The New York Times has been having an interesting debate about the issue of anti-Asian quotas in the Ivy League. There was this op-ed earlier in the week, as well as a series of essays arguing various sides of the question as part of the Times’ “Room for Debate” feature.

Participants mostly debated whether quotas limiting Asian students in the Ivies really exist. But of that there can be little doubt. While the Harvard guy in the “Room for Debate” forum predictably swears up and down that their admissions committee “does not use quotas of any kind,” that appears to be almost statistically impossible. In their contribution to the forum, John C. Brittain and Richard D. Kahlenberg point out that:

Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford find in their study of selective colleges that Asian-Americans must score 140 points higher on average than whites on the math and verbal portions of the SAT in order to have the same chances of admission.

Right-wing billionaire Ron Unz, in his contribution, notes that the percentage of Asian Americans enrolled at Harvard has surprisingly declined, from 20.6 in 1993 to about 16.5 throughout most of the last decade. This is in spite of the fact that the college age Asian American population has “roughly doubled” over this period. Unz also cites other evidence that indicates when admissions policies are race neutral, Asian Americans tend to be accepted in numbers that reflect the growth of the Asian American population.

Now, one thing that definitely needs to be said about the ant-Asian quota issue is that the politics of it is definitely very weird. Unz and a couple of the other participants who argue that there is an anti-Asian quota also tend to oppose race-based affirmative action altogether. They seem to view the Asian American quota controversy as a wedge issue that can help them dismantle the entire affirmative action system. They care about fairness for Asian Americans about as much as the wingnuts cared about freedom for women in Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, Khin Mai Aung, the director of the educational equity program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, an Asian American rights group, refers to anti-Asian quotas as “imaginary.” Rather remarkably, she uses quotation marks when referring to anti-Asian bias — e.g., “‘discrimination’ against Asians.” Aung’s group does support race-based affirmative action and Aung points out, correctly, that some alleging anti-Asian quotas “have rarely shown their concern for Asian-Americans in other contexts.” That is undeniably true. Nevertheless, Aung does not deal at all with the seemingly strong statistical evidence of the quotas; she just waves her hands at it. It’s an extremely weak argument.

In this entire debate over admissions, the elephant in the room is class. Aung says that her group supports affirmative action for what are basically class-based reasons. Affirmative action policies help the more disadvantaged Asian Americans whose countries of origins were places like Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, and who may have come here as refugees.

Class also rears its ugly head in Brittain and Kahlenberg’s argument. They say that one big reason that Asian Americans are disadvantaged are legacy preferences. The alums of elite institutions tend to be overwhelmingly white, and of course their offspring are as well. Asian Americans and other nonwhite groups suffer from this. Here’s one stunning example they cite:

For the fall 2003 class, 91 percent of legacy applicants accepted by early decision at the University of Virginia were white, compared with just 1.6 percent who were Asian, according to journalist Daniel Golden.

Morally and politically, legacy preferences are totally unacceptable and should be completely eliminated. It’s difficult to see that happening, though, in institutions where alumni still have so much power, particularly through their donations. At the very least, the anti-Asian quotas — and yes, we all know the Ivies have them, even if they’re not calling them that — should be abolished. What the anti-Asian quotas amount to is affirmative action for white people and that, with its strong stench of white supremacy and entrenched privilege, is noxious.

Anti-Asian prejudice in our society has no doubt declined, but like other sorts of prejudice in our country, it has a long and ugly history. The Chinese Exclusion Act banned immigration on the basis of race, and various miscegenation laws prevented Asians from marrying whites. And while clearly we’re past the worst of it, hostility to nonwhites and to immigrants is very alive in this country — witness the modern conservative movement.

Asian Americans tend to do pretty well economically, and they are not as vocal politically as Latinos or African Americans are. Maybe because of that, there has been surprisingly little discussion of discrimination against Asians in higher education. But its continuing existence is disturbing. It’s long past time elite colleges give up the ghost of white skin privilege and stop giving rich white kids special preferences over their smarter and more talented Asian counterparts. Not doing so is flat out racism, polite society style. Getting rid of the legacy preferences could open up more slots for class-based affirmative action, as well.

It’s hard to dream up an admissions system where elites wouldn’t find a way of gaming it somehow, but the legacy preferences are particularly offensive. They reek of the worst of decadent, aristocratic Europe, not the best of democratic America. A less corrupt system would be in society’s best interest.

UPDATE: The Monthly’s Daniel Luzer wrote about this issue recently, in this post.

Kathleen Geier

Kathleen Geier is a writer and public policy researcher who lives in Chicago. She blogs at Inequality Matters. Find her on Twitter: @Kathy_Gee