In the 20th century version of the TV series Murphy Brown, there was an episode where three young American scholars were introduced. The big laugh was that they had very Chinese or Indian names. Though it’s probably politically incorrect today to depict it that way, the joke is that the best “American” scholars were not really American….
If you’re an Asian American who remembers the period before the 1990s, you know where I’m coming from. This was an America in black and white, and you were literally the Other if you were outside of those two boxes. People would be surprised that you spoke English without an accent, and inquire where you really came from. This still happens now and then, but back in the 1980s, it was pervasive. It was tradition. The children of the first post-1965 immigrants were not yet grown, so the majority of Asian American adults you saw and encountered were immigrants outside of a few areas, such as Hawaii and portions of the West Coast. In 1980 1.7% of the people residing in the United States were Asian American. Today nearly 7% are Asian American.
And this is the major reason why the cultural elite is very upset about the scrutiny which admissions processes at top universities have been receiving. Consider this op-ed in The New York Times, A Damaging Bid to Censor Applications at Harvard. It concludes:
As a leader in higher education, Harvard is trying to change this through its modest consideration of race in admissions. Its goal is to create a diverse community of students who can engage with and learn from people who are different, and carry those experiences with them beyond the university.
Expressions of racial identity are part of the fullness of our humanity. It’s not possible to be blind to race. Pretending as though it is ensures we will forever be divided.
The op-ed is pretty measured and not particularly shoddy as far as it goes. This is the sort of message that the editors and reporters at The New York Times want to amplify. Call it the anti-Bari Weiss effect.
The problem I have with Harvard and its academic and administrative overclass is that the media often allows them to engage in doublespeak without any comment, critique or dissent. Part of it is that institutions such as The New York Times are dominated by people from elite academic institutions, and so are part of the same broad culture, with a set of assumptions and interests, implicit and explicit, private and public. They’re all family.
For example, a few years ago the president of Harvard declared that the institution was all about inclusion. On the face of it that is just a bald-faced lie, and everyone knows it. Harvard is about exclusion, selection, and curation. “Inclusion” actually meant that there are certain views and backgrounds that Harvard is going to curate and encourage. Which is fine. But an institution which excludes >95% of those who apply for admission is by definition not inclusive and open.
The issue with Harvard is that it is an institution which is many things to many people. Harvard lets in the smart, talented, wealthy, and powerful, with various mixes of these elements. Asian Americans tend to be smart and talented in academic measures, but most of them are not “old money” in the United States, and even if they were there is a suspicion (perhaps fair, I don’t know) among many stewards of elite academic institutions that they don’t have the values which would result in large donations to those institutions. Harvard needs to take care of rich people, who tend to be white, and lucky, because it wants rich people to take care of Harvard. Luckily for the rich, they are not always so smart and diligent, but they are “well-rounded.” Their personalities have polish, and if that’s not there, perhaps a strategic donation can be made.
Harvard also smiles upon the scions of Third World dynasties. They may not be brilliant, but they are likely to impact the lives of hundreds of millions through their possible ascension to the pinnacle of power. Again, in clear doublespeak, Harvard mouths egalitarianism constantly but signals in its actions that it is realistic that power is passed down through blood. Harvard is in and of this world. It makes the world. And the world makes it.
Finally, Harvard educates the American ruling class. And it wants to continue to educate the American ruling class. As such, it is self-conscious of the fact that it, therefore, can’t have the demographic profile of Cal-Tech. Harvard doesn’t just want to incubate innovators, it wants to cultivate and train the administrators of the largesse that innovation allows.
The “diverse community of students” who are going to become elected officials is no doubt one reason that Harvard and other elite schools make recourse to racial and regional diversity metrics. If Harvard can be thought of as a finishing school for the elites attached to a hedge fund (its endowment), it needs to maintain some diversity in its portfolio of the future overclass. Legacies and the super-rich are important because these are lineages with a record of success within the overclass. The data is clear that innate cognitive aptitudes aside, children of privilege have a leg up. All things equal, and even not equal, it is rational to give bonus points to those who come from privilege if you want to maintain your own as an institution.
But, you also need to sample more of the parameter space. Some families do leave the elite, and others join it. The goal of an institution like Harvard is to admit and cultivate potential joiners. These are not always going to be children who win spelling bees and science fairs, and can attain every metric you might put in front of them. Political leaders of given communities tend to look like and come from those communities. Therefore, there is a need to maintain some level of racial and ethnic diversity if power, as opposed to academics,* is your number one focus.
What if Harvard began to let more Asian Americans in? Even though it is a private institution it would have some of the problems that Stuyvesant High School in New York is facing. Stuy is about 75% Asian American in a city that is 12% Asian American. The plain fact is that an elite public school supported by the city is probably not sustainable in the long-term if it does not reflect the demographics of the city. This is not an argument about whether it is just or not, but an observation of the dynamics of power and influence in a democratic system.
Harvard has to look somewhat like America visibly. The visibility part is important because it makes it salient. The reality is that Harvard undergraduates are highly atypical in their family background. The average student comes from a family in the top 20% of household income distribution. This distribution is probably multi-modal because Harvard’s endowment allows it to subsidize students of more modest means while still reserving spots for the extremely wealthy and privileged. Additionally, when you scratch beneath the surface the “visibility” can deceive. Harvard representation of black students is near the national proportion. But historically the majority of these have been from biracial or immigrant or Caribbean American households. In the 2000s it was estimated that one-third of Harvard black students represented 90% of black Americans who have four grandparents who were born and raised in the United States as black Americans.
But from what I can tell the issue of at last superficial visible identity is key, and substantive differences which are not externally salient less critical. The fact that the first black American president had a white mother and an African immigrant father has been noted, but over time it seems to be less and less important than the fact that he identified and was seen as a black American, despite his atypicality on so many substantive measures.
The problem though is that even though visibility matters, unanimity of viewpoint and opinion may cause problems in pumping the pipeline to power in a democratic republic where there is still a pluralism of views. Harvard undergraduates are very liberal and secular compared to the American public. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But if you want to be the training ground for power, in a democratic republic where there are still differing views it is important that one expect those views and anticipate responses (though clearly a lot of politicians lie about their piety and ‘evolve’ in their ideology).
In particular, Christian white conservatives are far less well represented at Harvard than they are on a national level. Obviously, there is not anything wrong with that as such, but historically we’ve had white Christian conservatives (or people who identify and affiliate as such) in positions of power, and their exclusion from elite institutions might engender alienation and hostility from the very power that they exist to cultivate.
Of course, it could just be that white conservative Christians are not academically up to snuff. My previous inquiries do suggest there is a strong correlation between secularity and social liberalism and very high IQs. But, if you look at the GSS’s WORDSUM variable you see there are probably a reasonable number of intelligent white conservative Christians.
First, looking at the WORDSUM scores of non-Hispanic whites by ideology, you can see that liberals tend to be smarter than conservatives, and both are smarter than moderates. This is a pretty robust pattern. Intelligent people tend to have stronger and more strident views. Moderates are probably moderate in part because they aren’t as bright and so have weak opinions.
That being said, when you look at the distribution of ideologies by WORDSUM scores you get a different perspective. Though moderates are on average less intelligent, there are so many of them that for non-Hispanic whites they are still the most numerous in the 9-10 category (that is, they got one item wrong, or none wrong). And, there is balance between the number of conservatives and liberals. The average liberal is smarter, but the much larger number of white conservatives means that even in the brightest decile they attain parity.
Of course, the average Harvard student is not a top 10% performer, they’re a top 1% performer. And often not just academically, but in a variety of ways. They are selected for raw intelligence, but also high conscientiousness. Though the two are correlated, they are imperfectly so. Following James F. Crow’s expectation in regards to human inequality, when you select from the intersecting tails of multiple different distributions, the resulting student population is unlikely to be representative of the broader population.
Let’s wrap this up with some conclusions.
First, Harvard and the other Ivies will find a way to continue to cap the number of Asian American students. I think the current lawsuit may win on the merits, but the “Deep Oligarchy” is more powerful than the judiciary or the executive branch. If, on the other hand, Harvard gets rid of legacies and special backdoor admissions, I’ll admit I was wrong, and the chosen have lost control of the system. As long as legacies and backdoor admissions continue, you know that the eyes are on the prize of power and glory. Capping the number of Asian American “grinds” would be a small price to pay then, and those who are allowed beyond the gates will be well-trained to sing the praises of Harvard’s policy (as they all do).
Second, the alienation of the successor to the “Eastern Establishment” from the large numbers of moderate and conservative whites will be a long-term problem in terms of the maintenance of its grip on power. Though this segment of the population is in decline, it is still large and substantial, and will wield power and influence out of proportion to its overall numbers for decades because they are older. They vote more, and they mobilize well. The rise to dominance of ideologies at campuses such as Harvard which pathologize the very persistence of these groups on the national scene will exacerbate the polarization and alienation. Though the individuals who run these institutions may bemoan this trend, because of the large numbers of students who are ideologically on the same page on this issue, they won’t be able to stop the march toward cultural radicalization.
Harvard has avoided the problem of Stuyvesant by maintaining visible diversity within its student body. But because it does not emphasize intra-racial ideological diversity, it will eventually run into its own Stuyvesant problem as it loses all legitimacy from large swaths of the body politic who see that racial identity does not entail ideological affinity and sympathy.
Addendum: This is a mildly obscure blog. And to be honest I’d rather write about science papers than this. But, I wanted to put this blog post up so that it’s out there because mainstream publications seem to be intent on publishing a stream of what I perceive to be simplistic or disingenuous pieces.
The Left/liberal/progressive side engages in cant about “diversity”, when we all know they mean a very precise sort of diversity and a very particular type of background when they talk about “background.” But the Right/conservative side’s emphasis on merit and colorblindness strikes me as consciously blind to the fact that these institutions were always about shaping and grooming the elite and engaged in the game of reflecting and determining the American upper class. The Right/conservative project would abolish Harvard as we know it on a far deeper level than the Left/liberal/progressive posturing cultural radicalism, which at the end of the day has no problem bowing before neoliberal capital so long as lexical modifications are made.
If Asian Americans want to increase their proportion at Harvard, they have to follow the Jewish strategy and join the socio-political elite. If they don’t do that, then the Asian quota will persist in some way. The art of persuasion is really the exercise of power.
* When I speak of students and “Harvard” I’m talking about the undergraduate level. The graduate and professional schools are somewhat different.