I remember very well the discussion among a small group of fencing parents whose kids trained with my son. It was back when our children were applying to college. They were all top students with top grades and scores, and each was a top nationally ranked fencer. I complained about how colleges had no interest in my son, a white Jewish boy from Long Island.
The other parents laughed. What about their children, Asian kids with perfect SAT scores who played all-state cello and won national science prizes? They didn’t stand a chance.**
Even then, we were painfully aware that despite all our efforts to give our children the best chance of success by getting them into elite colleges, all their accomplishments, all the effort they put into study, there was nothing they could do to overcome the one burden that had nothing to do with them. Their race. The Asian parents were right, their kids suffered discrimination worse than mine and there wasn’t a damn thing they could do about it.
At Persuasion, Ravi Gupta writes about how he, as an Asian student, faced discrimination by point out what every Asian student and parent knew only too well.
This case, despite its cynical origins, has merely given Asian-Americans proof of something we’ve long known to be true: The very policy that was established to even the racial scales in higher education has systematically punished us for our race.
But as Gupta went on to found and lead a charter school in Nashville, with a student body that was mostly black, he faced a quandary.
But of course, it isn’t just about us Asian-Americans. In my late twenties and early thirties, I founded and led a charter school in north Nashville that served mostly black students hailing from a neighborhood with the highest incarceration rate in the country. I love my former students, and if they can get an edge in admissions at the expense of people who grew up middle-class like me, I’d gladly make that trade. But for us to create a legitimate system that can both withstand legal scrutiny and garner political legitimacy, we have to be more honest with the people we are asking to sacrifice for the greater good. And we have to use admissions preferences to help the truly disadvantaged.
Would Gupta have been willing to sacrifice his education, his children’s education, for the sake of the education of the students at his charter school?
That’s why I support a system that favors students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds over a system based on race. Given that black children are much more likely to experience poverty than white students, such a system would disproportionately help many of the students who would have benefitted under the old system. But it would do so without giving preference to students who don’t need the boost, or by pitting different disadvantaged ethnic groups against each other.
Assuming that Gupta’s children wouldn’t fall into the category of students experiencing poverty, while contending that black children are more likely to do so, is the new system really any different than the old system? Is economic disadvantage and proxy for race, as Gupta simultaneously argues it is and isn’t?
After June, race-conscious measures will likely be off the table, which means that policies I support, like those based on class, will likely rise in prominence. Those policies are allowed to be more heavy-handed and explicit, as neither the Civil Rights Act nor the Fourteenth Amendment prohibits discrimination on the basis of wealth. Liberals will claim this shift will be a step back for marginalized populations, but I’m inclined to believe the new reality could be more progressive and considerably more popular. At the very least, soon enough, our most storied institutions will no longer be allowed to blatantly discriminate against Asian-Americans. And for that, we should all be grateful.
It’s certainly possible that discrimination on the basis of class might avoid the constitutional infirmities of discrimination on the basis of race, but are we just changing the head on the corpse? If Asian families can dedicate themselves to educational achievement, why not black families? Hispanic families? Whether you’re discriminated against because of Asian ancestry or because your family worked too hard to success, is it nonetheless invidious discrimination? What of the incentives to work harder, to value education more, to sacrifice for the future?
Is Gupta right that discrimination based on class is more legitimate than discrimination based on race, or is the former just a proxy for the latter?
*Tuesday Talk rules apply.
**As it turned out, fencing was key to our children’s getting into top colleges. While our kids were overwhelmingly qualified educationally, the kids who achieved national prominence had the added benefit of their success in sports and were recruited by top schools to fence. The students who weren’t in the top tier of fencing, however, were not recruited and did not end up at elite universities.