The subtext behind affirmative action debates.

There’s a fundamental absurdity lurking behind all affirmative action debates in the United States: The official justification for affirmative action is “diversity”, but the more reasonable moral justification is giving a leg up to disadvantaged groups. These two goals kind of mean the same thing for blacks and Hispanics, but not necessarily for any other groups.

Hence the Harvard admissions case.

The “text” of the case is that a court is trying to figure out whether Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans. Harvard says it doesn’t; the plaintiff says it does. The subtext is that everyone knows Harvard discriminates like hell against Asian Americans, but political coalitions make it inconvenient to address the issue.

The Supreme Court has created a system where colleges aren’t allowed to explicitly discriminate on the basis of race, but they’re allowed to quietly discriminate if (A) doing so makes their student body more “diverse” – i.e. more similar to the demographics of the U.S. population, and (B) they do a little song and dance about “holistic” admissions. The intent of this system is to admit more blacks and Hispanics; the additional, unintended result – unintended by the courts, that is; the colleges do it on purpose – is to admit fewer Asian Americans and more whites.

Why? I don’t know for sure, but I suspect it’s something like “if we didn’t discriminate against Asian Americans, the student body would look to white people like a sea of Asian faces, and that would freak people out.” Which is actually a perverse kind of “diversity” goal, if you think about it.

This sucks for Asian Americans, but most groups that advocate politically for Asian Americans are allied with the Democratic Party, and by extension with groups that advocate for blacks and Hispanics. For the most part, they’re willing to pretend that they don’t believe Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans, in order to preserve that alliance.

Of course, all you need is one Asian-American Republican to file a lawsuit, so that’s a pretty fragile equilibrium.

This article suggests a way out.

What they’re suggesting, minus the warm fuzzies, is keeping discrimination against Asian Americans of Chinese, Japanese, Indian, and Korean descent, but replacing discrimination in favor of whites with discrimination in favor of other Asian ethnicities.

This is great for Bangladeshi Americans, obviously. But there are two major problems. First, colleges won’t necessarily play ball. I don’t think Harvard is going to be any happier with a sea of Cambodian faces than with a sea of Chinese faces.

Second, this policy wouldn’t serve any clear standard of fairness or diversity. Is the goal to…I dunno…raise the total fraction of Asian Americans in the student body so that it matches the disproportionately high test scores of the four ethnicities I mentioned above? That might help Harvard cover its ass in court, but the reality of the situation would be insane – they would have to admit hugely disproportionate numbers of Asian Americans from other ethnicities; if all the Ivies tried to do this at once, I don’t know if there would even be enough Hmong to go around.

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