From Harvard to a Virginia high school, courts take up racial preferences’ harm to this minority population.
by Jason L. Riley, The Wall Street Journal, March 1, 2022
Despite all the happy talk on the left about the benefits of diversity, America’s real strength has been its ability to transcend problems that have crippled other multiethnic, multireligious and multilingual societies. We’re at our best when the focus is on what unites us as Americans. And what seems to be uniting a growing number of Americans today is opposition to a Democratic equity agenda that effectively plays racial and ethnic groups against one another.
The Supreme Court is poised to strike a blow for colorblind college admissions later this year when it considers a case involving alleged anti-Asian discrimination at Harvard. But the fight continues at the K-12 level as well. Two years ago, the school board in Fairfax County, Va., altered the admissions standards at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, one of the top-ranked public schools in the country. Among other things, standardized testing requirements were eliminated, and subjective admission criteria were added in an effort to deny slots to Asian-Americans and boost enrollment among blacks and Hispanics.
It worked. Following the changes, Asian enrollment in Thomas Jefferson’s freshman class declined from around 73% to less than 50%. Parents filed a lawsuit, and last week a federal court ruled that the admissions changes were illegal. “The Board’s main problem is its focus on the goal to have TJ reflect the demographics of the surrounding area, described primarily in racial terms,” Judge Claude Hilton wrote in his summary judgment for the plaintiffs. “Emails and text messages between Board members and high-ranking [Fairfax school] officials leave no material dispute that, at least in part, the purpose of the Board’s admissions overhaul was to change the racial makeup to TJ to the detriment of Asian-Americans.”
The ruling describes the school board’s actions as “racial balancing for its own sake,” which is “patently unconstitutional.” The Supreme Court has said that a compelling interest is necessary to justify race-based actions by the government, and school officials failed to meet that standard. “The Board cannot transform racial balancing into a compelling interest ‘simply by relabeling it ‘racial diversity,’ ” Judge Hilton wrote.
Until recently, racial preferences were typically discussed in the context of whites, blacks and Hispanics, while the impact on Asians was an afterthought. Now more Asians are making their voices heard, and it’s a welcome development. The plaintiffs in the Harvard lawsuit contend that the university is capping Asian enrollment by holding Asian applicants to higher standards than other groups. A 2020 ballot referendum in California that would have reinstated racial preferences in college admissions was defeated by a wide margin, and Asian-Americans led the opposition. The recall of three San Francisco school board members last month was fueled by Asian parents who, like their counterparts in Virginia, were upset over a school board vote to change the admissions process at a highly selective high school. Similar efforts to alter the admissions criteria at New York City’s elite public high schools, where Asian enrollment far surpasses that of other groups, have faced a backlash, “especially from a newly active faction of vocal Asian parents,” the New York Post reports.
Making an enemy of testing and grades is barking up the wrong tree. The test isn’t the cause of these disparities. It’s merely a measure of reality. Eliminating the test will only obscure the learning gap, not erase it. Moreover, lowering standards ultimately harms all groups. Schools that admit less-prepared students won’t want them to struggle—or some racial groups to do better than others—so teachers and administrators will be under pressure to make classes less demanding. You can’t dumb down admissions without also dumbing down the curriculum.
If progressives wanted to do something meaningful about the achievement gap, the focus would be on preparing students for these tests. Black and Hispanic students at high-performing charter schools in New York City are admitted to selective high schools at double the rate of their peers in traditional public schools, yet progressives side with teachers unions to prevent more charter schools from opening. Go figure.
We can only hope that the Supreme Court’s ruling on Harvard’s admissions scheme will be as forceful and clearheaded as Judge Hilton’s in the Fairfax case. But regardless of how the court decides, it’s clear that the affirmative-action wars are far from over. It’s also clear that Republicans now have in education an issue that potentially brings together whites, blacks and Asians alike. Most voters don’t want our elementary schools turned into social-justice boot camps. They don’t like the way unions leveraged a pandemic to put their members’ interests ahead of the children’s. And they want policies that treat people equally, not policies that try to undo history by favoring some groups over others.