Asian-Americans first wanted Affirmative Action, then walked that one back when it turned out to bite them hard, much like Jewish Americans are now reconsidering their support from diversity because it has brought their enemies to their neighborhoods.
In the 1970s, the University of California system became inundated with Asian candidates. They studied hard, including for the SAT, and had good scores, but they killed campus life because they spent most of their time studying. The social and character development part of college was fading away.
Affirmative action programs slammed into place to make sure that a quota system existed so that colleges did not become exclusively Asian. This slowed the Asian invasion, as it was called, but also loaded lots of people into those schools who often found themselves struggling.
Consequently, in 1995 — as usual, two decades late — California repealed its Affirmative Action program. The Asian surge returned, prompting schools to fight hard to keep affirmative action: they did not want to end up like the University of California in the 1970s.
This led to situations where schools discriminated against Asians in order to avoid discriminating against Blacks, Hispanics, Arabs, Jews, and occasional Whites:
For years, colleges have been quietly discriminating against Asians in the admission process, admitting white, black, and Latino students with lower SAT scores and lower GPAs in the name of inclusivity. The problem for Asians is that, as a group, they tend to score really well.
This means there’s an abundance of highly qualified Asians applying to universities each year. This would not be a problem for Asian students if not for race-conscious universities, which, in recent years, have demonstrated a preference for social equity and racial balance over merit.
Asian-Americans originally believed in Affirmative Action. They found themselves excluded from a university system that preferred “well-rounded” students, which meant those with decent grades and scores but also activities that showed spirit and intellectual curiosity.
Some might see this as a culture clash. The original American view of education was that it was not a jobs program at all, but a way to get people ready to be good citizens, which included controversial things like studying literature, philosophy, and history as well as the hard sciences.
The Asian-American lobby achieved affirmative action early in the process, which opened the door in the 1960s and shut it three decades later:
As early as the 1950s, after the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, Asian Americans called for affirmative action programs for racially excluded minorities. From the 1960s through the 1980s, Asian Americans helped force higher education open for excluded communities of color and benefited from affirmative action programs.
A crucial turning point came in 1995, when the University of California’s board of regents made the calamitous decision to eliminate affirmative action for its then nine universities, one of the biggest public university systems in America. California’s electorate voted to end all affirmative action programs a year later.
The UC college system became known as a mostly-Asian experience during the 1970s and as a result lost much of its reputation except in the lab sciences area. Students took one look at these campuses and fled to other schools, causing more colleges to rise up. The majority Asian experience was alienating.
Even more, no one wanted to admit that mostly-Asian campuses were silent as the grave. UC got itself a reputation as a place where there were few social events, and every campus activity was geared merely toward being a jobs program. Each student wanted stuff to put on a resume to get into graduate school and not much else.
Informally, some would even admit the Asian cheating problem: students tended to study in groups and share information, even between classes, leading to high scores that did not translate into competence in the workplace. Students who were good at memorizing and tests were not necessarily better at anything than that.
Campus became a monoculture with Asian students not because of Asian culture, but because culture does not get you any points in the graduate school and career track. Schools were looking at having to close down their theater and liberal arts programs because so many students wanted medicine, law, architecture, and academia.
The grades competition had another side effect that perhaps even bit the Asian students. When you have an abundance of kids with perfect scores and grades, it produces a leveling effect for anyone below the absolute top, and so most of them were participating in a lottery where they would lose and a few would win everything.
Instead of being honest about this, schools took a background stab at equality through penalizing the Asian applicants:
Throughout the 1970s, competition for admission at Berkeley gradually increased. By the early 80s, the school was denying nearly half of its applicants, and by the end of that decade, it was denying almost two thirds of those who applied. As the competition increased, so did complaints about the school’s admissions process.
In November of 1988, the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights announced that it was investigating admissions procedures at Berkeley after receiving complaints that the school was capping admissions of Asian students. As far back as the 60s, the Asian presence on campus had always been strong, and Asian admits rose dramatically throughout the 70s.
But during the next decade, statistics showed a sharp drop in the percentage of Asian admissions, even though a higher percentage of these applicants met Berkeley’s standards than those from other racial groups. Critics blamed the drop on the school’s subjective admissions policies, which they said placed too much weight on extracurricular activities.
If the schools admitted strictly on scores, they were going to have mostly-Asian campuses with few of the darker minorities. Most of their students would be weeded out by the intense scores-based competition and not become big wealthy donors.
Perhaps the broader rule here, other than that in diversity you must discriminate against the strong to raise up the weak, might be that meritocracy does not work. If you set up tests and studies, kids game the system by becoming really good at memorization and repetition, which promotes a certain set who do not do so well in real life.
The WASP idea of college was that for the kids above 120 IQ points, it made sense to have a finishing school, intellectual curiosity stimulant, general knowledge enhancer, and social maturing process. This occurred through a chaotic and hedonistic process that slowly filtered the broken from the functional.
College degrees “made” wealth because they were a proxy for IQ tests, a diligence filter, and a personality refinement process. Businesses liked to hire college graduates because they were likely to be higher IQ, more functional, and able to get along with a complex workplace social environment.
Politicians and voters saw that and decided that “wet streets cause rain.” Instead of realizing that college degrees were valuable because they were rare and pointed toward this type of person, the voters decided that college degrees were a magic money boat that could lift people out of poverty.
Consequently society subsidized sending people off to college who probably should never have been there, at which point the grades and scores people got more dogmatic, producing a race for excellence that churns out robots and condemns the competent to lesser earnings.
We have seen this mistake made before, ironically by ancient China, which created the forerunner of the modern meritocracy:
Gao Kao and China’s civil service exam trace their origin to, and are modelled on, an ancient Chinese institution, Keju, the imperial civil service exam established by the Sui Dynasty (581-618). It can be translated as ‘subject recommendation’. Toward the end of its reign, the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) abolished it in 1905 as part of its effort to reform and modernise the Chinese system. Until then, Keju had been the principal recruitment route for imperial bureaucracy. Keju reached its apex during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). All the prime ministers but one came through the Keju route and many of them were ranked at the very top in their exam cohort.
Much of the academic literature focuses on the meritocracy of Keju. The path-breaking book in this genre is Ping-ti Ho’s The Ladder of Success in Imperial China (1962). One of his observations is eye catching: more than half of those who obtained the Juren degree were first generation: ie, none of their ancestors had ever attained a Juren status. (Juren was, at the time, the first degree granted in the three-tiered hierarchy of Keju.) More recent literature demonstrates the political effects of Keju. In 1905, the Qing dynasty abolished Keju, dashing the aspirations of millions and sparking regional rebellions that eventually toppled China’s last imperial regime in 1911.
Keju was so precocious that it pre-empted and displaced an emergent society. Meritocracy empowered the Chinese state at a time when society was still at an embryonic stage. Massive resources and administrative manpower were poured into Keju such that it completely eclipsed all other channels of upward mobility that could have emerged. In that sense, the celebration by many of Keju’s meritocracy misses the bigger picture of Chinese history.
As it turns out in real life, the harder you make the test, the more you get people specialized in taking the tests, and this actually squeezes out many competent people who are too world-wise to waste time on educational red tape. In fact, you probably exclude your best since they do not have the attention for trivialities required.
Dogmatic in our refusal to accept history, we in the modern world have made a meritocracy that fails for the same reason the ancient Chinese one did, and its reticence to accept Asians just shows how much it is slowly realizing that scores and grades tell only part of the story.