With the victory of Washington state’s Initiative 200, which ends affirmative action in government hiring, contracting and education, supporters of racial preferences have asked us to imagine an America in which members of some ethnic groups are virtually excluded not only from state university campuses but elite institutions in general.
But no imagination is actually needed, for this is already the case today, and has been for years. In a telling irony, current affirmative action policies are more the cause than the cure for these gross imbalances.
From the very beginnings of affirmative action in the 1960s, its underlying justification has always been that it resolves the problem of “underrepresentation.” The basis for this argument is the view that the elite institutions of our society should reflect the diversity of America’s society, and that if certain groups–such as blacks or women–seem to be receiving less than their statistical share, discrimination (whether conscious or unconscious) is the likely culprit. In fact, many diversity advocates believe that society should correct for such imbalances even absent any discrimination whatsoever.
But for all the endless discussion over the origins and cure for chronic demographic underrepresentation, there has been near total silence regarding the flip side of the issue, namely demographic overrepresentation. The underrepresentation of some groups is an inevitable consequence of the overrepresentation of other groups, and one issue cannot be properly addressed without the other.
Consider Harvard College. Over the past few years, black enrollment has averaged 8% and Hispanic enrollment 7%. Despite Harvard’s longstanding commitment to affirmative action (recently reiterated in a widely discussed new book co-authored by Harvard’s ex-President Derek Bok), these levels are substantially lower than their 12% and 10% representation in the general population, and there are periodic complaints by ethnic activists that Harvard is insufficiently committed to “diversity.”
But these numbers become much less surprising when we examine Harvard’s enrollment more closely. For example, Asians comprise between 2% and 3% of the U.S. population, but nearly 20% of Harvard undergraduates. Then too, between a quarter and a third of Harvard students identify themselves as Jewish, while Jews also represent just 2% to 3% of the overall population. Thus, it appears that Jews and Asians constitute approximately half of Harvard’s student body, leaving the other half for the remaining 95% of America.
Under these circumstances, chronic underrepresentation of other ethnic groups—with or without affirmative action—is mathematically inevitable, and the only real issue is the allocation of such underrepresentation. Since black and Hispanics are virtually guaranteed a certain number of slots, and Harvard also admits a considerable number of foreign students, the number of remaining slots is further reduced. In fact, it seems likely that non-Jewish white Americans represent no more than a quarter of Harvard undergraduates, even though this group constitutes nearly 75% of the population at large, resulting in a degree of underrepresentation far more severe than that of blacks, Hispanics or any other minority groups.
Furthermore, even among non-Jewish whites there is almost certainly a severe skew in representation, with Northeastern WASPs being far better represented than other demographic or religious groups such as Baptists or Southerners. (It’s hard to know for sure, since Harvard doesn’t release breakdowns of the student body by religion.)
These facts should make supporters of affirmative action very uncomfortable. Large numbers of rejected applicants from these underrepresented groups doubtless have much higher admissions scores than many black or Hispanic admittees–as well as the unique cultural experiences prized by diversity advocates–and are much farther from parity with their share of the general population. Thus, current affirmative action policies actually act to increase rather than decrease ethnic underrepresentation at the college.
Other than repealing the laws of mathematics, the only solution available to supporters of affirmative action would be to adopt a policy aimed at drastically reducing the number of Asians and Jews at Harvard, thereby furnishing more spots for other groups. But Asian and Jewish organizations would surely object, and the policy would be controversial to say the least.
This entire ethnic dilemma is present to a greater or lesser degree at most of our other elite educational institutions: Yale, Princeton, Stanford, Berkeley and so on. And partly because these universities act as a natural springboard to elite careers in law, medicine, finance and technology, many of these commanding heights of American society seem to exhibit a similar skew in demographic composition.
Seen in this light, the well-known hostility of “angry white males” toward affirmative action programs may represent less the pique of the privileged and more the resentment of the discriminated-against. If the recent Presidential Commission on Race had sought to engage in sincere analysis rather than merely indulge in empty rhetoric, difficult issues such as this one should have been central to their debate. That it was not suggests why the commission has been a failure from the start.
Ron K. Unz, a Silicon Valley software developer, was the author of Proposition 227, the successful California initiative to dismantle bilingual education.
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