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Race and education

By Mubashir Noor

What are the core duties of a government? This debate is as old as the idea of nation-states itself. If a government must prioritise economic growth with equity, is “racial balancing” in public colleges and universities essential?

It is self-evident that parity in higher education opportunities for all citizens is imperative for any country to experience sustainable economic growth, especially as we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

And this is why racial quotas for higher education are common in many states around the world, including Malaysia, that have distinct underprivileged groups.

But do non-profit private colleges also have a responsibility to synchronise with the government’s drive toward such parity given they often receive federal funding and tax breaks?

And where do we draw the red line beyond which “affirmative action” or “positive discrimination” turns into plain old racism?

These are all questions that confronted America’s iconic Harvard University as it began defending itself in court starting mid-October against allegations of systematic discrimination brought forward by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), an education non-profit.

Representing a collective of Asian Americans, primarily ethnic Chinese as per media reports, the SFFA alleged that Harvard routinely favoured less qualified African American, Latino and Native American candidates at the expense of Asian Americans.

Statistics, however, present an entirely different picture. Asian Americans, the country’s best-educated and most affluent minority group, make up around 20 percent of the Harvard student body despite comprising only five percent of the population. As such, Harvard has vigorously defended its “holistic” admissions process as impartial and consistent.

Nevertheless, this case is sure to shake up the way universities, especially the Ivy Leaguers, screen student applications and will likely be appealed all the way to the newly conservative Supreme Court. There is also little doubt the arguments employed here will echo in similar lawsuits around the world.

US President Donald Trump coincidentally favours the SFFA’s stance that all American colleges should select students strictly on the basis of Grade-Point Averages (GPA) and Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores, and not vague personal characteristics like “courage” and “likability” that Asian Americans typically score low on.

Liberal commentators meanwhile fear that SFFA czar Edward Blum, an intensely anti-quota legal “strategist” with a history of similar lawsuits, is using a group of disgruntled students to advance his agenda.

Let us, for argument’s sake, concede that Harvard racially profiles its applicants. How is that any different from life?

The reality is most races around the world are weighed on the balance of stereotypical attributes. Our brains like it that way, ask any psychologist. In the US for example, blacks are viewed as born athletes, Jews as financial wizards, while Chinese are typecast as computer-whisperers.

Now, in a fair world where everyone had equal access to a college education, race-neutral policies would make complete sense. But unfortunately, SFFA versus Harvard is less about how the university discriminates and more about how America has failed its minority groups by upholding white privilege.

Moreover, as a private entity, surely Harvard has the right to filter candidates the same way restaurants in certain conservative US states like Indiana can lawfully reject homosexuals?

Returning to SFFA versus Harvard, I believe media analysis has thus far lasered in on what the case says about the university, but stayed eerily silent on how it portrays Asian Americans.

Based on details of the case, it appears that in their world, the inability of Asian Americans to enrol into Harvard in numbers that would reflect their superior test scores is a grave injustice.

Also, that it somehow disadvantages them for life and other universities, no matter how good, can never bridge the chasm created by Harvard denying them admission. The basic problem with the SFFA law suit is it turns Asian Americans into accomplices of the very status quo they accuse of racism.

First, though, we must understand why affirmative action exists. Simply put, it is the concerted efforts of amoral majority to right historical wrongs, in America’s case slavery, through public policy.

But how “positive” is positive discrimination? And does it do more harm than good by creating a false sense of equality in minority groups even when their net treatment by society is largely prejudiced and unfair? The racial profiling of blacks by police in the US that leads to a shocking number of lethal encounters is a textbook example.

The only logical explanation for this law suit at a time when brick-and-mortar colleges are slowly turning obsolete can be that Asian Americans covet the exclusive alumni networks that come with an Ivy League education. This premise dovetails nicely with the risk-averse prototype we generally associate with Asians.

It also suggests a deep inferiority complex where Asians American conditioned by decades of social stigmas pine for membership in a white male-majority club as the key to personal validation, or “making it.”

This is akin to the “brown sahib” complex from the days of the British Empire when Indians of status showed great pride in walking and talking like their masters.

But when a system is clearly rigged to favour one race overall others, the best way to topple it is by pursuing alternative means to success that bypass the ones gate-kept by the dominant race. Otherwise, lawsuits like the SFFA’s will be met with tokenism and not substantive change.

A quick look at China’s growing tech sector that has overtaken the world in smartphone sales, and indeed the emergence of Chinese entrepreneur Jack Ma as a legitimate global influencer is sufficient proof that carving a niche in life does not require a Harvard degree.

The SFFA demands justice, but lest they forget, social justice is an incremental process driven by bottom-up change. Strong-arming individual organisations like Harvard to comply will not remove, for example, the negative stereotypes that hound Asian Americans at the workplace. It may trigger a fleeting social media storm of “slacktivism,” but precious else.