Tuesday, April 01, 2003

Diversity, then and now

Are Asians the new Jews? University of Michigan professor George Bornstein thinks so, at least in how his administration defends its race-conscious admissions policies:

Affirmative action transfers places from Asian-Americans to African-Americans and Latinos. Yet both supporters and detractors cast the debate as black vs. white. The true issue is whether we want or need a policy that systematically restricts the places for Asian-Americans in our elite universities.

We will never resolve this contentious issue if we continue to frame the debate in simplistic and misleading terms of white versus black.

Recasting the debate can also help us see why so much of the current rhetoric supporting affirmative action to include minority groups as defined today sounds so much like the rhetoric used earlier in the 20th century to exclude a minority group as defined then -- Jews. Then as now, university administrators wished to control the racial mix (Jews were considered and called a "race" then). Otherwise, they feared their campuses would be "overrun" with members of a small but academically very high-achieving group.

Until the early 20th century, even the most elite American universities, such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton, were largely regional campuses. But faced with a high influx of academically talented Jewish students, they sought to reduce the numbers of that group. Aware that Jews (and to a lesser extent Roman Catholics) were concentrated in Northeast cities, they devised a system of national recruitment to restrict numbers of Jews while avoiding charges of overt discrimination.

Then as now, a key concept was diversity, only then it meant (in public) geographic diversity. Then as now, quotas were publicly denied even while an elaborate system to maintain de facto quotas evolved. Then as now, administrators argued that other things besides grades and examinations mattered as much or more -- character, for example, or obstacles overcome. Then as now, the result was to transfer places that would have gone disproportionately to members of an academically talented minority group to members of other groups.
This would have been a great argument for the two attorneys arguing against the university—Kirk Kolbo and Solicitor General Ted Olson—to have used today when questioned by the Supreme Court justices. I would have particularly enjoyed Justice Ginsburg's reaction to Bornstein's argument, given that the justice is both a woman and a Jew, not to mention a likely vote to uphold the Michigan admissions scheme.

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