The darker side of quotas

Posted: Apr 15, 2005 12:00 AM

A recent column in the Metro section of The Washington Post barely caught anybody's attention. Marc Fisher, a writer I have no reason to suspect as a member of the Insensitive Conservatives Union (he's never at the meetings) or as an adviser to Larry Summers, wrote an interesting story about the trials and tribulations of Asian-American students at a local school.

These kids have pushy parents. They deal with the stereotype that they're smarter or bigger study-geeks than everybody else. They take SAT prep courses in 7th grade and attend Chinese language classes on Saturdays. Et cetera.

And then Fisher offers these intriguing 37 words: "Add the punishing quotas that Asian students face in the college admissions game - colleges don't admit to using quotas, but the numbers tell the story - and the result is pressure through every step of childhood."

Huh. Interesting. This confirms data from California and Texas that when racial preferences are lifted, whites don't gain much, but Asian admissions jump through the roof. At the University of Texas-Austin, when preferences were removed, Asian freshmen jumped to 18 percent in a state where Asians comprise only 3 percent of the population.

In other words, what is denied with Orwellian savoir-faire by defenders of the Diversity-Academia complex is just plain obvious to people who are not professionally or ideologically invested in denying the existence of the elephant in the corner: The diversity "racket" discriminates against some minorities for the benefit of other minorities.

At this point, most anti-quota tirades tend to follow fairly predictable lines about the merits of meritocracy, the "soft bigotry" of low expectations, etc. These are all important and worthy arguments. But I think the Asian-American example highlights a point that often gets lost: Diversity regimes would be unfair even if minority applicants were completely qualified.

Today, the debate over diversity is driven largely by the unavoidable fact that, on average, African-Americans and Hispanics are less academically qualified than whites and various other demographic groups. This was highlighted a few years ago during arguments over the University of Michigan Law School's quota system. Justice Antonin Scalia noted during oral arguments before the Supreme Court that the easiest way to increase diversity would be to lower the law school's standards. If diversity is "important enough to override the Constitution's prohibition of racial distribution, it seems to me it's important enough to override Michigan's desire to have a super-duper law school."

This is where the Orwellian savoir-faire tends to kick in. The school's lawyers, along with columnists such as The Washington Post's David Broder and countless others, insisted that increasing diversity never comes at the expense of quality.

Well, if the trade-off didn't exist, we wouldn't be having this debate. If there were a surplus of high SAT-scoring, straight-A blacks and Hispanics, no one would sue because they lost their slot to a less-qualified minority. The entire affirmative action controversy is predicated on the unavoidable fact that there is a greater demand for well-qualified blacks than there is a supply. Period.

However, even if that weren't the case, this quest to make all of our major institutions "look like America" is still basically arbitrary and unfair. It's simply absurd to think that the distribution of Chinese, black, white, Hispanic, Indian, Jewish, Hmong and so forth in the society can or should be replicated at a given university. Indian-Americans, for example, are hugely over-represented in the ranks of hotel and motel owners in the United States. Harvard President Larry Summers got in a lot of hot water for thinking out loud about why women were underrepresented at the highest reaches of science. But his observations that Catholics are underrepresented in investment banking, and that Jews are underrepresented in farming, went largely unnoticed.

So what? None of these things suggests that these fields are hothouses of bigotry. Instead, it demonstrates that there are all sorts of reasons, some good, some bad, for the distributions of ethnicities in this country.

Fisher's story about Asian students in the Washington suburbs illustrates the point. These kids - mostly Chinese and Vietnamese - are under intense pressure from their parents and peers to excel. This comes with all sorts of drawbacks. Some of the pressure isn't positive; kids who don't follow the Asian stereotype are called "twinkees" - yellow on the outside, white on the inside. But the benefits are tangible, or at least they're supposed to be.

If, as a group, the kids of Asian immigrants work harder and do better academically than blacks or whites or Jews, is it fair for Harvard to say at some point, "Sorry, we're full up on Asians," simply because it had reached a quota based on the Asian share of the U.S. population? Some cultures are going to emphasize the importance of becoming a doctor more than others. There's no principled reason why advocates of quota games for law schools shouldn't support the same thing for basketball.

But all of this talk about groups obscures the most basic point. Racial and ethnic groups are supposed to be invisible to the government. Any other system is merely guilt - or credit - by association.