In this episode of the 10 Blocks podcast, City Journal editor Brian Anderson and Dennis Saffran discuss how the Ivy League discriminates against top-achieving students. Read “Fewer Asians Need Apply.”

Audio Transcript

Brian: Conversations about campus diversity are sweeping the nation and raising questions about race based admissions preferences for universities. In one of the most striking developments, students have filed a federal complaint against Harvard University for anti-Asian bias, charging the school and other leading universities with having a negative quota on the number of Asian students admitted. Joining our show today to discuss how the Ivy League discriminates against top achieving students is Dennis Saffran, a queens based appellate attorney and former GOP candidate for the New York City council. We’ll start today’s discussion from Dennis’s controversial City Journal article “Fewer Asians Need Apply,” from our Winter Issue and available on our website. Thanks for joining us Dennis.

Dennis: You are quite welcome Brian.

Brian: Asians have been the fastest growing racial group in the United States. What impact has that growth made on the racial demographics of higher education in the country?

Dennis: Well unfortunately it hasn’t made nearly as much impact as it should have. Among the statistics cited in this suit and that are available elsewhere is that even though Asians, and particularly young Asians particularly the college cohort, is by far the fastest growing racial group, the Asian percentage at the elite universities has just flatlined, has remained steady in the 14% to 19% range over the last 15/20 years, after dropping precipitously in the few years before that. And it’s a trend, as I show and as they document in the federal complaint, that just uncannily parallels the imposition of Jewish quotas at these same universities back in the 1920s.

Brian: The discrimination suit against Harvard is based on the hope that the Supreme Court will overturn affirmative action programs in universities. Could you speak a bit about the Supreme Court history of racial preferences and where that stands right now?

Dennis: Sure. I’ll try not to get too much into the weeds but this lawsuit expressly asks the Supreme Court to overturn it’s famous ruling in the Bakke case from 1978 that, while there were about 8 different opinions and it’s very complex, essentially ruled that racial preferences were ok because they served a compelling interest of racial diversity, and no other justification was suitable. This is where the frenzy about diversity comes from. It was first cited in the Bakke case. And so they held that diversity is a compelling interest that can justify racial preferences. 25 years later in the Grutter case the court essentially reaffirmed that holding while making the test a little bit stricter. Then four years ago in the Fisher v. University of Texas case, the first go round, they are currently having a second go round of that at the Supreme Court. They narrowed the test even more in a way that’s very relevant and very significant. They said that a college, to justify racial preferences, not only had to show that they were necessary to achieve diversity, but they had to show that there were no race neutral alternatives that could achieve the same goal.

Fisher is now back up before the supreme court. It was a controversial argument that Justice Scalia took part in two months ago. It may be deferred now to wait for a ninth member of the court.

Brian: But how would you predict the court coming down after Scalia’s death, in the second iteration of this case?

Dennis: It looks like one significant thing is that Justice KAGEN has also recused herself, and did on the first FISHER Iteration, because she was solicitor general and took part in the case. So the usual four-four-one split you expect in the court with Kennedy being the one swing vote, we now have a breakdown of three to three to one with Kennedy expected. . . He tends to be a little more conservative on affirmative action. . . expected to side with the conservatives. If they vote on it and if Kennedy indeed sides with the remaining conservatives on the court then you would have a four/three vote to strike down racial preferences. So I don’t know if it would be as broad a decision as actually overturning Bakke or simply saying that the courts didn’t actually apply the even stricter scrutiny test that was required in Fisher one.

Brian: California has banned racial preferences in public schools, public universities. How does the application process at campuses in the University of California system, places like Berkley, UCLA, Davis, Irvine. How does that compare to the process as it’s taking place these days in the ivy league schools?

Dennis: Well, as I show in the article and as the plaintiffs show in this complaint, there is a striking difference between the admission rates, particularly for Asians at the top UC campuses, Davis Irvine, San Diego, the others, at UCLA, and also at the private Cal-Tech which isn’t affected by Prop 209 that banned racial preferences in California, but has long selected only based on merit. It’s the only elite campus in the country that does select only based on merit, and you see that whereas the trend of Asian population at these campuses has exactly tracked the percentage of top achieving students on the SATs which is now in excess of 40% Asian, those who get, I forget what it is, say 1500s on their SAT’s and apply to elite schools are something like 45% Asian and the population at the top UC Campuses and at Cal Tech has gone up exactly in parallel with that trend.

Brian: Has the system moved towards a more merit based application process?

Dennis: Yes, but at the elite schools it has, as I said before it, actually dropped and then it just flatlined at 14% to 19%.

Brian: You couldn’t find a more liberal or progressive group of people than the educators at Ivy League schools and the officials there. How do they justify this anti-merit stance when it comes to Asians? And do they see themselves as being bigoted in any way?

Dennis: Of course not or not overtly. The first way they justify it is just to deny it. They expressly deny that there are any race quotas or any race preferences but as they always even before, even when this was viewed just as a white/black issue as they would still like to view it as they always have. They deny it and then they say, but we need diversity. It gets a little more difficult here because Asians are diverse. They are a racial minority. They are a racial minority that has undergone systemic discrimination in our country. But essentially they deny it, but what’s lurking even behind that is you do find a subtle but very real anti-Asian bias that they would never admit on the part of these university officials. You see that in the admissions, the notes of the admissions officials. You see it in the comments of the admissions officials employing these Asian stereotypes like “textureless math grind, automatons, test-taking robots,’ the kind of stereotypes that would just be unimaginable in the case of any other minority group.

Brian: Well you had mentioned a few moments ago Harvard’s earlier history of discrimination against Jewish students. There is a striking parallel here. Could you say a little bit more about that earlier history?

Dennis: What you find there is that it’s a similar trend with Asians. The Jewish population at Harvard in particular, but you find basically the same pattern at some of the other Ivies, was going up steadily as with the rise of Jewish immigration to a point where it reached 25% 27% Asian at Harvard, I’m sorry, Jewish at Harvard in 1925. At that point for several years before that there had been consternation about this among the faculty. Back in those days faculty and college administrators were not liberal they were forthrightly reactionary and they were horrified by the rise of the Jews.

Harvard Professor Lowell had been specifically trying to do something about it for about five years before that. He’d proposed a quota that his faculty had tabled. What they did was never to impose a formal quota but they imposed a quite rigid informal quota by relying on so-called subjective tests of character.

They wanted boys of good character which meant of course good WASP boys. Harvard had never had interviews before. They introduced interviews. They had never had essays before. They introduced essays. They had never focused on extra curricular before. They started focusing on that. And Lowell was very explicit about the purpose of this being to keep down the Jews and bring in his type of protestant old money elite.

Brian: Do you think a growing recognition of how schools are doing an end run around merit to keep Asian American numbers limited, could that lead to a greater civic involvement on the part of this particular demographic? Could it politicize Asians in a way?

Dennis: I hope so. The history is not encouraging though. The fact is Asian Americans continue to be or have become despite this discrimination and despite other conflicts, violence against Korean stores for instance, have become a reliable Democratic voting block. Indeed 30 years ago they weren’t. The first wave of Asian immigrants who were registered to vote were predominantly Republican, and in the last election I believe they voted 74% for Obama. So that’s something that the Republican party has got to address but more than any other ethnic group it seems that they should be voting the other way. They are certainly voting for a party that is not looking out for their interests.

Brian: You’re an attorney as I’d mentioned earlier. What got you interested in this issue of racial preferences and about this particular story?

Dennis: It’s not so much a legal interest as an attorney other than a concern for basic fairness. It’s something I had been following for a while. I first.. Well I followed this trend about discrimination against Asians on campuses for 20 years that people have been talking about it, but then, as you know, we had a very parallel issue here in New York City, still do, with the selection process for New York City’s elite high schools like Stuyvesant and Bronx Science where. . . which is now a purely merit based process of admission, just based on a single test and so-called progressives and Mayor De Blasio have been trying to get rid of that and substitute the same so-called holistic standards that are being used to keep down the Asian population at colleges. It’s something I tried to make an issue when I ran for city council. As you know I wrote an article about that in City Journal, so this concern about the broader discrimination against Asians was a natural outgrowth of that.

Brian: Dennis Saffran has a new City Journal article entitled “Fewer Asians Need Apply.” That’s what we have been discussing. It’s in our winter issue and is available on our website You can tweet your comments and questions about today’s discussion to @CityJournal with the hashtag #10blocks. Thank you again, Dennis, for joining us.

Dennis: You are quite welcome. Thanks for inviting me.

Photo: jorgeantonio/iStock

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