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The First Thing You Learn at Harvard
with Jay Caspian Kang
My guest this week, the journalist Jay Caspian Kang, has been following the Students for Fair Admissions cases for the better part of a decade as they’ve wound their way through the courts. In the beginning, Jay was a believer in affirmative action. But by the end, as the discovery process revealed more and more evidence showing that Harvard clearly discriminated against Asian Americans and other applicants, he found that he could no longer support the policy as it’s practiced.
As Jay sees it, one of the major problems the case revealed is that Harvard (along with many other selective schools) favored those who claimed to suffer trauma due to their race, especially if they were black or Latino, no matter how objectively privileged they were. In essence, students who could play the role of “victim of systemic racism,” no matter their actual lived experience, had a much better shot of getting in than those who couldn’t or wouldn’t, regardless of how much better the latter group’s test scores and grades were. And if you were an Asian applicant, even off-the-charts academic performance couldn’t earn you a fair shot at getting in, regardless of how many actual difficulties you and your family had faced.
This concrete evidence of discrimination would be bad enough. But Jay points to a possible, more insidious consequence of these policies: Applicants who conjure up trauma narratives might actually start to believe this institutionally mandated bullshit. After all, if Harvard signals that its applicants must cook up a story about their own oppression and then legitimizes the story by admitting the student, the student could be forgiven for taking their acceptance as confirmation that, whatever their own initial feelings, they have been traumatized. Even in a scenario in which the student knows they must tell a made-up story about themselves simply to gain admission, these schools require a startling amount of cynicism from the students they so often champion as young idealists.
Either way, the first lesson Harvard teaches its students appears to be the following: Market your identity-based oppression. And if you’re not oppressed, start acting like you are. Elsewhere in our conversation, Jay asks why we permit the existence of an elite tier of schools in this country, if this is what they’ve come to. Jay’s a left-wing guy, I’m a conservative. But I have to say, given all the evidence, I think it’s a pretty good question.
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JAY CASPIAN KANG: The part that concerns me the most is this idea in which people feel like they have to perform a type of harm. And so for myself, for example, I think about it and I think, well, I can sort of construct one. I can say my parents were born in a war zone in Korea. This is true. My family escaped from North Korea. That's true. I have generational trauma from Japanese imperialism and from my parents being born in a war zone. I mean, it should be true, right? When I was a child—I'm sure you're very familiar with Cambridge—our family lived in the Alewife Towers.
GLENN LOURY: I know the Rindge Towers. I read this in your book. I was married, coming to graduate school with two kids, and we split up while in graduate school when I was at MIT. And they moved—my wife and two kids—to the Rindge Towers that you talk about. So I know them very well.
So you know them! My point is I could come up with this whole history of oppression for myself. Do I believe it? No. By the time I was in middle school, my family was very middle-class, and my parents were very educated. I guess I fear that what happens is that when students are incentivized to this degree to perform something like that, they start to believe it. They feel like the difference between going to Harvard and going to a perfectly fine but not-Harvard school is that they have to construct this type of identity around themselves.
The way Harvard was doing it for a while was basically, if you didn't write about it in your essay, it didn't count. It didn't count that you were this minority group unless you told a sob story about it. I find that to be totally indefensible. Actually, I find it to be quite disgusting that the lead institution is asking these kids to perform their trauma stories for them.
As you've witnessed, in the past 20, 30 years, however long this type of story has been asked to be told, have you noticed that the students themselves have started to [imbibe] it more? Do you think it has an effect on the way students think about themselves? Or do you think it's just something that they do once and they just say, “Okay, it helped me get into Harvard, and now I'm just going to stop”?
I don't know. That's a question for a psychologist or somebody. I mean, I see the danger in what you say, and I have seen the performance that you make reference to, how systematic embrace of this performative internalization—“I've been victimized, I am harmed, I am diminished”—how widespread that is. I'd only be guessing if I said anything.
I do think it's debilitating and disempowering. And also, it's a lie, right? It's untrue to the actual objective condition of the mostly solidly middle, upper-middle-class black kids that I encounter here in my classes at Brown. They haven't exactly been beaten down by history. Notwithstanding the fact that they will be able to recount both in their own lives and in the lives of their parents and grandparents a wealth of stories about disadvantage and mistreatment. But they're very, very privileged kids.
Yeah. I think for the Asian population, maybe that was part of the angst that was going [on], or for a lot of the parents of the kids who are applying to these schools. They were told stuff like, “Don't tell the immigrant story, because they don't care about that.” Like Roberts said, if there's a positive, there has to be a negative here. There was almost this—I think for a lot of the students and their parents that I spoke to—this belief.
If you're Vietnamese and you live in America, you probably have some generational trauma somewhere nearby. If you are from Korea, same thing. There's something that happened that was bad that if people who didn't know about it saw photos of, they would be shocked. If you saw the poverty in Seoul when my parents were growing up, for example, you would be shocked. I was shocked when I first saw it.
This idea—and the thing that I think frustrated a lot of people—is like, “Look, nothing that happened to my family or me or whatever matters.” But then you have, for example, let's say a Chilean kid coming who grew up extremely wealthy, and that matters more, that he gets to check the Latino box. Within that type of atmosphere, where those things are true and are happening, how do you support it? I think that that was a falling-off point for a lot of these Asian families. I don't know.
I would just say, personally, for myself, I was like, it just doesn't make any sense. The grandson of somebody who worked with Milton Friedman to deregulate the economy of [Chile] and is a billionaire, that identity matters. But this poor Chinese kid or poor Vietnamese kid, poor Cambodian kid, that doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what happened to this family. It doesn't matter. It actually just matters that this kid can check the Latino box and we can't.
That's not a good system, I think, for anyone. But particularly on the left, because it almost makes a mockery of all the things that we're supposed to care about. It makes a mockery of the [egalitarianism] that should be fueling a lot these ideas. And I think that supporting it is ... I don't know, I think it's silly.