Wednesday, 27 May 2015

The Egg Man Fell Down off His Shelf.


All The Good King's Men, With all Their Help

They struggled to the end for a shell they couldn't mend.

With apologies to Nathalie Merchant, I read with interest this week-end of a recent lawsuit launched by sixty-four (count 'em) Asian and Asian-American civil rights groups against Harvard University.  The basis for the suit is the presumed discrimination that that august institution engages in against applicants.

In the brief, the coalition "alleges that Harvard,  as well as other Ivy League colleges, deny Asian-American applicants with “almost perfect” SAT scores, “top 1% GPAs,” and “significant awards or leadership positions” in extracurricular activities, while similar applicants of other races have been admitted."

Given the data that are widely available - in the complaint, for example, it is stated "admits" of Asian descent score on average 140 points higher than white "admits," 270 points higher than the average score achieved by Latino students, and 450 points (!!) higher than the average black student admitted -  it would seem that the claim that Harvard's admissions standards are separate and truly unequal deserves at the least the scrutiny of the AG and the department of education, both of whom have been asked to investigate.

At least part of the argument here is mathematical - if one presumes that the quality of Asian high school students in the US has remained more or less the same as it was 25 years ago, you would expect that the percentage of Asian students enrolled in the top universities in the US would have gone up significantly over that period, as the sheer number of students of Asian heritage in the US has climbed.

Curiously, with a couple of exceptions (Cal Tech among them), the numbers have been strangely constant.

Good luck to them, but Harvard is a private institution, and one that admits 2,000 or so students from a pool of nearly 30,000.  Thus, it's entirely plausible that Harvard could admit an entire class of white or black or Latino students and have all them be "qualified," as the choice to submit an application to a school like Harvard is not random, and thus applicants to a high degree are already self-selected.

Harvard has an out-sized impact on government (the president himself is a Harvard law graduate), and thus I suspect that their legal team will likely beat the rap on this one.  And more to the point, the admissions policy of an extremely selective, elite school like Harvard have little to no impact on the lives of the overwhelming majority of Americans.  Directly, at least.

But what struck me as a more important culture artefact of the cracks in the coaliton that makes up the 'base' of the Democratic party.

Much has been made (correctly, in my estimation) of the future political trends in the US - demographics, as some say, is destiny.  Recently, the Republican party has been painted, with no small success, as a party of aging, white men.  Much of the painting of course has been done by the party itself, as it seems to go out of its way to pick losing arguments in the infamous culture wars.  

As the country becomes less white, more urban, and concentrated in places like California, the argument goes that the Republicans will eventually find it impossible to win national elections, if they have not already so done.  Democrats have won pluralities in presidential elections in every election since 1992, save for 2008.  As the electoral maths stack up, it looks extremely difficult that in 2016, any of the current crop of GOP contenders can topple the Democratic candidate (presumed at this point to be Hilary Clinton).

But is the conventional wisdom true, in the long run?

The problem for the Democrats, as I see it, is that it is a coalition of many smaller groups who, outside of a theoretical desire to wrestle "control" from the perceived domination of middle-aged and older white men, lack much common interest.

White voters are still a sizeable majority in the US, and thus to control more than highly and scrupulously gerrymandered or large elections, the Democrats need to win in all of the constituencies, and by big numbers.

Thus far, they've been able to do so.  Blacks voted for Obama by more than 10-1 in 2012.  Latinos at about 3-1.  Asian-Americans split out at about the same.  

Democrats enjoy the support as well of Jewish, female, and many 'cause' voters (e.g., the environment, unions).

But what, beyond antipathy to suggested patriarchal, white, male, cis-gendered power structure actually unifies these divergent groups?  

Are labour unions really aligned with environmental groups, whose public face takes positions that are strongly negative to manufacturing?  Are advocates for the poor going to align with groups looking to pass carbon taxes that will either heavily fall on poorer people or be ultimately useless?  Recently, as I wrote here, Jewish students have been shocked to find themselves on the wrong side of the Social Justice Warrior agenda.

Are Asian-Americans a natural coalition with black and Hispanic advocacy groups who demand affirmative action?

We've to some degree crossed a cultural Rubicon here in California, in that no group is an outright majority any longer.  At some point, the US itself may reach a similar point, and many other large states will get there sooner rather than later.

Lee Kwan Yew, the brilliant but enigmatic father of Singapore once observed that, ultimately, in a multicultural democracy, we all will vote our tribal loyalties.  I have no idea if his vision in Asia will play out similarly in the US, but I expect that the Democratic party is going to find out how tough it is to keep its Humpty Dumpty together.

The lawsuit at Harvard may be the first gust of wind that causes the egg man to fall.


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