25 June 2018

Affirmative Action . . . or Unbiblical Partiality?

by Hohn Cho

argaret Thatcher famously said that the problem with socialism is that you always run out of other people's money. Well, the problem with affirmative action is that you always run out of impartial ways to implement it. As a case in point, let's take a look at Harvard's current affirmative action policies.

The Harvard Fiasco
A group of Asian plaintiffs is suing Harvard, which has been adamantly resisting discovery of its highly secretive admissions process. Fortunately, that stonewalling largely failed, and hundreds of pages of motions, memos, and expert reports and rebuttals (the most important of which are available here and here, and are the source for the data and quotes below) were released ten days ago.

Having gone through much of it, the most compelling points are those raised by the plaintiffs. They have reasonably demonstrated that over a six-year period, as a group average, Asian applicants had the highest academic ratings (including GPA, test scores, AP exams taken, AP exam scores), highest extra-curricular ratings, highest alumni interview overall scores, and either highest or second-highest scores on letters of reference from counselors and teachers.

But then there's the "personal" rating, which is described nebulously as "[w]hether that student would contribute to the class, classroom, roommate group, to the class as a whole, their human qualities . . . It is a little hard to talk about in general but sort of add it all up and get a feeling" and as including "perhaps likability, also character traits, such as integrity, helpfulness, courage, kindness." This personal rating is determined only by Harvard admissions staff, who in the vast majority of cases have never even met the applicant.

And in this highly subjective area, Asian applicants are being absolutely crushed.

A significant number of Asian applicants receive the strongest scores on their personal ratings in only the very top 10% category of Asian applicants. In contrast, a significant number of applicants receive the strongest scores on their personal ratings for approximately the top 60% of white applicants, the top 70% for Hispanic applicants, and the top 80% for African American applicants.

This is an astonishingly major difference, statistically speaking. To put it in plainer English, either the bulk of the Asian cohort year-after-year was made up of misanthropic miscreants in comparison to their fellow white, Hispanic, and African American applicants, or the Harvard admissions staff—who again, had never even met the applicants in the vast majority of cases—had their fists on the scale when it came to the highly subjective personal ratings.

Regardless, especially after being amplified by Harvard's favoring of people who have strong scores across multiple areas, the subjective refusal by admissions staff to rate Asian students more highly across the entire personal rating category has had the practical procedural impact of significantly decreasing Asian admission rates, while significantly increasing the admission rates of every other group. The disparity is so vast that "[a]n Asian-American applicant with a 25% chance of admission, for example, would have a 35% chance if he were white, 75% if he were Hispanic, and 95% chance if he were African-American." This use of a subjective determiner to effectively put a cap on a group deemed to be undesirably overrepresented is eerily reminiscent of the Jewish quota earlier in the 20th century, and is a classic example of an abuse of administrative discretion for an improper purpose.

In my opinion, the media has generally covered this story quite poorly, with lots of cursory analysis and ideological pieces, but this piece from The Economist is excellent. And here's a powerful opinion piece from one of my favorite secular writers, Wesley Yang, which may help explain some of the emotional resonance of this issue.

Regardless, even if one takes the position, as the Supreme Court has, that fostering "diversity" in education is a positive goal, the process of how one gets there is of critical importance, and under current law, "race" cannot be the predominant factor in the analysis, nor can one rely on plainly unfair procedural measures to accomplish one's goals. And although Harvard is obviously denying wrongdoing at this stage, I believe the entire subjective determination of the personal rating stinks to high heaven.

Why Christians Should Care
At this point, some of you may be wondering what all of this is doing on a Christian blog. Well, at the risk of stating the obvious, there's a discussion happening right now in greater evangelicalism on the topic of "social justice." I actually don't care for that term, which I simply don't see in Scripture despite the best efforts of some to read it into (primarily) the Old Testament. I greatly prefer the term "biblical justice," which goes beyond the issues most favored by social justice proponents, to encompass a much larger scope of issues, particularly Romans 13:1-7 and 1 Peter 2:13-17, the latter of which was written to Christians being persecuted by the mad Roman emperor Nero and nevertheless called them to submit to every human authority and governor.

But let's just roll with the term social justice for the moment. Most often when I see proponents of that term using it in the church, they are typically engaging in at least two threshold logical errors. The first error happens when the calling of the corporate church to make disciples is conflated with the calling of individual Christians to do good works (e.g., acts of charity, doing justice, loving one's neighbors and even one's enemies, etc.). In other words, there's a distinction between corporate and individual ethics in the Christian life.

The second error happens when the latter calling of individual Christians to do good works in their own stewardship and Christian liberty is mistaken for a command to agitate for social change, usually in connection with some vague or even unspoken public policy favored by the social justice advocate. But the fact there is no such command to agitate for social change in the Bible—and to the contrary, many verses actually seem to cut against that very concept (see, e.g., 1 Thessalonians 4:11, 2 Thessalonians 3:12, 1 Timothy 2:1-2, Proverbs 24:21, Titus 3:1-2)—is often conveniently lost or ignored.

Each of these errors could be the topic of its own blog post or even series . . . but there's a third logical error I'd like to discuss right now, which is the sometimes incorrect assumption that the public policy supported by the social justice proponent is even good, positive, or most importantly to Christians, biblical to begin with. Support of "diversity" and affirmative action has almost become a shibboleth of polite American society, and certainly among most coastal elites. But what would the Scriptures say about a policy like Harvard's?

The Scriptures on Partiality
In the Old Testament, there are numerous references to avoiding partiality in judging. Even if one takes the view—as I do—that we are no longer under the Old Testament civil law, seeing God's heart for some of the underlying principles can still be very helpful, especially when the civil law concepts are repeated elsewhere in Scripture, as is the case with the concept of partiality.

For this reason, verses such as Exodus 23:3 and Leviticus 19:15 are illuminating, because they show that partiality is still forbidden even if that partiality were to be exercised in favor of the poor. Fair and impartial judgment is still required! Similarly, Deuteronomy 1:17 calls for impartial judgment for the small and great alike, and there is a specific call not to fear man in rendering such a judgment . . . even if, say, one might be at risk of condemnation by certain well-placed academics and intellectuals of our day.

Moving to the wisdom literature of the Proverbs, we see that impartiality is a wise principle for all people to live out, not merely the judges and civil authorities . . . or, in the case of Harvard, an institution that takes a huge amount of federal money and sits in judgment over many applicants. Proverbs 24:23 is crystal clear in this regard, stating flatly that it is not good to show partiality in one's judgment.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is Proverbs 20:10 (see also Proverbs 11:1, 16:11, 20:23), where God considers differing weights and measures to be an abomination. Numerous commentators have applied this concept beyond the world of merchants to encompass general corruption and other double standards, and Albert Barnes writes in his commentary that this verse has "a wider application to all judging one man by rules which we do not apply to ourselves or to another." In light of the Harvard lawsuit, it's hard to think of a more apt description for similarly-situated applicants differing so dramatically in their results, with the only major distinction being their ethnicity.

When we move to the New Testament, God is plainly declared to be impartial specifically in the area of nationalities (ethnei, from which we obtain our word ethnicity) in Acts 10:34-35. And the showing of partiality is clearly called sin in James 2:9.

The Bottom Line
Of course, none of this prohibits individual acts of mercy and charity, but whenever we move to the level of the "systemic," as many social justice advocates love to do, we increasingly run into the dangers of showing partiality on a broader scale. In that vein, one of the most ironic things about Harvard's affirmative action policies in admissions is that, while ostensibly designed to help account for past discrimination and arguably even present claims of discrimination against ethnic minorities, the policies themselves are acting as instruments of discrimination and partiality!

Indeed, despite the fact that Asians themselves are an ethnic minority which has suffered from discrimination in this country, these Asian applicants have not only failed to benefit from Harvard's practices, but they rather appear to have been penalized for their ethnicity. This is all the more curious given that Asians are not typically blamed for systematic oppression of and discrimination against other ethnic minorities in America.

To tease out that concept a bit more, it's both interesting and telling that many of the Asian, Hispanic, and African American applicants to Harvard are actually first or second generation immigrants who could not credibly claim to have any nexus whatsoever to the worst examples of systemic discrimination in American history. So even if one accepts for the sake of argument some kind of biblical restitution model to support affirmative action, I would argue that certainly as it pertains to all immigrants specifically and all Asians generally, the wrong people are being benefited and penalized. (Of course, biblical restitution would typically require some kind of concrete underlying crime or sin with quantifiable and finite recompense, as opposed to the often vague and implied systemic behavior examined by complex multivariate analyses—of which "race" is only one variable—with seemingly infinite remedies demanded.)

To be clear, I am not some Asian nationalist who's looking to advance his ethnic group's interests out of some misguided sense of tribal pride. Indeed, my preference and desire would be for as much of this race-centric nonsense as possible to "go the way of all the earth" and into the dustbin of history, because this is what I believe the Scriptures and biblical justice would support.

But when a story involving a specific institution's own race-centric policies establishes them to be as outrageously unfair as Harvard's, well, let's just say that I would appreciate the elegant poetic justice if these policies were to go to the Supreme Court and contribute to their own undoing, nationwide. Would that we could someday reach a point where even the conventional worldly wisdom stands decisively against such blatant offenses to biblical justice as the Harvard Asian admissions fiasco. Until then, I would be pleased if at least we in the church could understand and appreciate the Scriptural importance of impartiality.

Hohn's signature

Hohn is a lay elder at Grace Community Church and an attorney by vocation. Yes, Hohn Cho is his real name, not a pseudonym. And yes, he lives up to it.


trogdor said...

Using racism to fight racism produces racism. Injustice in the service of correcting injustice is still injustice. You can't sin your way to righteousness.

Hohn C said...

Incredibly well put, thank you. And as a long-time lurker here, it’s great to see you around again!

Isaak Allen said...

I believe the logic you are using for race is the same logic that Hannon used in his First Things article back in 2014 on Against Heterosexuality; I think it is the right logic. https://www.firstthings.com/article/2014/03/against-heterosexuality

Eternity Matters said...

As with all affirmative action initiatives, this has the unintended consequence of undermining the accomplishments of blacks who would have been accepted under a fair admissions process. Not only will other people, including employers, wonder if the graduate was deserving, the students themselves will never know if they deserved to get in or if they just won the affirmative action lottery. The SJWs never realize how condescending and racist they are.

Eric said...

Good analysis. I think where the error is made is in focusing on "intentions" rather than results or methods. So often the SJWs appear to merely be concerned that their intentions are good and honorable, while paying little mind to either their methods or results.

Hohn C said...

Isaak, thanks for the link, will try to check it out some time soon.

EM, my wife loved a biography of Clarence Thomas on this specific point, it's on my list to read as well. With that said, I'm quite confident that pretty much all of the Harvard admittees are going to be impressive individuals and smart people... but that end result still is not a justification for discriminatory means.

It will be interesting to see what will happen when more and more universities move away from more-objective criteria such as test scores and GPA in favor of more-subjective criteria (which also opens the door to more potential for abuse of discretion, and discrimination cloaked as valuing qualitative factors). I suspect over the long-term, on average, it will result in less prestige and fewer accomplishments among the graduates (and smaller endowments), but I doubt there will be much noticeable impact on the short- to medium- term.

Eric, I think that's spot-on, just about everyone assumes their intentions are good, but when they end up pushing misguided policies unsupported (or supported only poorly) by objective criteria, big problems can arise. Part of my dismay over many of the raging debates happening right now in the church are their highly emotional nature, with facts often taking a back seat.

Unknown said...

Thank you for this incredibly well-articulated explication of the biblical mandate for impartiality. This was tremendously helpful to think about especially in our current societal(and evangelical) context in which the three logical errors you delineated seem to be increasing at an alarming speed.

As an Asian-American Christian who spent the overwhelming majority of his relatively short life at a Korean-American church, I lament that for the Korean-American church as well, this concept of "social justice" has taken hold and seems to be de-emphasizing the Gospel and assuming a quasi-salvific significance.
Ethnic churches may be necessary for immigrant Christians like my parents who don't speak a lick of English. However, for their young, English-speaking children, the very existence of an exclusively ethnic Christian gathering and the continued emphasis on spiritual solidarity at an ethnic level can leave them vulnerable and unequipped to handle the social justice movement. Indeed, it can be very comfortable to be at church with people who share a lot in common with you. However, this comfortability can actually lead to cultural commonalities overshadowing the spiritual unity we have in Christ. From my personal experience, there never was a strong emphasis on faithfully expositing Scripture; the emphasis was more on finding community and helping each other overcome the struggles of the immigrant life. This leaves Korean Christian not only with no experience to show impartial love and treatment to Christians of other ethnicities, but also leaves them woefully ignorant of the concepts of Biblical justice and impartiality.
This may be an unfair generalization, but another problem gleaned from my personal experience with Korean-American churches is that they tend to be "culturally conservative" in a somewhat legalistic sense, and theologically liberal as a result of its infatuation with liberal institutions like Fuller or Princeton (there is also a sizeable portion of the pastorate that are Talbot-educated).
This may account for the aforementioned lack of solid Biblical preaching or teaching, but this also means that many of the pastors in these churches may be proponents of tis breed of secular social justice that is driving the machine of partiality.
This no doubt can be very confusing for Korean-American Christians, who on one hand, may be taught that social justice advocacy is the very essence of Christianity, but on the other hand, may feel personally and unjustly victimized by the fruits of the very idea they promote.
I pray that the Gospel would be preached and emphasized in these churches, and all churches for that matter, and that the Scriptural importance of justice and impartiality would be firmly and faithfully taught in opposition to "social justice".
Thanks again for your insight Hohn! Hope I wasn't just rambling on and that I didn't write anything heretical or unhelpful! Please correct me as needed.

Unknown said...

Thanks for this article. Right on target. The wicked do not understand justice.

FX Turk said...

I miss writing posts to which Trogdor would comment. But that is nostalgia speaking, not wisdom.

Hohn C said...

Min Soo, thanks for your kind words, and I agree about the alarming nature of how quickly the logical errors associated with "social justice" thinking have been spreading. Also hear you on the Korean church... I am completely sympathetic to language-based churches, but some of the related dynamics that you highlight are indeed a challenge, along with other challenges associated with the next generations.

Dave, thanks for reading, and for your encouragement.

Frank, having read about your excellent reasons, not writing posts does indeed seem like the best and wisest course for you. We do very much miss reading your incredibly helpful insights, however! Thanks for reading.