New Haven, Same Grievance
August 22, 2020 9:07 AM   Subscribe

Last week, the Justice Department accused Yale violating federal civil rights law by discriminating on the basis of race and national origin against Asian and white applicants in admissions.
Art Coleman, an attorney and former deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights under the Clinton administration, raised questions about the strength of the Justice Department's case in an interview with NPR.

"The case here is thin at best," he said. "Thin in terms of underlying evidence."

He compared Thursday's four-page Justice Department findings to the more than 100 pages a judge issued in a similar case regarding Harvard University, and noted "that difference says a lot."

The Supreme Court has long upheld the use of race-based admissions in colleges, ruling on the subject as recently as 2016.
The Conservative Misdirection of the Affirmative Action Debate:
As journalist Jay Caspian Kang noted last year in The New York Times Magazine, Asian American progressives have often found it difficult to reconcile their own ideological support for affirmative action with the overwhelming evidence that elite schools are trying to keep the number of Asians—already technically overrepresented on many campuses—from exceeding a certain threshold. (“Look, I support Harvard’s right to pursue the diversity they want,” one source told Kang, “but of course they discriminate against Asian kids.”) Because some of the Asian families decrying such practices have made common cause with political conservatives pushing for the end of affirmative action nationwide, liberals have tended to view them with a mix of consternation and embarrassment, often characterizing them as “entitled” (as one professor put it to The New Yorker) or even racist. Some commentators have subsequently treated the admissions battle as a kind of metaphor for America’s racial hierarchy in which Asians enjoy a certain proximity to whiteness and are now seeking to entrench that advantage within the Ivy League system.

Yet these battles ultimately reveal less about Asians as a group, or even about race in the United States, than they do the peculiar nature of “opportunity” and education at this moment. The warring over the racial makeup of the Ivy League—regardless of one’s perspective on what that makeup should be or how the schools in question should achieve it—is a conflict that by definition focuses on a handful of hyper-elite institutions to the exclusion of larger educational and economic crises. Foremost among those is the fact that the soaring cost of college in the U.S. has generated $1.6 trillion of student debt and jeopardized the financial solvency of even middle-class households. The same economy that now demands a college degree no longer even rewards it; wages have been stagnant since the end of the 1970s for the majority of workers, including those with college degrees. Colleges themselves haven’t fared much better: According to an analysis released earlier this month by the Columbia Teachers College publication The Hechinger Report, more than 500 colleges nationwide showed signs of financial distress, including declining enrollment and revenue, prior to the pandemic.

In the grand scheme of higher education, then, fixating on admissions at the most elite institutions is a classic case of rearranging chairs on a fast-sinking ship. And particularly as the U.S. struggles to control a pandemic and revive the economy, higher education is inching closer to a state of emergency. The ongoing imbroglio over whether to open campuses (or conduct the fall semester remotely while continuing to charge full tuition) reached a boiling point earlier this week when UNC-Chapel Hill, which had resumed in-person classes earlier this month, was forced to abruptly close its campus after around 130 students tested positive for Covid-19 in the first week of school. “We all saw this coming,” the editors of the UNC-Chapel Hill student newspaper wrote.
Justice Dept. Says Yale Discriminates. Here’s What Students Think:
Mary Chen, 20, a junior, said she had experienced discrimination against Asian-Americans. She recalled being taunted by classmates in the seventh grade in her hometown, Columbus, Ga. But she did not believe Yale was discriminating against Asian applicants, and regardless, she said, the racism she had experienced did not compare to anti-Black racism in America.

“Anti-Blackness and systematic racism and oppression, especially for Black Americans, is the more pervasive and the most important thing that we need to focus on right now,” she said.

She noted that the Justice Department had ignored Yale’s tradition of legacy and athletic admissions, which favor wealthier white students.

“That’s not something that is considered in discussions about affirmative action,” she said. “It’s always continuing the demonization of Black and Latinx students, as taking a spot from a deserving white or Asian student.”
posted by Ouverture (20 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
The opinion in the Harvard case was not that Harvard wasn't discriminating against Asians, but that it was obvious that admitted African Americans, Hispanics, athletes and legacies had far lower SATs and GPAs than admitted Asian Americans and much lower (if not to the same extent) admitted non-athlete/legacy white students, and that was okay.
posted by MattD at 9:28 AM on August 22, 2020

If I am reading the New Republic article correctly, its argument is that we really shouldn’t pay any attention to the moral, political, and constitutional controversies about affirmative action at Yale because it’s a “misdirection” from a big higher education crisis. That argument strikes me as really, really stupid.
posted by PaulVario at 10:33 AM on August 22, 2020 [2 favorites]

The which department now?
posted by ba at 10:44 AM on August 22, 2020

[Couple comments deleted. If you have an incidental style guide question, that's ok but please just go look it up rather than derail here. Thanks.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 11:17 AM on August 22, 2020

IIRC, the affirmative action suits of the last decade are largely driven by a single rich dude with a [while supremacist] agenda, rounding up potential plaintiffs and funding the cases. Ah yes, from the nyt:

"The leader of Students for Fair Admissions and the architect of the case against Harvard is Edward Blum, a longtime crusader against affirmative action who has raised millions of dollars from conservative groups to challenge voting rights laws and affirmative action policies, often successfully."

The big news, then, is that the Trump-stacked justice department is starting to take up the call.
posted by kaibutsu at 1:31 PM on August 22, 2020 [25 favorites]

Idealism vs. materialism rears its ugly head again.
If you support affirmative action (and you do, right?), none of this is tricky from a materialist perspective. Systemic racism, generational wealth inequalities, etc. all conspire to make educational opportunities inequitably distributed. So it's a good idea to fudge your admissions (or hiring etc) to bring your institution's demographics in line with the population at large to help rectify that.
If a given group is overrepresented, they ipso facto have unjustly greater access to education than other groups, and need to be downregulated. No ethical grey area, it's the very definition of justice.
It's only when you get into the realm of idealism and woo that you run into pearl clutching. College admissions are basically zero-sum in a given year. If you think black, indigenous, etc. people deserve spots, those spots have to come from someone else. It seems obvious that they should come from overrepresented groups.
posted by Krawczak at 2:46 PM on August 22, 2020 [11 favorites]

I am sympathetic to some affirmative action programs and unsympathetic to others; the label itself is insufficient to get my support. It’s a tough prudential question. I have followed the litigation over this stuff and I am taken aback by the attempt to poison the well by suggesting that Edward Blum has a white supremacist agenda. That accusation is (as far as I can tell) highly ideological and hard to defend. It’s going to be hard to talk about this stuff reasonably if we casually sling these accusations around.
posted by PaulVario at 7:37 PM on August 22, 2020 [1 favorite]

If a given group is overrepresented, they ipso facto have unjustly greater access to education than other groups, and need to be downregulated. No ethical grey area, it's the very definition of justice.

Not sure this is quite right. Even just within the contemporary US context, it doesn't seem like disproportionate representation of Asian students vis-a-vis white students necessarily presents any sort of justice problem. Indeed, I'd suggest that as far as one is looking to rectify past injustices, it would make more sense for those seats to come at the expense of white students (and especially legacy admits), whose privilege flows much more directly from those same injustices.

I am taken aback by the attempt to poison the well by suggesting that Edward Blum has a white supremacist agenda.

Hmm... If you want to argue that a guy who has spent decades attacking every civil rights law he can find is not following a white supremacist agenda, I think you need to actually make that case. His "no one could have foreseen that empowering racist state legislators would lead to racist legislation" shtick is not real persuasive on its face.
posted by Not A Thing at 8:05 PM on August 22, 2020 [22 favorites]

(It's probably worth noting that "Asian" as a racial category comes with all manner of complicated baggage and elides a whole planet's worth of differences. It may or may not be worth unpacking exactly why that category has been adopted in this case.)
posted by Not A Thing at 9:17 PM on August 22, 2020 [15 favorites]

Right, seconding what Not A Thing said. I’m not exactly sure how someone that regularly tries to block or undo laws for racial equality and justice is anything but furthering a white supremacist agenda. Is it because he doesn’t overtly say that’s why he’s doing it? Cuz I think we’re well beyond racists claiming it’s an accident.
posted by [insert clever name here] at 10:31 PM on August 22, 2020 [14 favorites]

Any discussion of "overrepresentation" in higher education of a high-performing ethnic group is incomplete without considering the prior art of Jewish quotas. With the zooming-out benefit of time it's easy to see that it was wrong to suppress a minority from taking up "more than their share" of higher education spots to counteract the natural consequence of neutral evaluation plus a greater proportion of that group in the applicant pool compared to the general population.
posted by daveliepmann at 1:50 AM on August 23, 2020 [4 favorites]

The which department now?

posted by Thorzdad at 4:29 AM on August 23, 2020 [6 favorites]

Just a half-baked thought but classist, elitist institutions should not be entitled to such profound autonomy in social engineering. Therefore, AA has to be a highly state-regulated process, and held accountable to the state and ultimately the people. This is a massive structural problem, etc.
posted by polymodus at 6:17 AM on August 23, 2020 [1 favorite]

Fascinating framing, outstanding title, back after I read TFAs.
posted by Jesse the K at 8:55 AM on August 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

Such a pity there isn't thousands of underemployed professors, that could be hired to expand programs and take more students in...
posted by fido~depravo at 9:08 AM on August 23, 2020 [8 favorites]

neutral evaluation

is an oxymoron
posted by solotoro at 10:13 AM on August 23, 2020

So, Blum wrote this book about how the Voting Rights Act had devolved into primarily being a tool for gerrymandering. Meanwhile, Republicans especially have been working very hard to gerrymander the hell out of anything they get their hands on. They were being explicitly non-racist about it, except, as it turns out, they were totally racist about it.

If one actually cares about fixing gerrymandering (and it's a vital thing to do!) there are far better ways to attack the problem than removing protections. Since the supreme court ruling, it's now a 50-state fight to get better redistricting laws on the books. Luckily, there seems to be pretty good bipartisan support from the population for these kinds of efforts, so gradual successes via ballot initiatives and new laws provide some hope, though the successes will likely come easiest in the places where they matter the least.

Blum is at best a useful idiot, accepting money from white supremacists to further white supremacist projects. Given Hofeller and the direct actions in the gerrymandering question, I would not pay much heed to Blum's worries:
“I think about it a lot, I worry about it a lot. I agonise over this,” Blum told the Guardian. “It may be that one or two of the states that used to be covered by Section 5 has gone too far.”

Civil rights organizations and good government groups say Blum should have anticipated these effects, because legislators made little secret of their intentions and, in North Carolina, snapped into action within hours of the supreme court publishing its ruling.
posted by kaibutsu at 1:05 PM on August 23, 2020 [4 favorites]

Not A Thing: "it would make more sense for those seats to come at the expense of white students (and especially legacy admits), whose privilege flows much more directly from those same injustices."

Honestly, as a Canadian it seems absolutely bizarre that American Universities/Colleges have legacy admission, even before you get into the way it perpetuates racial injustice. Anybody who considers programs that increase admission of marginalized students an injustice while accepting the existence of legacy admissions has questionable values.
posted by Secret Sparrow at 7:23 PM on August 23, 2020 [8 favorites]

"If a given group is overrepresented, they ipso facto have unjustly greater access to education than other groups, and need to be downregulated. No ethical grey area, it's the very definition of justice."

I think it makes sense to define the educational experience of middle-class, suburban whites as the baseline for adequate access, though, and NOT protect them as a group against Asian competition. (Because that's what's really happening at these Ivies that struggle against becoming too Asian.) It is not difficult to explain why other groups have inadequate access (i.e., as you say "systemic racism, generational wealth inequalities, etc....") but it's pretty hard, if not impossible, to explain how Asian students have an *unjust* advantage over white students. Whatever advantage they do have seem to be a fair one.
posted by anhedonic at 8:23 PM on August 23, 2020 [2 favorites]

The bitter humor in this is that right now they are fighting over which campus will pay for the zoom license. Everyone is actually going to the University of Phoenix.
posted by srboisvert at 10:03 AM on August 25, 2020

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