In one of the first and most significant legal cases about affirmative action, 1978’s Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, a white man sued the University of California after being denied admission to one of the university’s medical schools. Despite acceptable grades and test scores, Allan Bakke believed he wasn’t getting into medical school because he didn’t belong to any of the ethnic groups that the university defined as “educationally disadvantaged”: blacks, Hispanics, and American Indians, and Asians. My, how far we’ve come.

According to an article by Roger Clegg in Clarion Call, a publication of the conservative Pope Center for Higher Education Policy:

Students of Asian ancestry appear to face the same kind of treatment that Jewish students did decades ago. They’re held to higher standards than applicants from other groups in order to keep their numbers down and ensure more room for less academically gifted students from “underrepresented” groups.

It isn’t, of course, precisely the same thing. Jews were kept out of elite universities in order to keep rich white people in. Clegg argues that Asians are being kept out in order to let in under-qualified blacks and Hispanics.

This interesting argument comes about as a result of the college application of Jian Li, who filed a lawsuit with the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights in 2006 after Princeton rejected him despite very high grades and SAT scores. Princeton, like many other schools, appears to require Asian American high school students to meet much higher standards to be admitted than white, Hispanic, or black applicants.

In the grand scheme of injustice this is probably a little minor. Li eventually graduated from Harvard (by all accounts an equally prestigious school) and one student wrote in the Daily Princetonian that it seemed to him “reprehensible” that “Li had the gall to unnecessarily racialize a personal defeat.”

And a decidedly minor personal defeat at that. The whole point of affirmative action is to give disadvantaged people preferences in order to help promote a diversity of viewpoints in academic settings and remedy past discrimination. And someone loses when that happens. While the wisdom or effectiveness of this policy is debatable, Asian-Americans, while historically disadvantaged, are not actually disadvantaged. That’s the thing. Clegg writes:

African Americans are no longer the largest minority group: Latinos are. And Asians, too, are a rapidly growing minority. So even if, in 1965, you had a visceral sense that it was okay to give a preference to blacks over whites, how do you feel, in 2010, when a Latino is given a preference over an Asian? What is the historical or emotional – or moral or legal – justification for that?

The historical, emotional, moral, and (probably) legal justification for that is that Asians aren’t poor. That’s pretty much it. [Image via]

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer