De Blasio Sees Too Many Asians

In the 19th century, institutionalized American racism—notably slavery and Jim Crow—was rooted in the idea that some human beings were inferior.

In the 20th century, a new form emerged, this one rooted in the fear that some minorities might give the Anglo-Saxon ascendancy a run for its money if judged solely on merit. Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell infamously took this approach to Jews after their numbers jumped to nearly 22% of the student body in 1922 from roughly 7% in 1900. In one letter, he likened his university to a summer hotel that ultimately goes out of business when a rising number of Jewish patrons drives away its Gentile customer base.

In the 21st century, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio is adding his own chapter to this ugly history. For Mr. de Blasio, the preferred brand of discrimination follows the model Harvard today uses to achieve the desired racial composition of its incoming classes. And just like Harvard, Mr. de Blasio is being sued for his bid to take seats away from Asians and give them to blacks and Latinos at the city’s eight, high-performing specialized public high schools.

“De Blasio has repeatedly suggested that he believes that there are too many Asians in New York’s elite public schools,” says Wen Fa, an attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation, which filed the suit last Thursday in U.S. district court. “His discriminatory plan to cut off educational opportunities for deserving Asian students reeks of centuries-old discrimination against Asian-Americans, and we look forward to challenging it in court.”

The Harvard case was heard this fall. Plaintiffs argued that the school uses subjective personality assessments—giving highly qualified Asian applicants lower scores for such qualities as “kindness” and “attractive to be with”—to reduce their overall scores and help justify rejecting them. As a private university, Harvard could do what it wishes here except for the sticky matter that it accepts millions in taxpayer dollars, making it subject to Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Still, the essential question in the Harvard case is the same as the one in the de Blasio suit: whether diversity itself can justify keeping some students out on account of race. But the New York suit offers a slightly cleaner test—because they are all public schools.

These specialized high schools, which admit students based on a single exam, are the “crown jewels” of the city’s school system; they count 14 alumni as Nobel laureates. But the mayor is irritated by the racial composition a merit-based entrance exam yields. At Stuyvesant, the most selective of these schools, the student body is 74% Asian, 19% white, 3% Latino and 1% African-American.

To change this, the mayor has taken aim at something called the Discovery Program, which accounts for about 5% of the overall admissions and offers slots to underprivileged kids who score just below the exam cutoff, provided they meet other criteria. Right now this program is open to all of the city’s economically disadvantaged children. Mr. de Blasio proposes to limit the program to kids from schools with a poverty rate of 60% or higher—i.e., schools with mostly black and Latino students. The move would shut out economically disadvantaged Asian-American students who are not in those eligible schools.

“The 14th Amendment prohibits covert racial discrimination just as it prohibits overt discrimination on the basis of race,” says Mr. Fa. “De Blasio’s gerrymander of the Discovery Program is designed to discriminate against Asian-American students, and will have precisely that effect.”

Richard Carranza, New York’s schools chancellor, is remarkably cavalier about the proposed policy’s racial impact. “I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admissions to these schools,” he’s said. Meanwhile, the mayor justifies his effort by noting that only 10% of Black or Latino students get offers from the specialized high schools even though they account for nearly 70% of the city’s high school population.

Read more of this Wall Street Journal op-ed by William McGurn by clicking here.