, the most deserving students in the U.S. Of whom much was given, much was expected. And to whom was given, all was deserved. The future leaders of America, generally affluent, mostly men and almost always white, deserved ivy-laced red brick buildings, the towering rotundas of prestige, the pillars of support built on the work of the other deserving men before them. And, in striving to the meritocratic, to recruit those future leaders, to ensure that education would not be wasted, colleges espoused a very specific mold of those who deserved.

And they protected that mold. They wielded it against others, those who didn’t “deserve.” In that protection, colleges, and their admissions offices, created other vestiges, other criteria to seek out those who deserved to be, all in the name of meritocracy — all in the name of serving the deserving. The notion of “holistic admissions,” for example, originated from dubious historical circumstances. In 1905, Harvard, worried that it was accepting too many mediocre students from elite prep schools, began to use a standardized test to both attract and select “high-caliber” students. Yet there was an issue: Too many of those high-caliber students turned out to be Jewish men. By 1908, Jewish students made up seven percent of the Harvard freshman class; 10 years later, that figure had risen to 20 percent. A. Lawrence Lowell, Harvard’s president at the time, worried that the “clannishness” of Jewish students would scare away Anglo-Saxons applicants. Thus, Harvard, along with several other elite universities facing the same “predicament,” radically changed the way they chose which applicants to admit. In lieu of only considering entrance exam scores, the universities began to ask for essays, teacher recommendations and other supplementary information regarding an applicant’s “background” and “character.” By the 1920s, Harvard’s admissions office had even developed a labeling system for applicants: “j1” meant “conclusively Jewish”; “j2” indicated a “preponderance of evidence” in that direction; “j3” meant “possibly.” Because these young Jewish men, with their clans and their inflated test scores and their robotic personalities, could not possibly be deserving, and these colleges adjusted their definitions to account for this belief. Meritocracy, thus, existed not as a means to seek out the best, but rather as a sword, wielded against other groups by colleges in protection of a certain mold of student. Meritocracy turned colleges into stalwarts of privilege — these men of Anglo-Saxon heritage, from prestigious secondary schools, from affluent backgrounds, from worlds with vast cultural capital, these All-American boys, always seemed to rise to the top.

College demographics continued to shift after the Bakke case, and previously excluded groups continued to grow on college campuses. Perhaps for the first time, that mold faced a challenge. Women and people of color now existed in these spaces as well, and the demographics that universities now served changed. Yet, they were often just tenants, temporary residents in a world not built for them. From Gratz v. Bollinger (a 6-3 decision allowing affirmative action to stand at the University of Michigan Law School) to Fisher v. Texas (a narrow decision allowing affirmative action to stand at the University of Texas), their presence have been contended at every turn. In many cases, those challenges succeeded. Two decades after the UC v. Bakke case, Proposition 209 passed in California, effectively banning affirmative action in public education. Similar laws have passed in Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Oklahoma and Washington. And as college admissions becomes increasingly a zero-sum game, these challenges grows more and more frequent; this tension becomes more and more unsustainable. For every student admitted for the sake of “diversity,” the thinking goes, another, more deserving, ostensibly white student is denied claim. There’s a false dichotomy coming into play — between the “deserving” students, the ones who made it on merit, and those there “for the sake of diversity.” In early November, we saw another manifestation of that battle continue its trek to the Supreme Court.

In 2014, Edward Blum, a conservative legal strategist, and Students for Fair Admissions filed a complaint against Harvard University in a district court, arguing that it had unfairly discriminated against Asian-Americans in their admissions processes. The question on trial was whether or not Harvard Admissions considers race in an unconstitutional manner that discriminates against Asian-American applicants. Allison D. Burroughs, the judge on the case, decided the case in favor of Harvard on that point. Yet, the coalition also demanded the court strike down race-conscious admission as a whole. Because Edward Blum has been part of a historical push to strike down affirmative action. He partnered with Abby Fisher in 2013 to challenge affirmative action at the University of Texas. He created Students for Fair Admissions as a vehicle to file litigation in the Fisher case. After that failure, he recruited members and filed a new challenge, this time arguing that Asian-Americans were the aggrieved party.

This case distinguishes itself in the actors at play. The mold has changed; the definition of those who are “deserving” has shifted. A coalition between the two most well-represented racial groups in college, whites and Asians, has emerged. As Iris Kuo notes in her article for The Atlantic, this alliance may have historical roots: “This alignment of certain Asians with whites evokes historical instances of ethnic groups migrating from minority status to becoming part of the majority racial group. Sociologists have a name for this phenomenon: ‘whitening.’ It refers to the way the white race has expanded over time to swallow up those previously considered non-whites.” Moreover, this alignment of non-white groups with white interests in political and legal issues, she asserts, echoes the process by which whitening has taken place in the past. Take the case of Irish Americans: As David Roediger describes in his book “Wages of Whiteness,” Irish communities once socialized and cohabited with black Americans, with many even endorsing anti-slavery views. Upon being courted by the Democratic Party, however, they eventually joined their pro-slavery ranks: “Democratic paeans to whiteness must have seemed a godsend to Irish Catholics, especially amid hardening anti-Irish attitudes after 1845 … within the constrained choices and high-risks of antebellum American politics such a choice was logical.” Fast forward to our understanding of race today: Irish-Americans fall under the broad category of “white.” An analogous process is taking place today, as the collective threat that affirmative action poses to whites and Asians is forging an alignment of political interests.

History shows, however, that the terms of alliances with white interests is often anything but equal. A political campaign to place a constitutional amendment on the ballot in California launched in the fall of 1996. Proposition 209, as it came to be known, amended the state constitution to prohibit public institutions from considering race, gender, or ethnicity in public employment or education. Drafted by Glynn Custred, an anthropologist who told The Washington Post that affirmative action was like “reversed Jim Crow,” and Tom Wood, a Ph.D. recipient who blamed affirmative action on his difficulty finding a professorship, the bill was advertised as a civil rights initiative. The bill passed into law in November; the effects were immediate: in the ensuing three years, admission offers to African-American applicants at UC Berkeley and UCLA dropped by 55 percent. Moreover, moves to overturn Proposition 209, such as SCA-5 in 2014, faced opposition from white and Asian groups alike. The composition of the student body at the UC school system soon shifted to what it is today: majority white and Asian. In that coalition’s victory, however, the spoils were not split evenly. As Jeff Chang notes, “Magnet high schools and ‘highly selective’ universities became more Asian, sometimes even more Asian than white, while numbers of Blacks, Latinos, American Indians and Southeast Asians admitted plunged. And 10 years later, whites were still three times as likely to be admitted to selective universities with a similar academic record.”

Now, as we all wait for this case to make its way to the Supreme Court, as most pundits predict, the stakes are clear. While the legal arguments of this case focus on the question of whether Harvard discriminated against Asian applicants, both Harvard and Blum would prefer this case to focus on affirmative action. On Harvard’s part, the university wants these proceedings to become a de-facto referendum on affirmative action. With that narrative, they have past court precedent as their defense: striving to create a diverse student body and enrich the experience of students is a right that universities hold. Blum, willing to take his chances with the Supreme Court, desires a similar narrative. Given the conservative makeup of the current court, there would be perhaps no better opportunity to challenge affirmative action and reverse existing precedent. And given the progress of these proceedings, that showdown may very well occur. This discussion of who gets to be deserving may soon find itself in the highest court of the land. And the very truths that we hold onto, of meritocracy in the college admissions process and deserving your claim, will come into question. And, perhaps, rightfully so. Because in this dynamic, merit is never truly neutral. The cards have always been stacked in favor a certain mold of student; circumstances and privilege play a larger role in the trajectory of our lives than any of us would like to acknowledge. And the rules we use, these guidelines we put in place to tell ourselves the world is just, these “truths” we cling to to make sense of the world, mostly serve to preserve power. And to fix this system, to challenge that mold, that discussion is one that needs to be had. This case, however, is not the stage for that discourse. Here, Asian-Americans are being rendered a vehicle to serve white interests, and, if history is any indicator, we all know who will emerge the victors.

Contact Layo Laniyan at olaniyan ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Correction: A previous version of this article misidentified the “Gratz v. Bollinger” case as “Grant v. Bollinger.” The Daily regrets this error.

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