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Story highlights

Mark Bauerlein: NY Times reflexively mis-characterized Justice Dept.'s affirmative action initiative as discrimination against whites

He says liberals uncomfortable facing 'Asian factor' in college admissions and with Trump administration transgressing progressive sacred principle

Editor’s Note: Mark Bauerlein is a professor of English at Emory University, senior editor of the journal “First Things” and author of “The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future; Or, Don’t Trust Anyone Under 30.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

CNN —  

If you doubt that affirmative action policies in college admissions need a bright dose of sunlight, just read the first sentence of The New York Times story that purported to reveal a new Justice Department initiative to examine those policies. The story, which the administration has disputed, asserts that the aim of the Trump administration is to investigate and sue schools over actions that “discriminate against white applicants.”

Mark Bauerlein
Courtesy Mark Bauerlein
Mark Bauerlein

Do you see the problem? It’s a common one in liberal defenses of affirmative action. We realize it in an admission a few sentences later in the story. The Justice Department document that The Times has obtained, you see, says nothing about white people. In fact, the document doesn’t identify any specific victim of affirmative action, only the procedures of “intentional race-based discrimination.”

Now, most people assume, as the Times reporter does, that white applicants are the ones who suffer when schools lower the bar for minority students. When the Supreme Court decided against Abigail Fisher in her challenge to affirmative action policies at the University of Texas, the interim president of the University of Houston Downtown predicted that while “moral order has been restored in the universe, there will be more aggrieved whites.” A journalist for The Root cast threats to affirmative action as the restoration of “white-collar white supremacy.”

When we look at affirmative action policies at selective institutions, though, it isn’t whites who will benefit the most if they are restricted. It is, potentially, Asians. In 2004, a Princeton University study of 124,000 applications to elite selective institutions, looked at SAT scores and found that “Asians experience the greatest disadvantage in admissions vis-à-vis other comparable racial/ethnic groups.” The researchers claimed that being Asian is “comparable to a loss of 50 SAT points.”

The big surprise in the study was that Asians had to score significantly higher than whites, as well as blacks and Hispanics. Despite having a higher average SAT score, Asians have lower odds of admission than do “comparable whites.”

Take away those inequities and Asian enrollment would do what it did at Caltech in California, where racial preferences are outlawed. In 1992, Asian enrollment was 25%. In 2013, it was 43%. According to Students for Fair Admission, an anti-affirmative action group, during the same period, Asian enrollment at Harvard, a staunch practitioner of affirmative action, went slightly downward, from 19% to 18%.

Liberals can’t absorb the Asian factor. It doesn’t fit the whites vs. people of color setup. What is most frustrating to liberals is that advocates can’t point to Asians as victimizers of blacks and Hispanics to justify the unequal treatment. The old argument of compensation-for-past-abuses doesn’t apply to them, only to whites.

In other words, the element of white guilt disappears. And with it goes the most powerful moral argument for affirmative action. It is true, yes, that advocates have shifted their arguments for affirmative action from compensation-for-past-abuses to diversity – that is, the contention that a more diverse classroom produces better learning – but the diversity rationale doesn’t impress most people except in a fuzzy way. They can’t quite see how a student in calculus will improve his grades if he has a different race representative sitting next to him.

But the resurrection of Jim Crow images, the anguished warnings that the loss of affirmative action will produce a 1950s-era lily-white campus, the allegation made by the director of the Center for Civil Rights Remedies at UCLA that the Trump investigation flips “core constitutional protections upside down and the concept of remedying discrimination on its head”– these all typically cow critics and doubters into silence.

Nobody wants to take sides against the victims. Unless, that is, someone uncovers a new, nonwhite beneficiary to the elimination of preferences.

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With legal efforts by Asian groups against affirmative action policies likely to continue as Asian high schoolers, foreign and domestic, flood the applicant pools, it is reasonable to expect that the Trump administration investigation will end up saying much more about the admission of Asians relative to blacks, whites, and Hispanics than it will about whites relative to Asians, blacks, and Hispanics.

That is, in fact, exactly what has happened now that the Trump administration has responded to The New York Times story. A spokesman at the Department of Justice has announced that the investigation is geared precisely to the “administrative complaint” filed in 2015 by 64 Asian-American groups objecting to affirmative action policies.

In this narrow focus on affirmative action in America today, the Trump administration is once again crossing a progressive sacred principle, the division of educational achievement into whites and everybody else.