In the struggle to achieve racial equality are two closely related controversies about “equal treatment” and “merit.” Does equal treatment mean treating individuals without regard to race, as critics of affirmative action assert, or with regard to race, as demanded by advocates of race-based diversity? And what is merit, and how should it be rewarded?

Developments in California over the past several months brought both those issues boiling to the surface. On May 5, black and Hispanic Democratic legislators introduced Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5, the latest attempt to repeal Proposition 209, which added a provision to the state constitution prohibiting state agencies from “discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” Prop. 209 was approved by 55 percent of California voters in a 1996 referendum.

On May 21, the Board of Regents of the University of California voted unanimously to drop the requirement of the Scholastic Aptitude Test or the American College Test for freshman admissions. “Putting racial politics above merit,” the Wall Street Journal editorialized, “diversity bean-counting has displaced the philosophy of merit and excellence that made the UC the envy of the world.”

ACA-5 passed the California Assembly on June 10 and the Senate on June 24 on party line votes, and will appear as Proposition 16 on the November 3 ballot in California. If passed, treating some individuals better and some worse because of their race, ethnicity, or sex would no longer be prohibited in California.

These attempts to rewrite civil rights law so that it permits rather than prohibits preferential treatment based on race—and to eliminate standardized tests as measures of merit—are not new, but debates over them in recent years have been dominated by increasingly acrimonious ethnic conflict. Both Proposition 16 and UC’s dropping of the SAT share the same animating purpose: to increase the number of black and Hispanic students in selective colleges and to reduce the number of Asians.

The first attempt to repeal Prop. 209 came in the spring of 2014, when California Democrats, then as now enjoying super-majorities in the legislature, introduced Senate Constitutional Amendment 5, a precursor to the measure introduced last month. It seemed to be headed for sure passage until, the Sacramento Bee reported, Asian-American groups began “ginning up opposition, worried that restoration of affirmative action could slash admissions of Asian American students.” The measure was pulled after three Asian-American Democrats withdrew their support “when they started hearing from Asian American constituents,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported, “who feared that giving preferences to African American and Latino students would make it harder for their children to get into competitive University of California campuses.”

A similar attempt met a similar fate in Washington State, where 58 percent of voters in 1998 approved I-200, a measure modeled on California’s Prop. 209. Last fall, in a virtual replay of the ill-fated SCA-5, a measure to repeal that prohibition of racial preferences was passed by Democrats on a party-line vote in the closing moments of the legislative session. Again, unexpectedly (though by now it should not have been unexpected), newly energized Asian immigrants, largely Chinese, forced the measure onto a statewide ballot, where it was defeated.

In the controversies over SCA-5 and I-200, advocates of reviving affirmative action described their opponents as not only Chinese immigrants but also first-generation, recent Chinese immigrants—with the implication that, because they were perhaps unfamiliar with American society and politics, they did not understand their natural alliance with other identity-group victims. More established Asian-American groups and writers made these allegations, too. The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund blamed the defeat of SCA-5 on “some short-sighted Asian Americans.” In an article called “The Rise and Fall of Affirmative Action,” the New Yorker quoted Joe Wei, managing editor of World Journal, a Chinese-language newspaper with bureaus in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Wei was sympathetic to those Chinese complaining about being the victims of affirmative action, but “he was apprehensive about what might result from their efforts. He wasn’t sure that newer immigrants understood the ‘history of struggle,’ or the importance of diverse schools. ‘I feel like, “Hey, stop it. Don’t push this hard,’” he said. ‘Because you don’t want to ruin everything. After all, we are latecomers. We are new to this country.’”

Before the vote on I-200, the New York Times quoted Gary Locke, Washington’s Chinese-American governor, urging an audience of Asian-Americans to support affirmative action. “Some recent immigrants do not appreciate the depth of racial inequality upon which the United States has grown,” he said. A Japanese-American journalist who studied the opposition to I-200 similarly concluded that “recent Chinese immigrants do not grasp the nuance of racial history in this country. It’s not their fault. It simply isn’t their lived experience.” As for Asian immigrants like himself, who had been in this country longer, “we developed a tacit understanding of America’s racial hierarchy.”

The new immigrants, in short, didn’t know any better. They took America’s ideals of colorblindness and equality seriously. Kan Qiu, a leader of the effort to preserve I-200, had come to the United States after participating in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. “The reason I came here,” he told an interviewer, “is because people in America are treated equally. If we are seeing people segregated or discriminated against, based on race and skin color, that’s not right.”

Qiu was also inspired by the traditional American idea that success must be earned through hard work. “The government shouldn’t be passing over people who earn a place at school or a contract on merit,” he told the Bellingham Herald. “Are you going to punish the people who work harder?”

Linda Yang, another leader of the successful effort to save I-200, said in a radio interview that “people know if we are allowed to use race as a factor, our kids are going to be discriminated [against] . . . . We come here, we don’t have roots, we build everything from scratch, if we can do it, I think everybody can do it.”

Nowhere is the ethic of recent Asian immigrants that hard work merits reward more under attack than in the bitter controversy over access to New York City’s eight specialized high schools. Entrance to those schools is guarded by the challenging Specialized High School Admission Test.

“Ten black students got into Stuyvesant,” the most selective of the eight schools, reported the New York Times in March, “out of a freshman class of roughly 760, up from seven black students last year. And only 20 Hispanic students gained entry, down from 33 last year.” With 524 students, the New York Post reports, Asians make up 68 percent of Stuyvesant students, down from 74 percent last year. Whites, with 133 admitted applicants, account for 17 percent. The proportions at the other seven specialized high schools are roughly similar. Asians make up over 60 percent of the students in the specialized schools but only 15 percent of all students in the city school system. Hispanics are 6 percent and 41 percent, respectively; blacks, 4 percent and 26 percent.

These numbers are intolerable to Democratic politicians, who rely heavily on black and Hispanic votes, and to progressives of all colors, including several Asian organizations which march under the “diversity” banner. They attack the SHSAT with the same ferocity, and for the same reason, that they attack the SAT: it lets far too many Asians in and keeps far too many blacks and Hispanics out.

Mayor Bill de Blasio has tried, so far without success, to eliminate the SHSAT and otherwise “adjust the eligibility criteria.” His argument is familiar: “There are talented students all across the five boroughs, but for far too long our specialized high schools have failed to reflect the diversity of our city.” In 2012, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund joined other progressive groups in filing a federal civil rights complaint challenging the specialized high schools’ admissions process.

As Dennis Saffran pointed out in City Journal several years ago, however, “the more ‘holistic’ and subjective admissions criteria that de Blasio and the NAACP favor would be much more likely to benefit children of the city’s professional elite than African-American and Latino applicants”—and penalize the Asian-American kids who have aced the SHSAT in such numbers. “The result would not be a specialized high school student body that ‘looks like New York,’ but rather one that looks more like Bill de Blasio’s upscale Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn.”

Eliminating the SAT at the University of California will be no more successful at making the university system “look like California,” and insofar as it does move in that direction its black, Hispanic, and progressive advocates may well be disappointed. It is little known that whites are the most “underrepresented” group in the UC system: 37 percent of the California population but only 21 percent of 2019 UC students. Whites, as I noted here, are only 56 percent of what “mirror” advocates would call equity or parity. Blacks, by contrast, are 4 percent of the students and 6.5 percent of the California population—61.5 percent of parity/equity. And Hispanics: 25 percent of students, 39.3 percent of population—63.6 percent of parity/equity. In short, for the University of California to “look like California,” the number of Asians would have to be cut in half, and the number of whites increased proportionally much more than blacks or Hispanics.

Progressive elites, Saffran noted, seem “particularly troubled by the Asian-American work ethic and the difficult questions that it raises about the role of culture in group success.” One of the most fundamental of these questions concerns the nature of merit. A common view is that, in the academic context, merit is a combination of ability and acquired knowledge. Asian-American high achievers agree, but they also add a large dose of individual sacrifice and hard work. Merit is thus not something they inherently possess but something that they can earn. Indeed, as the New Yorker observed, “it’s possible that immigrants are the only ones who speak about meritocracy and fairness without a trace of irony.” Refusing to reward them, individually, for what they have earned, in favor of others who have not worked as hard or performed as well, simply because of skin color, is the essence of unfairness.

By contrast, for Mayor de Blasio, for many Hispanic and black politicians, and for other critics of standardized tests, the “merit” those tests measure reflects privilege—whether wealth or access to test-prep services. Their rejection of the traditional immigrant view that merit is the result of hard work thus resembles Barack Obama’s putdown of business owners during the 2012 campaign: “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

In their complaint against the SHSAT, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and other progressive organizations criticized not only the test itself but also recent efforts to expand access to test-prep services, or what it dismissed as “test cramming services.” They rejected, in short, “encouraging students to spend weeks and months furiously studying. . . . We shouldn’t be pushing our children further into the world of pressurized high-stakes testing.” But to reject “high-stakes testing” is to reject the idea that studying hard matters. Why not reject high-stakes essays, high-stakes interviews, high-stakes school attendance, or high-stakes grades, too?

In May, “Salma,” a U.S.-born Bangladeshi-American sophomore at Stuyvesant High, was asked what she thought of the SHSAT. “The reason that Stuy is Stuy,” she replied, “is that we’re the smart kids who do well on tests. . . . I think that’s one of the reasons that everyone in Stuy thinks the SHSAT should be there, because if the test wasn’t here, what’s the point of Stuy then? What’s the point of even being here?”

Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images


City Journal is a publication of the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research (MI), a leading free-market think tank. Are you interested in supporting the magazine? As a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, donations in support of MI and City Journal are fully tax-deductible as provided by law (EIN #13-2912529).

Further Reading

Up Next