Are Asians the Jews of the 21st Century When It Comes to College Admissions?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A reader of Asian descent makes a historical connection:

The very notion that Asians should be collectively “limited” is outrageous, a direct parallel to the infamous quotas on Jewish students once imposed at many of these same institutions in the early 20th century. Asians are a historically marginalized group in this country. We lack any operative power in terms of political, social, or institutional influence that would make any collective success subject to just intervention on the level of individuals.

A good source for this Jewish-American history is Jerome Karabel’s The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. He spoke with Bloomberg about his findings:

Karabel: Harvard, Yale and Princeton, up until the very early 1920s, had an exam-based system of admission. If you passed you were admitted. If you failed you were turned away. If you were in the gray zone, then they might admit you on conditions but basically, if you passed, regardless of your social background, you would be admitted.

That was precisely why the system was judged to be no longer viable because too many of the wrong students, the ``undesirable'' students -- that is, predominantly, Jewish students of East European background -- started to pass the exams.

So an entirely new system of admissions was invented with emphasis on such things as character, leadership, personality, alumni parentage, athletic ability, geographical diversity. They started, for the first time, to do interviews. They introduced photos. A lot of things, which we take for granted today, in fact, were introduced in this period and have endured to the present.

[Robin D.] Schatz: What happened to Jewish admissions as a result?

Karabel: Well, at Harvard, the Jewish proportion of the freshmen class in 1925 had reached 28 percent and shortly thereafter, after a very protracted and bitter struggle, which lasted from 1922 really to 1926, Harvard imposed a 15 percent quota. At Yale, the proportion of Jews had reached toward 14 percent and in 1924, they imposed a 10 percent quota. At Princeton where the proportion of Jews had gotten only to 3.6 percent, they decided that that was excessive and they cut the proportion of Jews to 2 percent in 1924.

These days, colleges that are accused of limiting Asian students will deny the use of quotas, which the Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional in Bakke, but a lot of people aren’t buying it. One of them is Glenn Harlan Reynolds:

[T]hough the numbers of highly qualified Asian applicants have grown dramatically, the number of Asians admitted stays pretty much the same every year.

Now the Asian students are suing. In a lawsuit against Harvard [last year], they are claiming that Harvard demands higher qualifications from Asian students than from others, and that it uses “racial classifications to engage in the same brand of invidious discrimination against Asian Americans that it formerly used to limit the number of Jewish students in its student body.”

These claims are almost certainly correct. Discrimination against Asian students — and not just by Harvard, but throughout higher education — has been an open secret for years. Asian students, we’re told, face a “bamboo ceiling” as a result.

Back to our reader:

The Atlantic already identified the way forward on affirmative action in Richard Kahlenberg’s article. We simply need to break away from the race-centric identity politics that pervades our political discourse and look at the class context of applicants. That would address the sense of injustice in making decisions explicitly based on race, where people feel they have been denied opportunity as a result of immutable characteristics.  

The emphasis must be structural fairness. In this sense, affirmative action at the collegiate level is years too late to provide the equality of opportunity that even opponents of affirmative action would likely affirm (at least publicly) as a desirable goal. That would require more fundamental restructuring of our education system (e.g. equitable school funding, abolishing private education)—intervention that is politically unrealistic, due in part to the complicity, as Adolph Reed has noted, between identity politics and neoliberalism.

So what do you think about the parallels between the Jewish Americans of the early 20th century and the Asian Americans of the early 21st century when it comes to college admissions? Any key differences worth accounting for?Email to chime in.