When all is right with the universe, Harvard beats Yale. And now my alma mater has beaten the rap.
As you may have noticed, the merit system is constantly on trial these days. Whether it is wealthy parents cheating the college admissions process with bribes and fraud to get their kids a spot, or the children of politicians trading on their names to get lucrative consulting deals, evidence is piling up that suggests your parents were right when they said: “It’s not what you know, but who you know.”
In a federal courthouse in Boston, Harvard stood accused of intentionally discriminating against Asian Americans to make room for less qualified African Americans and Latinos.
Whatever “qualified” means.
A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research found that a whopping 43% of white students admitted to Harvard fell into one or more of four categories: athletes, legacy students, children of faculty and staff, or on the “Dean’s Interest List,” which includes applicants whose parents or relatives have donated to the university.
There’s the real preferential treatment. Where is the lawsuit against these beneficiaries?
Exhibit A is Jared Kushner. The first son-in-law is a member of Harvard’s Class of 2003. It probably didn’t hurt his chances that his father had donated $2.5 million to the university.
The study — which looked at admissions data from 2009 to 2014 — also found that roughly 75% of the white students admitted from those four categories would have been rejected if not for those designations.
These days, students of color also fall into those categories. Yet, in those cases, the percentages drop dramatically. With African Americans, Latinos and Asian Americans, less than 16% of those admitted had those designations.
Sorry, America. But we’re not post-racial yet.
The plaintiffs were a group of Asian Americans rejected by Harvard who banded together as “Students for Fair Admissions” and who were led by a white conservative activist who has long railed against affirmative action. They were always going to have a steep legal climb.
Does Harvard consider Asian American students inferior because of their race? Of course not. Does it exclude them wholesale as a group based on that shared characteristic? That’s ridiculous.
So, pray tell, where’s the racism? Moreover, where’s the negative impact?
Put simply: It’s hard to make a credible argument that a given characteristic is keeping someone out of a place when that place has a sizable number of people who have that same characteristic.
This is the same problem white males always had in litigating claims that they were victims of reverse discrimination — when they get the lion’s share of seats in colleges and graduate schools, academic fellowships, high-paying jobs, promotions, corporate board appointments, federal court nominations — and newspaper gigs. Victimhood may be the only thing white males aren’t good at.
In 2017, Asian Americans made up 5.9% of the U.S. population. In the Class of 2023, according to Harvard’s admissions office, 25.4% of students are Asian American. If you’re Asian American and didn’t get into Harvard, it was quite possibly one of your own who took your seat.
Not surprisingly, and in fact quite logically, Judge Allison D. Burroughs ruled that while Harvard does consider the race and ethnicity of applicants, it colors within the lines of what is permitted by the Constitution. And, the judge found, the university does not intentionally discriminate against Asian Americans.
Next stop? It’s likely the Supreme Court, where four of the nine justices are graduates of Harvard Law School — and about the same number have previously expressed concerns about affirmative action. Don’t be surprised if the high court produces some high drama over this case.
When merit is on trial, fairness counts for a lot. But the deliberations must also include honesty and common sense.
You would think that the poster boy for someone who gets a free ride through life without earning it would be an ultra-connected white male like Hunter Biden or Donald Trump Jr. But, for many people — especially white people in both political parties — it’s still a Mexican American kid at Princeton.
No one should be penalized or treated as inferior because of their race, ethnicity or skin color. Throughout U.S. history, we’ve had quite enough of that rubbish. We don’t need more.
But let’s get a grip, folks. Sometimes, discrimination is real. Other times, it’s an illusion — and a handy excuse when things don’t go as planned. We have to be able to tell the difference.
Ruben Navarrette is a Washington Post columnist.