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Harvard’s racist selection process

19 October 2019

9:00 AM

19 October 2019

9:00 AM

You might be surprised to know that Harvard University, along with other American tertiary institutions, routinely and explicitly discriminates on the basis of race in their student admissions processes. On the face of it this would seem unconstitutional, but the US Supreme Court has permitted this practice provided no racial quotas are applied (and non-racial factors are also taken into account in admissions). In a well-publicised case, a group of Asian-American students rejected by Harvard took the university to court, alleging discrimination. Federal Judge Allison Burroughs dismissed the case. Earlier this week, I (along with other Harvard graduates) received a letter from Harvard President Lawrence Bacow celebrating this decision.

After reading this letter, I decided to write back to the President. I will share my response with you below, but first let me outline what Bacow had to say for himself.

‘The consideration of race alongside many other factors’ in Harvard’s admissions process, Bacow said, ‘helps us achieve our goal of creating a diverse student body’. Bacow thanked the Harvard students ‘who made their voices heard’ during this trial. ‘They made vividly clear the benefits of student body diversity’, he added. Bacow closes by quoting from Judge Burroughs’ decision. In Burroughs’ view, Harvard’s ‘race conscious’ admissions policy gives students ‘the opportunity to know and understand each other beyond race, as whole individuals with unique histories and experiences’.

This will ‘move us, one day’, she continued, ‘to the point where we see that race is a fact, but not the defining fact and not the fact that tells us what is important’. Until we reach that point, Burroughs concludes, race conscious admissions ‘will have an important place in society’.

Here is my reply to Bacow’s letter:

President Bacow, What a disappointing decision upholding a patently discriminatory admissions policy. Discrimination in any form based on characteristics people have no control over is unjust regardless of the well-meaning motives that might underlie it.

If some students are admitted based on their skin colour, it follows that others will be rejected for not having the right skin colour. This is the sting felt by the Asian-American students who were rejected by Harvard. Can you blame them for thinking that, in your eyes, some minorities contribute more to diversity than others?

You quote with approval from the Judge’s decision in this case. Stripped bare, she argues that in order to bring about a future where race does not matter, where race is ‘not the defining fact’ of our existence, we need to discriminate on the basis of race today. So not only do the ends justify the means, they justify means which, at their very heart, contradict those ends.

This is the height of cynicism. All unjust regimes in history have used this argument in one form or another. Freedom tomorrow requires despotism today.  Prosperity tomorrow, poverty today. But as that history shows, once established, unjust treatment becomes entrenched.  Supposedly temporary means become ends in themselves with the utopian ideal always just out of reach. Race-based admissions cannot, it seems to me, be a bridge to a colour-blind future.

In your letter, you style yourself as a champion of diversity. But if the rich philosophical, religious and political traditions of our civilisation have taught us one thing, it is this: the only conception of diversity compatible with human freedom and equal rights is individual diversity. From this basic truth, all else follows.  Yes, we are all shaped by our respective class, ethnic, religious and personal backgrounds. But we can never be reduced to one or a combination of these as if we are mere products of them rather than unique, irreplaceable and exceptional to our core.

If, as you read this, you speculate about my (racial) diversity status, that is further proof of my point. My arguments should stand or fall on their merits, not be dismissed (or embraced, as the case may be) on the basis of my skin colour.  If you were a true champion of diversity, you would acknowledge, even celebrate, dissenting views. Yet when applauding students who spoke out during the trial, you refer only to those who toed the party line.

As someone from a Jewish background (my grandfather was Jewish), I suspect my forebears would not have had an easy ride into Harvard. It is said that in the early part of last century, Harvard (along with other elite American educational institutions) strictly limited Jewish admissions. Your predecessor at that time, President Lowell, no doubt agreed with you that, in your words, ‘the consideration of race, alongside many other factors’ was a legitimate part of the admissions process.

But my reply to you is not motivated by self-interest. From my time at Harvard, I learnt that the ultimate victims of race-based preferment are the very people it is meant to benefit. Not one African-American student I knew felt comfortable with this policy. They resented the idea that the bar had been lowered for them, even if by an inch. They bristled at the notion that, once there, they would be treated with kid gloves. The people who preached the gospel of diversity loudest were, more often than not, paternalistic whites.

In re-reading this letter, I can see I have taken a harsh tone. I find it hard to avoid that when writing about what I perceive to be an injustice. I understand and have some sympathy with the arguments you put in favour of your admissions policy, even though I reject them. I am not blind to historical injustices suffered by minorities, not least African-Americans.  And I do not doubt your motives. I am sure you are well-intentioned.

For all this, perhaps the Harvard admissions issue is a symptom of a wider cultural problem at our universities. An insularity of sorts. As the Jewish Justice Louis Brandeis was later to observe, men like President Lowell (who as you know opposed his nomination to the Supreme Court) ‘have no evil purpose’ and are often public spirited. Rather, they are ‘blinded by privilege’, inhabiting an environment which has ‘obscured all vision and sympathy with the masses.’

If Brandeis was with us today, perhaps he would see the parallels. A growing divide between a cloistered, insider elite and the wider community they are drawn from.

Yours sincerely, David Pearl. Master of Public Administration, 2003.

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