During the summer of 1973, the renowned civil rights attorney Joseph Rauh, Jr. delivered the featured speech at the annual fund-raising dinner of the Milwaukee Jewish Council. The audience, Rauh noted, surely expected him to address the burgeoning Watergate scandal, the attempt by Republican operatives tied to President Richard Nixon to break into Democratic National Committee offices during the 1972 campaign. Revulsion at Nixon was something a great many Jews could and did agree upon.
Instead, Rauh proceeded to bite the hands that were feeding him. “I want to express my deep and anguished concern that for the first time in my remembrance,” he said, “Jews and Jewish organizations are largely on the wrong side of the great civil rights issues of the day.”
Rauh went on to mention housing discrimination and bussing to desegregate public schools. But it was the last item in his list — affirmative action — that was arguably the most important factor splintering the mainstream of American Jewry from the African-Americans with whom it had both explicitly and implicitly allied in the Civil Rights Movement. In fact, by the mid-1970s, affirmative action, especially in college admissions, was understood in many Jewish circles to be a quota against Jews, tantamount to anti-Semitism.
Forty-five years after Rauh’s plaintive censure of his Milwaukee audience, a fictional descendant named Charlie Rosen-Mason stiff-leggedly stalked across the stage of “Admissions,” the penetrating drama by Joshua Harmon now playing at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater. The son of two prep-school educators — his WASP father Bill the headmaster, his Jewish mother Sherri the admissions director — Charlie has just learned that he’s been wait-listed by Yale. Meanwhile, his dream school has admitted Charlie’s best friend, the biracial son of a black teacher.
The drama that spins around that catalytic plot point makes for a compelling night of theater, in which liberal pieties about diversity are twisted, poked, and skewered and hardly any character escapes as anything less than a hypocrite. (“Admissions,” which runs through May 6, also has been nominated for a Drama Desk award.) It is a piece not just of art but social history, and as such, Harmon’s play speaks in piercingly specific ways about the persistence of the affirmative-action debate and about the shape-shift of American Jews over the past century from underdog to lapdog.
Stymied by Yale, Charlie howls out an appeal to meritocracy, or what passes for it in the cynical and calculated system of admissions to elite colleges. “His grades are not better than mine,” Charlie says of his friend Perry. “His SAT scores are not better than mine. I actually do like a million more extra-curriculars, he just does that like computer science club which isn’t even a club and basketball and baseball, and we’re basically equally good…I take three AP’s he only takes two and, and maybe he did like ten extra hours during Stockings for Care but, that doesn’t get you into Yale.”
Of course, Charlie and his parents understand all too well the racial elephant in this particular room, and finally he calls it out: “You better explain to me what a person of color is, and like, why I’m not one of them, cause my Mom’s dad had to escape before like half his family was murdered by Nazis, but now when we all apply to college, I go in the shit pile too, even though my grandfather couldn’t get into an Ivy League seventy years ago because they had super intense quotas against Jews, but — shocker! — they found a new way to keep Jews out: they just made us white instead.”
The details in Harmon’s script resonate with the force of history. While quotas against Jews pervaded elite colleges in the decades before World War II, Yale has loomed especially large in that tawdry saga. Dan A. Oren unearthed much evidence in his groundbreaking 1988 book about Jews at Yale, “Joining the Club.” Seven years later, the sociologist Jerome Karabel confirmed and broadened Oren’s assertions in “The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Havard, Yale, and Princeton.” Under the guise of seeking young men of character, rather than mere eggheads, the Ivy League’s big three kept Jewish enrollment in single digits through the 1920s and 1930s.
With the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany, even the more genteel Gentlemen’s Agreement brand of upper-class anti-Semitism in America was discredited. Meanwhile, the advent of standardized testing under such powerful patrons as President James Conant of Harvard forged a definition of “merit” that focused on measurable academic achievement more than any other factor. Thus were the gates that guarded inherited advantage thrown open for talented Jewish students from working-class city neighborhoods and aspirational suburbs.
The wave of civil rights activity from the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956 to the passage of the Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act nearly a decade later brought African-Americans and American Jews into a partnership that was both idealistic and pragmatic. For many of those politically engaged Jews, the premise of the movement was that, once legal segregation was dismantled, color would no longer matter and equal opportunity would be achieved. When President John F. Kennedy had first put the phrase “affirmative action” into the national political lexicon in 1961, he did not explain what it constituted and for whom it was intended.
But the slain Kennedy’s successor, President Lyndon B. Johnson, who pushed through the landmark civil rights laws, offered a very different vision in a commencement speech at Howard University, a historically black institution, in June 1965. In its most famous passage, he said: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.” The next stage of the civil rights struggle, Johnson concluded, had to be “equality as a fact and equality as a result.”
As the concept worked its way through American society, even during the relatively conservative Nixon presidency, controversy increased. Efforts to bring racial equality to labor unions and construction sites, for example, tended to pit African-Americans against white ethnic Catholics, who had dominated those fields. In higher education, the most significant and unexpected opponents of civil rights activists were the major organizations of American Jewry.
Two Supreme Court cases — one involving a Jewish plaintiff, Mario De Funis, in 1974, and the other a gentile, Allan Bakke in 1977-78 — turned on the issue of whether qualified white applicants were rejected from graduate professional schools in favor of less-qualified black students. (For De Funis, it was University of Washington law school, for Bakke the medical school at University of California, Davis.)
Because De Funis v. Odegaard was mooted by the high court, Bakke v. Regents of the University of California became the potentially decisive one. As the court weighed the case, the pillars of the American Jewish establishment — the American Jewish Congress, the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee — filed briefs against affirmative action. Typical was the ADL’s brief, which quoted its own earlier amicus brief in De Funis:
“The history of the racial quota is a history of subjugation, not beneficence. Its evil lies not in its name but in its effect; a quota is a divider of society, a creator of castes, and it is all the worse for its racial base, especially in a society desperately striving for an equality that will make race irrelevant.”
Ultimately, the Supreme Court handed down a divided verdict. It ruled that rigid quotas – the UC-Davis medical school reserved 16 of its 100 slots for racial minorities – violated the Constitution. But it upheld the consideration of race as a factor in admissions.
The balance between those tenets remained highly contested. A quarter-century after the Bakke case, the Supreme Court took on the most significant challenge to race-conscious admissions in the linked cases of Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger, both of which dealt with admissions to the University of Michigan.
This time, however, the American Jewish Committee, Hadassah and seven other leading American Jewish organizations filed on the University of Michigan’s behalf, citing precedents, including the Talmud, in arguing for diversity’s importance to democracy. As the AJC brief put it:
“Diversity not only provides all students with a richer educational experience, but also prepares them for participation in our pluralistic democracy. Exposure in universities to those of diverse backgrounds and experiences will equip those graduates who go on to become the leaders of our future.”
One could explain this seeming reversal in strictly legal terms. The Michigan affirmative action program, unlike the one at issue in Bakke, did not reserve a specific number of admissions for minorities. It was not, in other words, a quota.
One could point out that, in the years between the cases, civil rights advocates had largely replaced the polarizing term “affirmative action” with the more popular one of “diversity.” Some of the normally conservative institutions in American society — the military, major corporations — had embraced diversity as a means of creating unity, whether as a way of unifying a fighting force or appealing to a multi-racial consumer base.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, one could say that from the mid-1970s to the early 2000s — and even more so since then — Jews had grown so prosperous and entrenched in the American upper-middle and upper classes that they no longer felt threatened by affirmative action under any euphemism. As Ivy Leaguers for a generation or more, Jews were now the ones getting their children admitted as “legacies.” The leading Jewish day schools boasted admissions officers as wired into top-tier universities as the famous WASP prep schools. Affluent Jewish families could easily afford the test-prep classes and private college-admissions consultants that rig the game of putative meritocracy. Jared Kushner, who was admitted into Harvard after his family made a multi-million donation, is the face of what meritocracy has mutated into.
As Charlie himself so pointedly says, in the racial binary of American privilege, Jews are now white. Diversity may seem like the visible risk to Jewish advancement into elite colleges. In fact, Jews would have far more to lose if — as the former New York City public-school chancellor Harold Levy recently proposed in a New York Times essay — legacy was stricken as a factor in college admissions. Now that Jews are winning at the WASP’s game, nobody is in such a hurry to cry foul.
Harmon’s play convincingly argues that the balancing act of Jewish self-interest and Jewish social conscience wobbles with contradiction. Charlie’s parents firmly want to believe that their joint efforts to attract nonwhite students to their prep school, Hillcrest, can coexist with their son enjoying the unexamined benefits of social capital and family connections.
Sherri and Bill uncork wine to celebrate Hillcrest hitting a 20-percent nonwhite enrollment — even as Charlie troubles the waters by asking just what and whom exactly counts as a person of color. Is the fair-skinned daughter of a Chilean ambassador the embodiment of diversity or the descendant of conquistador extermination? Do Asian-Americans count as white or not?
Lest it seem like Harmon has written a skillful indictment of diversity for the Jewish right, he doubles back repeatedly against every character and every premise. Set in contemporary middle-class America, “Admissions” at its heart operates in the tradition of the British “play of ideas,” a form that runs from George Bernard Shaw to David Hare. And like Hare in such works as “Skylight” and “A Map of the World,” Harmon reserves some of his powerful soliloquies for characters who probably oppose his private, personal opinions. That is the difference, of course, between art and agitprop.
For all their paeans to diversity, Bill and Sherri have to acknowledge that their school has favored “the kids of wealthy white alums, wealthy siblings and legacies, even…a few of the boys on our football team.” Once his own rage has subsided, Charlie tells her his mother, “I don’t know if every student of color here is a genius, but I do know there’s a shit-ton of idiot white kids sitting in that cafeteria.”
As for Charlie, Sherri and Bill strategize how to play on their contacts in college admissions offices to get their boy into, if not Yale, a certifiably selective liberal-arts school. It would be a spoiler to reveal how Charlie responds. Suffice it to say that there’s more than one way to make a Jewish mother cry.
Samuel G. Freedman, a contributing editor of the Forward, is the author of eight books, including “Jew vs. Jew: The Struggle for the Soul of American Jewry.”