Thursday, January 11, 2007

New York Times suggests that Asians are Taking Over American Colleges

An article appeared in last Sunday’s New York Times, entitled “Little Asia On the Hill.” The story discusses the changing face of the undergraduate student body across the U.S., focusing primarily on the fact that Asian-American students hold a disproportionate number of seats at the elite colleges. At U.C. Berkeley in particular, the article points out, the undergraduate population is 41 percent Asian. This demographic development among California schools and colleges across the country is interesting, no doubt. It reflects a variety of developments, as the story observes, including the decline of affirmative action admissions in higher education. One might even note the irony that although many plaintiffs in lawsuits challenging affirmative action have been white, the beneficiaries of its demise have not been white students. This suggests that it was the very color-blind standards that opponents of affirmative action urged – and not affirmative action -- that was keeping large numbers of white applicants from gaining the admission to which they felt so entitled.

Notwithstanding the legitimate news value of the article, its tone – not to mention its title – suggests that the rising number of Asian Americans on college campuses might be something that we should evaluate critically for whether it represents a positive or negative development. The implicit message, moreover, is that if people do not like the new numbers, they should perhaps decide to do something about it. One cannot help but wonder, then, what exactly schools would do – perhaps enact the sorts of anti-Asian and anti-Jewish quotas that elite schools did institute not that long ago to limit admission of qualified applicants of the “wrong” race? Hinting at the potential downside of a disproportionately Asian Berkeley campus, the writer notes that “[w]hat is troubling to some is that the big public school on the hill certainly does not look like the ethnic face of California, which is 12 percent Asian, more than twice the national average.” One need not read too much between the lines to see that “some” are troubled both by how many Asian people live in California (“more than twice the national average”) and by how many of them attend the University of California schools.

When people debate the merits and demerits of affirmative action for African American and Latino students, those who favor it typically cite “diversity,” a somewhat nebulous concept that has come to mean the inclusion of racial groups that might – in the absence of affirmative action – have little presence in an educational or work environment. One of the problems with discussions of diversity, however, is that it can become (as it was in the past) a smoke screen for exclusion rather than inclusion. That is, if the complaint is that blindly applying the standard admissions criteria result in too many Asians, then calls for “diversity” cloak a desire to keep Asians out of the spaces with which a blind application process might have otherwise have supplied them. When affirmative action moves from promoting inclusiveness to promoting exclusivity, it ceases to distinguish itself meaningfully from conventional, old-fashioned race discrimination.
This recalls a discussion that Michael initiated earlier on this blog regarding moral progress. At times, looking at the number of people – or even the number of civilians – who have died on either side during a war does not tell the whole story of right and wrong. We want to know whether each side deliberately targeted civilians or, instead, made a special effort to avoid killing civilians, consistent with its objective (which should itself undergo moral evaluation). In the same way, the intention of affirmative action may be as important as its consequences. Expanding or altering the criteria on the basis of which undergraduate institutions select applicants as a means of giving African American students and Latino students greater access to the American Dream is quite different from changing criteria as a means of resisting “Little Asia On the Hill” -- preventing Asian Americans from disproportionately populating our nation’s colleges. I am quite troubled to see the comfort with which an article appearing in the New York Times seems prepared to conflate the two and to gaze upon the success of Asian Americans as a potential cause for alarm.