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In ten days, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. Harvard. While the case is nominally about racial discrimination against Asian-Americans in Harvard admissions, similar forms of discrimination have long become pervasive beyond college campuses. Across America, schools, governments, and corporations have deployed racial discrimination to exclude “overrepresented minorities” and make “underrepresented minorities” more “represented” (except, apparently, in professional sports or union leadership). These actions take place in a legal gray zone obfuscated by code words and doublespeak. An unambiguous, comprehensive Supreme Court ruling in favor of SFFA is sorely needed.
Close-up, racial discrimination in college admissions is uglier than sausage-making. SFFA’s court documents show Harvard’s blatant racism. In case after case, admissions officers determined, without meeting the Asian applicant, that the student in question lacked personal qualities like courage or kindness—despite glowing recommendations from teachers who knew the applicant for years and shining assessments from alumni interviewers who met the applicants face-to-face. For Harvard, racism against Asians is an acceptable price for “racial diversity.”
How did we get here? The racial-diversity rationale for race-conscious college admissions was introduced in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke(1978) and upheld in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003) as a “compelling governmental interest,” giving pass to otherwise unconstitutional racial discrimination. The only prior Supreme Court case that invoked the iron hand of compelling governmental interest in a collective racial context was the infamous Korematsu v. United States (1944). That case helped enforce the relocation of Japanese-Americans during the extraordinary times of World War II—arguably, a damaging precedent for Grutter. Furthermore, Justice Lewis Powell’s justification for the racial-diversity rationale for admissions in Bakke—that it promoted a “robust exchange of ideas” on campuses—has long been debunked. Universities are increasingly factories for intellectual conformity, policed by a relentless cancel culture.
The Supreme Court may soon overturn the deeply erroneous ruling in Grutter. Meantime, an often-overlooked part of the racial-diversity rationale deserves closer examination: how one goes about assembling racial diversity.
At their very essence, college admission decisions are individual—it is individuals who receive the fat or skinny envelope in the mail bringing news of acceptance or rejection. “Racial diversity,” however, is a collective outcome. So how can Harvard bridge from the individual to the collective, to ensure that individual decisions yield a predetermined collective outcome? The answer lies in deconstructing Grutter’s racial-diversity rationale.
Aiming for racial diversity means collecting a sampling of “some of this race and some of that race,” so that those picked from one race represent other members of this race, and those picked from another race represent others of that race. Admitting some students of each race allows Harvard to say, “Mission accomplished: all races are well-represented here!” The formalism of sampling for racial representatives also gives Harvard access to the faux-quantitative tropes of “over-representation” and “under-representation.” For obvious reasons, Harvard probably never documented how it collects racially representative samples of students to achieve its racial-diversity goals. But logically, Harvard must subscribe to the concept of racial representation—that an admitted student who is Asian represents Asians, and an admitted student who is black represents blacks. Otherwise, a class with Asians and blacks at Harvard would just be a class of the individuals as themselves—no racial diversity achieved, and no ability to talk about over-representation or under-representation.
But while the concept of racial representation lets Harvard bridge from the individual to the collective, is it fair to the Asians who get rejected this way? They applied to Harvard as individuals. Why should they be denied seats just because they are Asian and Harvard admitted other Asians, who have nothing to do with them? After all, they never agreed to be represented by anyone else, in any form, not to mention racially represented. They most certainly did not vote or appoint the Asians admitted by Harvard to “represent” them. To the rejected Asians, this “representation” is illegitimate.
Lest anyone try to argue that the admitted Asian “representatives” do have something to do with the rejected Asians, because they are all Asians—of what benefit is it to the rejected Asians that the other Asians got admitted? Do they take courses for the Asians they “represent?” Do they study and learn for the Asians they “represent?” Do the “represented” Asians partake in the job offers and earnings that their “representatives” get? Do they partake in their “representatives’” networking and socializing? Of course not. Such “representation” is not just illegitimate; it is also absurd.
Racial representation’s ultimate sin is that it dehumanizes. When Harvard rejects some Asians because they are already “represented” by other Asians, in order to admit some blacks to “represent” other blacks, it collapses these students to their skin colors. The phrase “people who look like me”—which one hears so often these days—is profoundly reductionist, implying that all blacks look alike, that all Asians look alike, and more essentially, that they are alike. This is racism. It obliterates each student’s full humanity. Students arrive on campus ready to expand their minds freely, to stretch their connectivity across geographies, histories, and civilizations. Instead, they are made small. They are told to be their color—that is why they are there in the first place.
“Representation” also damages America’s social fabric. Each of us engages with various communities of our choosing—to cultivate ourselves, to form connections with others, and to enrich them in turn. It’s an exhilarating exercise in freedom, creativity, and community-building. That’s what made our exceptional American project a beacon to people of all races across the globe. When Harvard pontificates that the institution must look more like America, just which one of us Americans does Harvard think doesn’t look like America and doesn’t belong here?
Grutter was meant to be a well-intentioned, limited, temporary exception to America’s prohibition of racial discrimination, but it was an ill-grounded, ill-thought-out ruling. Relying on false representation, it gave us an ugly racialism, and rationalizations that are illegitimate, absurd, dehumanizing, and socially damaging. This is not the America we strive for. We can do much better. With SFFA v. Harvard, we can end Grutter decisively and comprehensively.
Photo by Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images