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Jews were once kept out of Harvard and Yale. Now Asians are. We must stand by them.

In the early years of the Roaring 20’s, Harvard’s President A. Lawrence Lowell was worried about the Jews. And the truth is, there were a lot of them to worry about in Harvard Yard.

In 1900, just 7% of Harvard undergraduates were Jewish. By 1922, that number had tripled to 22%. Lowell reasoned that this could not continue. “The anti-Semitic feeling among the students is increasing, and it grows in proportion to the increase in the number of Jews. If their number should become 40% of the student body, the race feeling would become intense,” Lowell wrote in a letter in 1922.

To avoid this “intense feeling,” Lowell proposed capping the percentage of Jews at 15%.

This overt quota on what Lowell called “Hebrews” was never imposed. But Cambridge’s grandees and their counterparts up and down the Ivy League devised other stratagems to cap the number of Jews, introducing metrics like “geographic diversity” to limit the predominantly urban Jewish applicants, or a “character and fitness” test, which would result in a “J” slapped onto their application.

Ari Hoffman

Ari Hoffman Image by Noah Lubin

The history of prejudice against Jews matters because we can use it to make sure others are spared the same fate. Unfortunately, even in 2020, quotas are being imposed and minorities kept out of elite institutions of higher learning. Today, the very same institutions are doing very similar things to Asian Americans that Lowell proposed a century ago.

While quotas against Jews are now the province of historians, discrimination against Asian Americans in the present is being uncovered by lawyers. The Justice Department has announced that it has uncovered sufficient evidence that Yale is intentionally discriminating against Asian Americans as well as white students. While Supreme Court precedent allows what is commonly referred to as “affirmative action” in the pursuit of campus diversity, race is supposed to be one factor among many in admitting students, not a litmus test. Government lawyers claim that Yale’s tactics far exceeded this limitation, to such an extent that they propose Yale be banned from considering race at all in its admissions process.

These findings come on the heels of a blockbuster lawsuit against Harvard alleging a similar pattern to the one uncovered at Yale (the case was brought by an organization committed to eradicating the use of race in college admissions as well as Asian American plaintiffs rejected by Harvard).

In the Harvard case, the trial judge ultimately found for Harvard, though admitting that its admissions processes “were not perfect” (the case is currently being appealed). Throughout the trial, exhaustive fact finding and data analysis revealed a troubling record where criteria were jerry rigged to discriminate against Asian American students, who were admitted at far lower rates than their test scores and high school GPA’s would lead you to expect.

Asian American students were kept out of Harvard by and large for scoring lower on a “personal rating” — a metric that should be eerily familiar to the “character and fitness” test used to keep Jews out. This tactic mirrors exactly earlier efforts to exclude Jews by weaponizing nebulous categories to box them out.

A court filing explicitly drew this connection, arguing that Harvard “is using racial classifications to engage in the same brand of invidious discrimination against Asian Americans that it formerly used to limit the number of Jewish students in its student body.”

Diversity on campus might be a laudable goal in theory, but in practice it seems to have involved artificially keeping a thumb on Asian Americans who otherwise should have qualified for admission.

Unfortunately, this pattern of exclusion is not limited to Ivy League quads. An uptick in prejudice against Asian Americans has been one of the most baleful side effects of Covid-19, even as appeals to diversity continue to exclude them.

Who gets the golden ticket of an elite education is a messy business, more of art than science. Legacy admissions indefensibly warp the system and inequities in secondary education prepare some students and not others for the strange rituals of applying to college.

But meritocracy is still a goal worth pursuing, not only for minority students but especially for them. It increasingly looks like Asian Americans are encountering a system whose commitment to those meritocratic ends is weakening, and they will bear the brunt of its faltering.

American Jews, who gained so much from the inconstant yet ultimately robust notion of a level playing field, need to be especially attuned to these indications of its erosion. We too were once the upwardly mobile children of immigrant parents, eager to use education as rocket fuel towards a new and better future. We too aced the tests only to be told we wouldn’t be the right “fit,” or that we were only book smart. It was easy to see that for what it was then, just as it is vital to call it out now.

If not us, who?

Ari Hoffman is a contributing columnist at the Forward, where he writes about politics and culture. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Tablet Magazine, The New York Observer, Mosaic Magazine, The Jerusalem Post, The Times of Israel, and The Tel Aviv Review of Books. He holds a Ph.D. in English Literature from Harvard and a law degree from Stanford.


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