MLK and Creative Maladjustment

 While still recovering from the flu (yes I still got it despite getting a shot last  November) I have tried to keep my intellectual capacities running if only through reading and not much writing. In a few days we as a nation will remember the Reverend Martin Luther King and his major contributions to American society. I confess that my awareness of King is not very systematic, and I am reminded every semester how much less each generation seems to know of him and his legacy. Dr. King gave many speeches over his brief public career, and recently the American Psychological Association posted his address to this organization and to all American social scientists. As the webpage summary puts into context, this speech was delivered on September 1, 1967. Seven months later, his talk was about to be published in the Journal of Social Issues (Vol. 24- still running today) when the news rang out of his assassination in Memphis, TN.

It’s worth a read for those interested in the way one of the great leaders of the 20th century brought together global conflict, social scientific research, and contemporary national issues together for an audience of social scientists. The Rev. Dr. King did not hold back his criticism of the efforts of social scientists, particularly sociologists, who likely supported the cause but had radically different solutions. I mention both of titles of “Rev.” and “Dr.” because as you will see these credentials were not without warrant. He is one of the few I have seen to deftly combine theological concepts with social science and politics. In the following I share some of the quotes from his speech. King first opens up with the importance of social science research for the African American and white communities:

If the Negro needs social sciences for direction and for self-understanding, the white society is in even more urgent need. White America needs to understand that it is poisoned to its soul by racism and the understanding needs to be carefully documented and consequently more difficult to reject. The present crisis arises because although it is historically imperative that our society take the next step to equality, we find ourselves psychologically and socially imprisoned. All too many white Americans are horrified not with conditions of Negro life but with the product of these conditions-the Negro himself.

He then retells the events of the past 15 years (1950s-1967) and one of the major consequences of addressing racism head on:

The decade of 1955 to 1965, with its constructive elements, misled us. Everyone, activists and social scientists, underestimated the amount of violence and rage Negroes were suppressing and the amount of bigotry the white majority was disguising.

Science should have been employed more fully to warn us that the Negro, after 350 years of handicaps, mired in an intricate network of contemporary barriers, could not be ushered into equality by tentative and superficial changes.

King was keenly aware of the way social scientists think and introduced institutional racism into the conversation. While many social scientists advocated change, few of the applications of that advocacy anticipated what would happen next. Urban riots were rampant especially in northern cities and King notes that systemic racism as the cultural context in which these events occur. Quoting from Victor Hugo (yes the one who wrote Les Miserables)

A profound judgment of today’s riots was expressed by Victor Hugo a century ago. He said, ‘If a soul is left in the darkness, sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness.’

In an unexpected (to me) turn, he then addresses the problematic American presence in Vietnam. It is at this point that he utters the phrase seen on many bumper stickers and Facebook memes:

It is my deep conviction that justice is indivisible, that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

King mentions Vietnam through a play on the word segregation. As he states:  “I can only respond that I have fought too hard and long to end segregated public accommodations to segregate my own moral concerns.” King was clearly seeing a much bigger picture in his last years connecting the struggle for equality in America with the struggles for equality throughout the world, and perhaps more specifically for a more just world when the powerful manipulate, exploit and kill the less powerful. Several paragraphs later, King turns his attention to the social scientific community:

Now there are many roles for social scientists in meeting these problems. Kenneth Clark has said that Negroes are moved by a suicide instinct in riots and Negroes know there is a tragic truth in this observation. Social scientists should also disclose the suicide instinct that governs the administration and Congress in their total failure to respond constructively.

Social science may be able to search out some answers to the problem of Negro leadership. E. Franklin Frazier, in his profound work, Black Bourgeoisie, laid painfully bare the tendency of the upwardly mobile Negro to separate from his community, divorce himself from responsibility to it, while failing to gain acceptance in the white community. There has been significant improvements from the days Frazier researched, but anyone knowledgeable about Negro life knows its middle class is not yet bearing its weight. Every riot has carried strong overtone of hostility of lower class Negroes toward the affluent Negro and vice versa. No contemporary study of scientific depth has totally studied this problem. Social science should be able to suggest mechanisms to create a wholesome black unity and a sense of peoplehood while the process of integration proceeds.

As one example of this gap in research, there are no studies, to my knowledge, to explain adequately the absence of Negro trade union leadership. Eight-five percent of Negroes are working people. Some two million are in trade unions but in 50 years we have produced only one national leader-A. Philip Randolph.

Discrimination explains a great deal, but not everything. The picture is so dark even a few rays of light may signal a useful direction.

I wonder if King would have been pleased with the social science research that emerged 20 years after his passing showing the effects of racial and class segregation. King’s second area that social scientists could support the civil rights cause was in political action. He cited several studies that have examined political activism (i.e. galvanizing more African Americans to vote and create a bloc):

The need for a penetrating massive scientific study of this subject cannot be overstated. Lipset in 1957 asserted that a limitation in focus in political sociology has resulted in a failure of much contemporary research to consider a number of significant theoretical questions. The time is short for social science to illuminate this critically important area. If the main thrust of Negro effort has been, and remains, substantially irrelevant, we may be facing an agonizing crisis of tactical theory.

His third area of research he suggested was psychological and ideological change among African Americans.

Social science is needed to explain where this development is going to take us. Are we moving away, not from integration, but from the society which made it a problem in the first place? How deep and at what rate of speed is this process occurring? These are some vital questions to be answered if we are to have a clear sense of our direction.

He then turns his argument toward a particular solution offered by a sociologist. He prefaces this section of his talk by first mentioning African American patriotism:

As I have said time and time again, Negroes still have faith in America. Black people still have faith in a dream that we will all live together as brothers in this country of plenty one day.

But I was distressed when I read in the New York Times of Aug. 31, 1967; that a sociologist from Michigan State University, the outgoing president of the American Sociological Society, stated in San Francisco that Negroes should be given a chance to find an all Negro community in South America: ‘that the valleys of the Andes Mountains would be an ideal place for American Negroes to build a second Israel.’ He further declared that ‘The United States Government should negotiate for a remote but fertile land in Equador, Peru or Bolivia for this relocation.’

I feel that it is rather absurd and appalling that a leading social scientist today would suggest to black people, that after all these years of suffering an exploitation as well as investment in the American dream, that we should turn around and run at this point in history. I say that we will not run! Professor Loomis even compared the relocation task of the Negro to the relocation task of the Jews in Israel. The Jews were made exiles. They did not choose to abandon Europe, they were driven out. Furthermore, Israel has a deep tradition, and Biblical roots for Jews. The Wailing Wall is a good example of these roots. They also had significant financial aid from the United States for the relocation and rebuilding effort. What tradition does the Andes, especially the valley of the Andes Mountains, have for Negroes?

King’s geopolitical and historical synthesis is remarkable, and undoubtedly his theological training helped him to some extent. Here’s the paper that King was referring to. His point is well taken and speaks to the problem of suggesting solutions to social inequality without much connection to the vulnerable communities most affected by those solutions. King concludes with his own take on social science research with a clever use of a widely used psychological concept, “maladjustment.” He first points out what’s so helpful about this term for American society, the need to root out destructive maladjustment. But then he turns this into a sociological issue:

But on the other hand, I am sure that we will recognize that there are some things in our society, some things in our world, to which we should never be adjusted. There are some things concerning which we must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will. We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence.

And he ends with the call for a new organization, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment, again invoking the Bible (specifically the Old Testament prophet Amos).

Thus, it may well be that our world is in dire need of a new organization, The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment. Men and women should be as maladjusted as the prophet Amos, who in the midst of the injustices of his day, could cry out in words that echo across the centuries, ‘Let justice roll down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream’; or as maladjusted as Abraham Lincoln, who in the midst of his vacillations finally came to see that this nation could not survive half slave and half free; or as maladjusted as Thomas Jefferson, who in the midst of an age amazingly adjusted to slavery, could scratch across the pages of history, words lifted to cosmic proportions, ‘We hold these truths to be self evident, that all men are created equal. That they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights. And that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.’ And through such creative maladjustment, we may be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man, into the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice.

Drawing together sacred scripture with major historical figures of America’s political arena, King masterfully conveyed a picture that is unapologetically American in its creativity, innovation and pragmatism. Knowing his audience, his suggestion of a new association fits well with the assumptions of the social science community: progress is collaborative and relies on cooperation among many minds. But he did so without getting bogged down with jargon, but rather appealed to their civic and religious sensibilities. In doing so I imagine he alienated some, caused others to reflect, and draw praise from others.

It would be interesting to have a conversation over the structure and aims of an AACM today, and a quick search on Google reveals that indeed such an organization exists. What do you think of King’s idea, could we use an Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment? Would we benefit with a collaborative network of scholars who help promote the cause for social justice by revealing the complexities of our ever-increasing societies? If so, what would it look like today?

The Top 11 from ’12: an Exceptional Year of Religious Research Studies in Sociology

 

Last year around this time I introduced readers to the way sociologists rank the visibility of their research. With new readers tracking BWG, I’d like to re-introduce some of the basics and then get to list making. One of the major tasks of research university professors is to publish studies that they have been working on between classes, class prep, administrative duties, committee work, grant applications, and the like.  Such research usually takes the form of a 30-50 page study of some phenomenon including tables and references to the previous research that one is building on. This study is submitted for “peer-review” which can entail a single-blind or double-blind review of one’s submission. Single-blind refers to the reviewer’s knowledge of the author(s) submitting the work, and double-blind refers to neither the reviewer(s) nor the author’s knowledge of one another in this process. Usually there are between 2 and 6 reviewers per article submitted. Given that there are hundreds, perhaps thousands of submissions, the academic research community has continually expanded the number of outlets in which one can submit a paper for possible publication. Last year there were 132 journals listed in the Journal Citation Reports Social Science Edition of Sociology journals. This year there are 138. Like most competitive forms of accomplishment, a hierarchy develops over time, and certain journals appear at the top- it’s these journals where one’s work gains the most recognition and visibility in the academic community.

Not surprisingly, few scholars can lay claim to have landed their work in this orbit, and the peer-review here is very critical and very thorough. Consequently, we often see little shifting in the ranks of the top journals from year to year. As a scholar who focuses on race and religion, it’s been an interesting challenge to keep track of the research on religion in particular in the top journals. Last year I noted that I had to review up to the top 18 journals before I could identify 11 studies that focused on religion. Readers may ask “why 11?” to which I quote from the cult classic Spinal Tap: “Because it’s one louder.”

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This year was a curious one and one perhaps we will not see for another decade. I scanned the article abstracts from the top 10 journals (skipping the 1 or 2 I had never heard of) this time in order to identify the top 11 studies of religion-related topics in sociology for 2012. But perhaps most striking of all is that 8 of the top 11 were found in the top two journals alone. This is unbelievable. The number in parentheses is the number of abstracts I found that mentioned religion.

Annual Review of Sociology (2)

American Sociological Review (6)

Annals of Tourism Research (skipped)

American Journal of Sociology (0)

Sociological Methodology (0)

Social Networks (0)

Gender and Society (2)

Population and Development Review (0)

Politics and Society (0)

Journal of Marriage and Family (1)

European Sociological Review (5)

Rural Sociology (0)

Notably I should have simply stopped at the Journal of Marriage and Family to get my top 11. But I had not seen the European Sociological Review before, and since it seemed analogous to the American Sociological Review I thought it couldn’t hurt to review that as well. To my surprise, I found 5 more studies that covered the topic of religion. So if ESR has the same kind of prestige as ASR (as the leading sociology journal in a nation or continent), 11 papers appeared from these two sources alone. This suggests that religion has truly come unto its own as a topic of relevance to social scientists, and it remains to be seen how such visibility will sustain itself in years to come.

Below are the references of these publications with a link to the abstract. In this list I also included items dealing with morality, a topic that has some overlap with religion; given the shared conceptual space between these terms I decided to include them both. Perhaps in the future studies in morality will be obviously distinct from religion, but for now I remain open to including both. As before, if readers chime in with their votes, I will do a post on the article of greatest interest to readers. Comment below!

These references by the way are listed according to appearance from oldest (or earliest in 2012) to most recent. Hats off to these scholars for their great work!

Edgell, Penny. 2012. “A Cultural Sociology of Religion: New Directions.” Annual Review of Sociology 38:247-265.

Voas, David and Fenella Fleishmann. 2012. “Islam Moves West: Religious Change in the First and Second Generations.” Annual Review of Sociology 38: 525-545.

Stets, Jan E. and Michael J. Carter. 2012. “A Theory of the Self for the Sociology of Morality”, American Sociological Review 77:120-140.

Kim, Hyojoung and Steven Pfaff. 2012. “Structure and Dynamics of Religious Insurgency: Students and the Spread of the Reformation.” American Sociological Review 77: 188-215.

Adamczyk, Amy and Brittany E. Hayes. 2012. “Religion and Sexual Behaviors: Understanding the Influence of Islamic Cultures and Religious Affiliation for Explaining Sex Outside of Marriage.” American Sociological Review 77: 723-746.

Lim, Chaeyoon and Carol Ann MacGregor. 2012. “Religion and Volunteering in Context: Disentangling the Contextual Effects of Religion on Voluntary Behavior.” American Sociological Review 77:747-779

Bail, Christopher A. 2012. “The Fringe Effect: Civil Society Organizations and the Evolution of Media Discourse About Islam Since the September 11th Attacks.” American Sociological Review 77: 855-879.

 Simko, Christina. 2012. “Rhetorics of Suffering: September 11 Commemorations as Theodicy.” American Sociological Review 77: 880-902. 

 Pande, Amrita. 2012. “From ‘Balcony Talk’ and ‘Practical Prayers’ to Illegal Collectives: Migrant Domestic Workers and Meso-Level Resistance in Lebanon.” Gender and Society 26: 382-405.

Sumereau, J. Edward. 2012. “’That’s What a Man is Supposed to Do’: Compensatory Manhood Acts in an LGBT Christian Church.” Gender and Society 26: 461-487.

Petts, Richard J. 2012. “Single Mothers’ Religious Participation and Early Childhood Behavior.” Journal of Marriage and Family 74: 251-268.

 

And here are links to the 5 articles I found in ESR:

Berghammer, Caroline. 2012. “Family Life Trajectories and Religiosity in Austria” European Sociological Review 28:127-144

Voicu, Malina 2012. “Effect of Nationalism on Religiosity in 30 European Countries.” European Sociological Review 28:333-343

van Eijck, Koen. 2012. “The Impact of Religious Identity and Social Orientations on Visuals Arts Appreciation.” European Sociological Review 28:394-407.

Stegmueller, Daniel, Peer Scheepers, Sigrid Robteutscher, and Eelke de Jong. 2012. “Support for Redistribution in Western Europe: Assessing the Role of Religion.” European Sociological Review 28:482-497.

Eichorn, Jan. 2012. “Happiness for Believers? Contextualizing the Effects of Religiosity on Life-Satisfaction.” European Sociological Review 28:583-593

 

Asian American Evangelicalism and Middle Class Individualism

About every 3 years or so, a collegiate parachurch ministry called Intervarsity Christian Fellowship holds a national week-long conference named after its original meeting place, Urbana. I was reminded that the next meeting would take place this winter break. It also helped remind me of some news pieces I had been meaning to read on how young Asian American evangelicals (like the ones who will attend Urbana 2012) think about race. In referring to young Asian American evangelicals it’s important to point out that this is a highly selective group. When we think about young white evangelicals for example, we normally don’t consider nativity, immigration, or physical appearance as salient characteristics of this group. Young Asian American evangelicals on the other hand are typically the first in their families to be born or raised in the US; according to the Pew Asian American Survey, while 68% of Asian Americans are Protestant Protestants are foriegn-born, 32% are native-born (and of the 32%, most (22%) are second-generation, and the remainder (10%) is multigenerational (p.172 of full report). Put in big numbers, if there are about 17 million Asian Americans, about 3.7 million are Protestant, and of these 822,800 approximately are second-generation Protestants. What’s more, since the most recent major immigration wave started around 1965, most second-generation Asian American evangelicals (as well as most second-generation Asian Americans in general) are children of baby boomer-era and pre-baby-boomer-era Asian immigrants. This means while post-baby-boomer white evangelicals were growing up and going to college in the 80s and 90s, the typical Asian American evangelical they might encounter would be second-generation.

As I posted recently, about 6% of undergraduates in the US are Asian American; if groups like Intervarsity were proportionally present on US college campuses, then about 1.3% of their target audience might be Asian American Protestant undergrads. From this perspective, we would not expect there to be a large Asian American presence in this organization. But that’s not the case since Intervarsity and other parachurch groups are more present in higher-profile schools than in smaller or lower-profile schools. It’s at these higher-profile schools where Asian Americans are generally over-represented in the aggregate racial figures. Even though only 22% of Asian Americans are Protestant, the greater presence of Asian Americans in high-profile schools increases the potential pool of participants in groups like Intervarsity. This explains to some extent why the proportion of Asian American evangelicals is so high in this organization. A glance at their website of Intervarsity’s Asian American ministries statistics we see the following:

  • 20% of the students who participate regularly with Intervarsity are Asian American (5,758) a 32% increase in the past 5 years
  • 29 Asian American monoethnic groups or chapters, and
  • 230 staff workers of Asian American descent

Judging by the comparative figures for Intervarsity’s African American and Latino student ministries, Asian Americans form the largest minority group in this religious organization.

(Nerds will notice that the figures don’t quite work out the way they should – The main organization’s statistics say there are 180 Asian American staff for example, and the number of Asian American students divided by the number of undergraduates who participate in this organization is more like 16%). While it’s hard to gauge the validity of numbers reported by these organizations, numerous news pieces and books have noted the remarkably high percentage of Asian American evangelicals in these organizations (see this previous post with links to some of these works).

In short, Intervarsity has placed staff and considerable resources toward developing Asian American evangelical spirituality. This has been part of their larger strategy to engage issues of racial and ethnic identity awareness in their ministry by developing multiethnic and monoethnic subgroups. This strategy reveals the complex reality of conveying a universal faith to the cultural particularities of a diverse audience. But in a provocative essay by Paul Matsushima (and reposted on racialicious – a blog site on race issues), providing resources aimed at cultivating ethnic identity awareness may not be enough, and its current efforts might be falling on deaf ears. He argues that Asian American evangelicals by and large are influenced by three social scripts: colorblindness (the view that differential social treatment of groups based on race has no bearing on life outcomes), individualism (life outcomes are strictly the result of personal effort alone), and middle-class identity (those who achieve middle class status are morally superior to those who remain in the working and lower classes). In each of these scripts, Matsushima provides examples of how evangelicalism justifies them through spiritualizing these beliefs. The poor are poor because of their immorality, not as a result of structural barriers, especially racialized structural barriers. Spiritualizing a script for American middle-class mobility has important consequences then for second-generation Asian American evangelicals. It would be one thing if the evangelical script had a balanced perspective that not only accounts for personal effort but also the contexts that limit opportunity for some but not for others. Sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith noted over a decade ago however, that this combination of beliefs creates a firm anti-structural frame of thinking of which African American Christians are perhaps the most immune.

This brings us back to Intervarsity and other parachurch groups. It’s clear that racial difference is on their radar, and they have made efforts to address racial difference through groups aimed at celebrating and understanding difference in multiethnic and monoethnic settings. But to what extent are these settings unintentionally reinforcing the same anti-structuralism that is pervasive in American evangelicalism as Matsushima and others ask? If they offer alternative scripts, is it a viable consideration for second-generation participants in these groups? I wonder whether Asian American evangelicals are aware of the particular advantages that many of them have from being born into highly educated families, or families that sacrificed a great deal to provide even better educational opportunities through entry into predominantly white neighborhoods and schools. How many of them have considered the possibility that they and their families were viewed as an acceptable minority in contradistinction from those other minorities who were denied the same opportunities. If they are aware of these advantages, I wonder if the response is very often an individualized one: give back to one’s parents through a successful high-paying prestigious career. In other words, I wonder whether many second-generation Asian American evangelicals (and other Asian Americans in this same social position) grow aware that their advantages result (in part) from colorblindness and anti-structuralism, and yet resolve it through a colorblind and anti-structural solution (e.g. avoiding social justice, focusing only on career).

Still Retreating from Race: Asian Americans in the Ivy League

 

“…claims that Asian American students were as well qualified but less likely than whites to gain entry to the elite schools set in motion a tedious debate over the definition of ‘excellence,’ ‘merit,’ and ‘diversity.’”

When do you think this was written? Would you believe it was 1992 when this first appeared in Dr. Dana Takagi’s Retreat From Race: Asian American Admissions and Racial Politics (p. 176)? This award-winning work chronicled the affirmative action and racial preference debates taking place at the elite level of higher education (the schools that are usually around the top 15 or 25 research university schools listed in US News and World Report). 

In it, Takagi shows that the political groups and actors involved in these arguments back in the 1980s and 1990s grew more and more mixed in their views on the merits of affirmative action and better alternatives to it (assuming it was not ameliorating social inequalities). As she states:

“Both conservatives and liberals support equal opportunity and abhor discrimination—but they disagree over how to achieve the former and how to discourage the latter. In the battleground over policy, the two leading strategies for achieving equal opportunity—racial preferences and color-blind policies—do not neatly correspond to conservative or liberal politics.” (184).

Part of the reason for this mixed response was the new complication of race that entered into the debate when Asian Americans were brought into what used to be a “white and black issue.” Takagi reminds us that the changes in Asian enrollment corresponded with changes in immigration that began in the 1960s. By 1980, Berkeley was already at 20% Asian enrollment whereas the US Asian population was hovering at around 3-4%. Much of this can be explained by immigration; highly educated and skilled workers such as nurses, engineers, laboratory scientists were recruited and hired from Asia; these adults brought their families to the US (or started them stateside). Parents with a lot of education usually encourage their children to  achieve similarly. Not surprisingly then, within about 15 years we saw an influx of high-test-scoring, multi-talented Asian young adults applying to Berkeley, Harvard, and Princeton.

But a new problem emerged. It seemed that while the Asian American population was increasing rapidly in size, there should have been more qualified applicants of Asian descent who should have entered the hallowed halls of the Ivy League and other elite institutions. But that did not appear to be the case. Many interpreted this as a case of outright discrimination, and indeed federal intervention analyzed the admissions data to see whether the ratio of applicants and admits disfavored Asian Americans over others. University officials pointed out that Asian American admissions were already disproportional to their presence in the population; further they were seen as uniformly “good but not exceptional,” lacking subjective qualities like “capacity for involvement, commitment, and personal growth.” (from Yale’s definition (see Takagi p.81)).

The use of admissions data, revealed the importance of interpretation. Evidence showed that admissions of Asian Americans were capped regardless of the size of the Asian applicant pool. Some argued that this was discrimination, but others argued that this was a reflection of diversity initiatives. The latter argument asserts that there are many kinds of excellent students and the limit on Asian American acceptance was a reflection of that. Again “good but not exceptional.” Neoconservatives who once argued that affirmative action was “reverse discrimination” in which whites were the victims, exchanged this picture with that of Asian Americans. From this perspective Asian Americans were now the victims of affirmative action, making African Americans the beneficiaries of anti-Asian discrimination. More insidious was the implied message that affirmative action replaced “quality” (i.e. Asian and white applicants) for color (i.e. black applicants). As Takagi narrates, liberal university officials were on the defensive:

“At pains to reassure their public that conservative claims about declining standards were not true, the proponents of liberalism zealously reiterated their commitment to individualism and merit.” (170)

This resulted in a concession that the best way forward was to support the neoconservative solution of having admissions policy based on class, rather than race.

Does this sound familiar? Takagi’s study came to mind when I was reflecting on the debates going on in the New York Times recently over “Fears of an Asian Quota in the Ivy League.” The central question asked: “Are top colleges limiting the number of Asian-Americans they admit?” The question behind that question is: if it’s true, what’s the justification? The perceived restriction of Asian American admissions to the Ivy League returns.

What’s changed since the 1990s to 2012 in terms of admissions at elite higher education institutions? Publisher Ron Unz shows the Asian American enrollment levels in the Ivy League dropped from a high of 20% in 1993 to 16% and has remained level since then, as seen in the image capture below taken from his lengthy article.

The main change is that the population of 18-21 year-old Asian Americans has continued to climb (again due to continued high immigration and regular birth rates). Assuming that the recruiting of highly-skilled, highly-educated immigrants hasn’t changed, there are likely more eligible bright Asian American young people who should qualify for the ranks of Harvard and Berkeley. As Unz points out, Caltech is the only school that has kept pace with population growth in comparison to the Ivy League schools. What’s the difference? Caltech, a primarily math, science and engineering school admits applicants based on merit, almost exclusively.

Notice that the same pattern we saw in the late 1980s to the 1990s in the discourse seems similar to the one we’re seeing now almost 20 years later. Data is presented to illustrate 1) a disproportional presence of Asian Americans in the elite schools, and 2) a flatlining of Asian enrollment levels at these schools, beginning roughly around 1995. Neoconservatives again interpret the disparity as evidence of anti-Asian discrimination via affirmative action; liberals point out that there is no evidence of discrimination via affirmative action. As Khin Mai Aung, director of the educational equity program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, points out,

“Affirmative action “simply allows admissions officers to consider an applicant’s racial background in a limited way as one of a myriad of factors that make up who he or she is. It neither condones nor facilitates racial discrimination and quotas.”

Whether or not an informal quota is actually placed on Asian American admissions into the Ivy League, it’s important to stress that 1) this is an extremely rarefied set of schools, 2) it is not a result of affirmative action. Using the dynamics of these schools as an explanation for the dismantling of affirmative action is really dangerous. To put this in numerical perspective, data from the National Center for Educational Statistics for 2011 shows that white non-Hispanic enrollment in degree-granting institutions was about 61% or 12.7 million out of 21 million students. For African Americans it was 14.5%, Latinos 13% and Asian/Pacific Islanders 6.1%. By this count, Latinos are underrepresented by about 3 percentage points relative to their presence in the US. Asian Americans are about on par with their population.

If race is allowed as a consideration for admission at schools that are just below (or a good deal below) the super-elite schools, then maybe we should consider how affirmative action works generally, rather than extrapolating from Harvard and Yale. The question of why the Asian American enrollment levels are compressed in the Ivy League is an important one to be sure, but this concern should not be conflated with the effectiveness of affirmative action overall.

The top schools to a certain extent reveal the tensions of reflecting the dual values of merit and diversity, as noted by Takagi and others. Two interesting solutions have been proposed. Sociologist Carolyn Chen advocates a hybrid system that utilizes affirmative action for underrepresented groups, and a merit system for whites and Asians.  This approach protects the potential opportunity for those groups who remain at a significant social disadvantage in America today. It changes the terms of admission for those other groups by placing them on a level playing field such that subjective factors are secondary to objective merit factors. When applied to the Ivy League, this may have the effect of readjusting the enrollment levels of Asian American undergraduates. Unz’s solution (pp.41-44 of his essay) is what he terms the Inner and Outer Ring solution. Super-elite schools should use merit criteria for 20% of each entering class and a lottery for the remaining 80%. In the latter, applicants must still pass certain minimal merit credentials, but since most of these Ivy League applicants will meet them, a lottery solves the problem of using subjective variables, as well as potential bias in admissions officers (he cites corruption and cronyism at work in the admissions processes at the Ivy League). Whether these are workable solutions remains to be seen, but in the deliberations over affirmative action, it’s important to distinguish the debate that takes place at the very top of higher education and the realities that occur further down the ivory tower. I suspect that solutions that make sense for elite schools will not be the same for lower tier schools, and hopefully our courts will know the difference.

 

 

 


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