Last Friday, the New York Times revealed that a lawsuit targeting Harvard University claims the school has systematically discriminated against minorities. That is, one particular minority. The school, it was alleged, has handicapped Asian-American students. Otherwise, they’d have to accept too many qualified Asian-Americans. For a peculiar type of activist for social equality, this was the good kind of prejudice–the kind that privileges accidents of birth over individual merit and achievement. Or, in the soft, docile Newspeak that suffices to comfort the enlightened elites charged with keeping the deserving down: “racial balancing.”
Harvard has objected to the allegations and provided statistics that purport to show that no negative racial discrimination exists. But many of those who you might expect to defend this elite institution are, in fact, comfortable with negative discrimination, even if the victims of that process are minorities themselves.
That’s the logic evinced by Minh-Ha T. Pham, a media studies professor at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute and, as her bio prominently notes, a parent of a student in New York City’s school system. That note is important—more important than her background as a scholar of Asian-American studies because her argument in the New York Times is that her child deserves to be disadvantaged in the name of social leveling.
You see, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has introduced a plan to depopulate the city’s most prestigious high schools of the disproportionately high number of Asian students in the hopes of privileging more black and Latino students who otherwise cannot compete. Asian-American parents are, quite understandably, outraged by the naked effort to punish their hard work and rob their offspring of all the opportunities their work should, by rights, afford them. Not Professor Pham, though. Her eyes are wide open.
Pham argues that de Blasio’s plan to reserve seats at prestigious high schools for students who score below the threshold for admittance on a standardized test—and, ultimately, to eliminate the test altogether—“isn’t anti-Asian, it’s anti-racist.” But she appears to conflate racism with interclass disparities. Pham even notes that success on standardized testing can be a reflection of the resources some parents are or are not able to devote to their children’s’ study. For some on the left, the distinctions between racism and classism are fairly blurred, so Prof. Pham may not see the confusion her argument inspires among the uninitiated. Nor does she tackle a 2016 mayor’s office report, which found that New York City’s Asian-American population has the city’s highest poverty rate. Whether it’s Harvard University or Stuyvesant High School, these are often first-generation students who have seen what they’ve worked for stolen from them because they were simply too successful in the endeavor.
Pham goes on to preen about how all schools in New York City should be “elite schools,” a fluffy sentiment that, in practice, renders all the institutions she’s disparaging equally bad. She adds that Asian-Americans have not suffered from the kind of racism that black Americans have historically endured and with which they still struggle. “[T]oo many Asians have chosen to preserve the status quo by buying into racism against blacks and the white supremacist system built on it,” Pham laments. Therefore, she concludes, Asian Americans should commit to “fighting” the system, even if that means passively accepting the back seat on the bus.
At this point, we need to be reminded that the controversy here isn’t over whether American minorities deserve to benefit from positive social leveling but whether qualified Asian-Americans are benefiting too much from meritocracy. Professor Pham has managed to erect an elaborate intellectual construct to convince her of the righteousness of her view, but she will probably find it hard to get support beyond her overeducated peer group. If her problem is that students acculturated in Asian immigrant households are simply better prepared for standardized tests, and that eliminating those tests might help level the playing field, that’s one thing. But Pham’s argument sprawls and contains attacks on all disparities. From racial disparities to economic disparities to qualitative disparities; her problem doesn’t seem to be inequality of opportunity but the fact that tiered and hierarchical societal institutions exist in the first place.
Pham is not just arguing against the ethos at the heart of the American idea; as the outraged Chinatown-based activist Karlin Chan said, de Blasio’s plan “attacks the immigrants’ dream of bettering their children.” She is arguing against human nature itself. “[S]ome Asian-American parents in New York are protesting this proposal,” Pham laments. “They are on the wrong side of this educational fight.” One of biology’s most powerful overriding genetic imperatives is the desire to create the most optimal conditions for one’s offspring. Not everyone can reason themselves into believing that depriving their children of the opportunities that may be their due is a necessary sacrifice to the arbitrary diktats of social justice. Where would this country be if they could?
For the last 300 years or so, the most fundamental distinction among Western political factions has been between those who think that mankind can be perfected and those who do not. Professor Pham believes that reason should trump biology, in this case, even if it leaves her progeny worse off. There is a reason that those who believed in humanity’s perfectibility—from the Jacobins to the Bolsheviks—all resorted to the compelling power of the state to impose their dogma. They have rationalized themselves into an entirely irrational position.