Merit, Contested

I have a new essay on City Journal looking at the debate over merit.


For a reason or reasons I’m still tracking down — probably having to do with glitches involved in my word processor trying and failing to open and close .docx files created in Word — a number of the links in my piece did not make it into the posted version. I started to copy and paste the posted text here and go through it inserting the missing links, but instead I’m posting below one of my early, longer drafts of the piece that has all the links, and more. You can view this as the sloppy but completely linked version.


Two constants in our continuing struggle to achieve racial equality are the closely related controversies over 1) equal treatment: does it require treating individuals without regard to race, as critics of affirmative action assert, or with regard to race, as demanded by advocates of race-based diversity? and 2) merit: what is it, and how should it be rewarded? Two developments in, not surprisingly, California over the past several weeks brought both of those issues boiling to the surface.

On May 21 the Board of Regents of the University of California voted unanimously to drop the requirement of the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) or the American College Test (ACT) for freshman admissions. “Putting racial politics above merit,” the Wall Street Journal editorialized, “diversity bean-counting has displaced the philosophy of merit and excellence that made the UC the envy of the world.”

In June the Democrats in the California legislature passed, on a party line vote, Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5, the latest attempt to repeal Proposition 209, approved by 55% of the voters in a 1996 referendum that added a provision to the state constitution prohibiting state agencies from “discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” Proposition 16in effect replacing the prohibition against racial preference with a racial spoils system — will appear on the November 3 ballot. If passed, treating some individuals better and some worse because of their race, ethnicity, or sex would no longer be prohibited in California.

These attempts to rewrite civil rights law so that it permits rather than prohibits preferential treatment based on race and to eliminate standardized tests as measures of merit (usually derided as “merit”) are not new, but debates over them in recent years have been dominated by increasingly acrimonious ethnic conflict. Both Prop. 16  and UC dropping the SAT are good examples; they share the same animating purpose: to increase the number of black and Hispanic students in selective colleges, and to reduce the number of Asians.

The first attempt to repeal Prop. 209 came in the spring of 2014 when California Democrats, then as now enjoying super-majorities in the legislature, introduced Senate Constitutional Amendment 5, a precursor to the measure introduced last month. It seemed to be headed for sure passage until, the Sacramento Bee reported, Asian American groups began “ginning up opposition, worried that restoration of affirmative action could slash admissions of Asian American students.” 

The measure was pulled after three Asian American Democrats withdrew their support “when they started hearing from Asian American constituents,” the San Francisco Chronicle reported, “who feared that giving preferences to African American and Latino students would make it harder for their children to get into competitive University of California campuses.”

 A similar attempt met a similar fate in Washington state, where in 1998 58% of the voters approved I-200, a measure modeled on California’s Prop. 209. Last fall, in a virtual replay of the ill-fated SCA-5, a measure to repeal that prohibition of racial preference was passed by Democrats on a party line vote in the closing moments of the legislative session. Again, unexpectedly (although by now it should not have been unexpected), newly energized Asian immigrants, largely Chinese, forced the measure onto a statewide ballot, where it was defeated. 

In preparing an earlier article on the attempt to repeal Washington’s I-200 I looked at as many local newspapers as I could find online, and they were virtually unanimous in urging the return of affirmative action. Nearly every one of them, moreover, described the “opponents of affirmative action,” as the Seattle Times did here, as “led by a group of Chinese immigrants.” 

In both the controversies over SCA-5 and I-200, the advocates of reviving affirmative action described their opponents as not only Chinese immigrants but first generation, recent Chinese immigrants, with the clear implication that they did not recognize their proper place — allied with other identity group victims — because they were still unfamiliar with American society and politics. This was a common complaint made by the older, established Asian American groups and writers.

For example, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund blamed the defeat of SCA-5 on “some short-sighted Asian Americans.” And in a long article on “The Rise and Fall of Affirmative Action,” the New Yorker quoted Joe Wei, the managing editor of the World Journal, a Chinese-language newspaper with bureaus in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, who said his paper is “a vital resource for new immigrants…. We’re helping them become citizens.” Although Wei was sympathetic to those Chinese complaining about being the victims of affirmative action, “he was apprehensive about what might result from their efforts. He wasn’t sure that newer immigrants understood the ‘history of struggle,’ or the importance of diverse schools. ‘I feel like, “Hey, stop it. Don’t push this hard,’” he said. ‘Because you don’t want to ruin everything. After all, we are latecomers. We are new to this country.’”

In a similar vein, just before the vote on I-200 the New York Times quoted Gary Locke, Washington’s Chinese-American governor, urging his audience of Asian Americans to support affirmative action, stating that “some recent immigrants do not appreciate the depth of racial inequality upon which the United States has grown.” A Japanese-American journalist who studied the opposition to I-200 similarly concluded that “recent Chinese immigrants do not grasp the nuance of racial history in this country. It’s not their fault. It simply isn’t their lived experience.”As for Asian immigrants like himself, who had been in this country longer, “we developed a tacit understanding of America’s racial hierarchy.” (Perhaps the New York Times should give free 1619 Project material to all arriving Chinese immigrants.)

The new immigrants, in short, didn’t know any better. They took America’s ideals seriously. Kan Qiu, a leader of the effort to preserve I-200, had come to the United States after participating in the 1989 Tiananimen Square protests. “The reason I came here,” he told an interviewer, “is because people in America are treated equally. If we are seeing people segregated or discriminated against, based on race and skin color, that’s not right.”

Another traditional American value that animated Qiu and his friends is the ideal that success must be earned, that individual hard work is necessary, that it is and should be rewarded. “The government shouldn’t be passing over people who earn a place at school or a contract on merit,” Qiu told the Bellingham Herald. “Are you going to punish the people who work harder?” 

In a similar vein Linda Yang, another leader of the successful effort to preserve I-200, said in a radio interview that “People know if we are allowed to use race as a factor, our kids are going to be discriminated [against]…. We come here, we don’t have roots, we build everything from scratch, if we can do it, I think everybody can do it.”

This grit and self-help ethic of the new immigrants was also highlighted in the New Yorker article mentioned above, which quoted Stanley Chen, a leader in the fight against California’s SCA-5 attempt to repeal Prop. 209 and founder of the Silicon Valley Chinese Association. Chen “fully embraced the notions of tough love, hard work, and self-determination.” Yukong Zhao, a Florida activist also quoted, “kept mentioning the American Dream as though it were a contractual arrangement: ‘The American Dream says that each U.S. citizen should have equal opportunity to pursue prosperity and success through hard work, determination, and initiative.’”

Nowhere is the conflict between the seemingly old fashioned ethic of recent Asian immigrants — that individual hard work merits reward — 

more prominent, and more under attack, than in the bitter controversy over access to New York City’s eight specialized high schools.

The entrance gate to those schools is guarded by only one barrier: the Specialized High School Admission Test (SHSAT), sort of a junior SAT on steroids. “Ten black students got into Stuyvesant,” the most selective of the eight schools, reported the New York Times in March, “out of a freshman class of roughly 760, up from seven black students last year. And only 20 Hispanic students gained entry, down from 33 last year.” With 524 students, the New York Post reports, Asians make up 68% of Stuyvesant students, down from 74% last year. Whites, with 133 admitted applicants, are 17%. 

The proportions at the other seven specialized high schools are, and have been, roughly similar. Asians are over 60% of the students in the specialized schools but only 15% of all students in the city school system. Hispanics: 6% and 41%; blacks: 4% and 26%.

These numbers have long been intolerable to Democratic politicians, who rely heavily on black and Hispanic votes, and to progressives of all colors, including a number of Asian organizations who march under the “diversity” banner. They attack the SHSAT with the same ferocity, and for the same reason, that they attack the SAT: it lets far too many Asians in and keeps far too many blacks and Hispanics out.

Mayor de Blasio has tried, so far without success, to eliminate the SHSAT and otherwise “adjust the eligibility criteria.” His argument is familiar: “There are talented students all across the five boroughs, but for far too long our specialized high schools have failed to reflect the diversity of our city.”

As Dennis Saffran pointed out in City Journal several years ago, however, “the more ‘holistic’ and subjective admissions criteria that de Blasio and the NAACP favor would be much more likely to benefit children of the city’s professional elite than African-American and Latino applicants—while penalizing” the poor Asians who have aced the SHSAT in such numbers. “The result would not be a specialized high school student body that ‘looks like New York,’ but rather one that looks more like Bill de Blasio’s upscale Park Slope neighborhood in Brooklyn.”

Eliminating the SAT at the University of California will be no more successful at making the university system “look like California,” and insofar as it does move in that direction its black, Hispanic, and progressive advocates may well be disappointed. It is a little known fact that whites are the most “underrepresented” group in the UC system: 37% of the California population but only 21% of 2019 UC students. Whites, as I noted here, are only 56% of what “mirror” advocates would call equity or parity. Blacks, by contrast, are 4% of the students and 6.5% of the California population — 61.5% of parity/equity. And Hispanics: 25% of students, 39.3% of population — 63.6% of parity/equity. In short, for the University of California to “look like California,” the number of Asians would have to be cut in half, and the number of whites increased proportionally much more than blacks or Hispanics.

As Dennis Saffran observed in his City Journal article, the success of recent Asian immigrants “once would have been the stuff of liberal dreams: a racial minority group historically victimized by discrimination begins coming to America in greater numbers because of an immigration reform sponsored by Ted Kennedy. Though many in the group remain in poverty [90% of those at Stuyvesant eligible for free lunches are Asian], they take advantage of free public schools established by progressive New York City governments. By dint of their own hard work, they earn admission in increasing numbers to merit-based schools that offer smart working-class kids the kind of education once available only at Andover or Choate.” The same can be said about their success in California.

But to modern Democrats and their ethnic constituents, Saffran adds, “the story is intolerable, starting with the hard work…. [They] seem particularly troubled by the Asian-American work ethic and the difficult questions that it raises about the role of culture in group success.” 

One of the most fundamental of those questions concerns the nature of “merit” itself, and what the standardized tests that purport to measure it actually measure. A common view is that, in the academic context, merit is a quality — some combination of ability and acquired knowledge. Asian American high-achievers agree, but as we’ve seen they also add a large dose of individual sacrifice and hard work. Merit is thus not something they have but something they earn, and refusing to reward them, individually, for what they have earned in favor of others who have not worked as hard simply because of their skin color is the essence of unfairness. 

Thus, perhaps ironically, recent Asian immigrants have achieved their success by relying on traditional American values of individual hard work, with reward earned without regard to race. Indeed, the New Yorker observed, “it’s possible that immigrants are the only ones who speak about meritocracy and fairness without a trace of irony.”

By contrast, for Mayor de Blasio, Hispanic and black politicians, and other critics of standardized tests, the “merit” those tests measure reflects privilege — whether wealth or access to test prep services. Their criticism of the Asian view that merit is the result of hard work thus resembles Obama’s put down of business owners from the 2012 campaign: “If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

In their complaint against the SHSAT, the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) and a host of progressive organizations criticized not only the test itself but recent efforts to expand access to test prep services, what it referred to snidely as “test cramming services.” They rejected, in short, “encouraging students to spend weeks and months furiously studying…. We shouldn’t be pushing our children further into the world of pressurized high-stakes testing.”

In “An Interview With An Asian Student At Stuyvesant High School” conducted last May, “Salma,” a Bangladeshi-American sophomore (she was born here; her parents weren’t) was asked what she thought of the SHSAT. “The reason that Stuy is Stuy,” she replied, “is that we’re the smart kids who do well on tests…. I think that’s one of the reason that everyone in Stuy thinks the SHSAT should be there, because if the test wasn’t here, what’s the point of Stuy then? What’s the point of even being here?”

The debate in California just getting underway over repudiating Prop. 209’s promise of racially neutral equal treatment and replacing it with a return to preferential treatment has already begun to exacerbate the long-growing conflict between Asians, on one side, and blacks and Hispanics on the other. 

“Assemblyman Evan Low, D-Campbell, said his office had received more than 3,000 calls from constituents who opposed ACA5 and only 99 from people who supported it,” the San Francisco Chronicle reports. “He raised the possibility that his vote could cost him his seat, adding that he had heard from elected officials in his district who asked him, ‘Aren’t you yellow? Why are you voting against your own people?’”

Assemblyman Phil Ting (D-San Francisco), who has many Chinese American constituents, has stated that “my office received 17,000 emails opposed” to Prop. 16. Many of those were from Silicon Valley and Southern California, but even the emails from his district were more than 4 to 1 opposed.

Ting repeated the now common refrain that the problem is with recent immigrants. “Many of the opponents are newer immigrants from China and Taiwan, where the university you get into is determined by taking a test. It’s almost like training for the Olympics,”

In other words, they are so new to the country that they still believe in the traditional American value of merit based on hard work that attracted them.

Say What?