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Character’s New Color

By Matthew Yglesias on September 14, 2006 at 11:07 am

"Character’s New Color"

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David Bell reminds us a bit about the history of the college application essay:

Essays are supposed to reveal an applicant’s “character,” but in fact they have been tainted goods ever since universities started using them to evaluate applicants. Last year, in his history The Chosen, Jerome Karabel demonstrated once and for all that Harvard, Yale and Princeton first started putting an emphasis on “character” in admissions in the first have of the twentieth century as a way of keeping out Jews. Blond Protestant boys from good families who played football, sailed, and didn’t bother studying too hard had “good character”; thin Jewish boys from immigrant households who spent all their time reading and arguing did not. That prejudice disappeared from the admissions process long ago, but more recently the application essay has been corrupted from another direction: by wealthy parents who hire consultants for tens of thousands of dollars to game the system, “advising” students on their essays (i.e. writing them), and also arranging for just the right range of activities and “experiences” to make the essays compelling to admissions officers.

This is true, but I think people tend to breeze too quickly past the point where Bell claims that “that prejudice disappeared from the admissions process long ago.” It’s true that the particular pressure to limit the number of Jewish students at elite colleges has disappeared from the admissions process, but the uncomfortable reality is that it’s been replaced by a system designed — whether intentionally or not — to limit the number of Asian students at the very same college.


Now, discrimination against Asians isn’t super-severe. If it was, you’d see fewer Asian Americans in the Ivy League than you see in the country at large. In reality, you see more Asians. But the same was true of Jews back in the day — they were both discriminated against and overrepresented. And the mechanisms of discrimination are largely the same. Legacy preferences disadvantage Asians as a group. So do preferences for athletes. So do preferences for African-Americans and Hispanics. And so do “geographical diversity” preferences. Graduates of selective public magnet schools with high concentrations of Asians (places like Stuyvesant in NYC) are discriminated against vis-a-vis graduates of expensive private schools with few Asians (places like Dalton where I went). Consequently, the grades and test scores of the average Asian American student at an elite college are significantly higher than those of the non-Asians.

I’m not sure that “prejudice” as such is the best frame through which to view this process. If you were genuinely just trying to keep the Jews (or, today, the Asians) down, you would discriminate enough against the disfavored group to actually keep them underrepresented. But, as I say, Jews were overrepresented at these places despite anti-Jewish admissions criteria just as are Asians today.

What happens is that you have a traditional social and economic elite confronted with an immigrant sociocultural group containing a disproportionately large number of academically accomplished youngsters. The traditional elite doesn’t want to let itself be overwhelmed by rising groups. But it also doesn’t want to discriminate against them so severely that the traditional elite’s traditional institutions lose their elite status. Consequently, measures are adopted to ensure that the very most talented members of the new group attend the traditional elite’s traditional institutions — thus ensuring that the Ivy League’s role in the American social system is not threatened. At the same time, you keep their numbers low enough so that the prevailing social climate at the traditional institutions is dominated by members of the traditional elite. As a result, the new elites assimilate to the values and folkways of the traditional elite and strive to identify themselves with it.

I think it’s fair to consider this process fairly insidious, but prejudice isn’t really what it is. Rather, it’s a process of cooptation of “model” minority groups.

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