November 16, 2010

Calling out racism: Maclean's claim that Canada's universities are too Asian

We dont often reprint the National Post, who spend most of their time attacking progressive movements, but this is an exception.

Jeet Heer: Maclean’s article on Asians familiar to anti-Semites of old
National Post November 15, 2010 – 3:15 pm

Throughout the 1920s, A. Lawrence Lowell, then president of Harvard University, was worried that his beloved school was becoming too Jewish. “The presence of Jews in large numbers tends to drive Gentiles elsewhere,” Lowell wrote in a 1925 letter to Harvard professor. “To prevent a dangerous increase in the proportion of Jews, I know at present only one way which is at the same time straightforward and effective, and that is a selection by a personal estimate of character on the part of Admission authorities.”

Lowell focused on the question of “character” because he believed that Jewish students might well be intellectually gifted but they lacked social graces. A Boston Brahmin and scion of a pedigreed WASP family, Lowell thought that too many Jews spoiled the educational experience of Harvard. Jews as a group, Lowell believed, didn’t assimilate easily into the Anglo-Saxon majority, they tended to cluster together, they’re too pushy and ambitious, they didn’t participate in sports and other extracurricular activities, they lacked the easy comportment expected of true Harvard men. Because Jews lacked “character” and threatened to scare off well-heeled Gentile students, Lowell was at the forefront of a movement among Ivy League universities to impose anti-Semitic quotas.

It’s easy now to see what was wrong with Lowell’s thinking: it rested on an implicit assumption of WASP privilege. For Lowell, Harvard was without question an Anglo-Saxon stronghold, and minorities such as Jews could only be admitted in such numbers that didn’t challenge the schools social composition. WASPs were by definition the essence of Harvard and Jews by definition were always aliens to be tolerated but only in small numbers. In another 1925 letter Lowell actually described Jews as “an alien race.” If meritocracy, admitting students based on grades and scholarly ability alone, meant too many Jews, then Lowell felt that meritocracy had to go.

Last week Maclean’s magazine published a disgracefully xenophobic article which updated all of Lowell’s arguments and assumptions, applying them not to the Harvard of the past but the Canada of today. The target of the article wasn’t Jews but Asian-Canadians. Written by Stephanie Findlay and Nicholas Kohler, the article was titled “’Too Asian’?” and opened with this startling sub-headline “A term used in the U.S. to talk about racial imbalance at Ivy League schools is now being whispered on Canadian campuses.” (All quotes are from the original posting of the article, which was later taken down by the magazine and reposted in an edited and slightly less offensive form).

Just as Lowell worried that the WASP elite would avoid a Harvard that was too Jewish, Maclean’s raises the spectre that privileged white kids are staying away from universities that are “too Asian”. The article opens with the story of Alexandra and Rachel, two recent graduates of Havergal College, a hoity-toity all girls private school. When choosing upon their undergraduate education, both decided to avoid the University of Toronto because it had a “reputation of being Asian.”

What does “racial imbalance” and “too Asian” mean? Maclean’s offers this helpful explication: “’Too Asian’ is not about racism, say students like Alexandra: many white students simply believe that competing with Asians – both Asian Canadians and international students – requires a sacrifice of time and freedom they’re not willing to make.”

The fist thing to note is the remarkably broad use of the term “Asian” which encompasses everyone from a Hong Kong exchange student who is here on a temporary visa to kids whose families have been in Canada since the building of the railways in the era of John A. Macdonald. In the eyes of Maclean’s magazine, all “Asians” look the same and are always (to use Lowell’s words) “an alien race” outside the mainstream of Canadian society (which is implicitly defined as white). The idea that white Canadians have a right to a university education without having to compete with “Asians” rests on a strong sense of white privilege and entitlement, a racial haughtiness which Maclean’s largely takes for granted although the article briefly queries it in very mild terms.

Much of the Maclean’s article is taken up with listing the faults of “Asian” students. The language the article uses would be utterly familiar to Lowell and the other Ivy League gatekeepers of the 1920s. Like the Jews at Harvard in the 1920s, “Asians” are portrayed as book smart but lacking in social skills. According to Maclean’s “Asians” are pushy and ambitious (“They tend to be strivers, high achievers and single-minded…”); unlike white students, “Asians” don’t appreciate that education involves “social interaction, athletics and self-actualization.” Because “Asians” have a “narrow” focus on academics, they “risk alienating their more fun-loving [white] peers.” Finally, “Asians” stick together and are balkanizing our culture by their failure to assimilate.

Even in very tiny details, Maclean’s article echoes the anti-Semites of old. Lowell took notice of the curious fact that Jewish students were “much less addicted to intemperance” than Gentile students. The Maclean’s article repeatedly notes that “Asians” drink less than whites. Maclean’s could have saved themselves money on this article if they had simply reprinted one of Lowell’s speeches from the 1920s, replacing the word “Jews” with “Asians”.

Near the end of the article, Maclean’s explicitly raises the historical parallels, noting that “to quell the influx of Jewish students, Ivy League schools abandoned their meritocratic admissions processes in favour of one that focused on the details of an applicant’s personal life.” We’re told that so far, Canadian schools have remained meritocratic and “rely entirely on transcripts.” Then we get two curious sentences: “Likely that is a good thing. And yet, that meritocratic process results, especially in Canada’s elite university programs, in a concentration of Asian students.” As a student of weaselly rhetoric, I very much admire the use of the word “likely.” The suggestion being made here is that a quota system, like the one that limited Jews in the Ivy League schools, might possibly be a good idea, since the current system leads to a bad result (“a concentration of Asian students.”)

I’ll end on a personal note. I’ve had the privilege of teaching at Canadian universities and working for the Canadian media. I’ve never experienced a “racial imbalance” at Canadian universities: I’ve met students and colleagues from every conceivable ethnic background. But I have noticed a “racial imbalance” in the Canadian media, which often seems as white as the ideal Harvard Lowell was trying to create in the 1920s. In fact, arguably Lowell was progressive compared to the Canadian media since he was willing to allow that the student body could be 15% non-WASP.

If the masthead of Maclean’s magazine is to be trusted, there is not a single “Asian” working in an editorial capacity for that publication. There do seem to be one or two “South Asians,” like the excellent Sarmishta Subramanian, but not any “Asians” as Maclean’s defines the term. To put it another way, students who don’t like to compete with “Asians” would be perfectly comfortable working for Maclean’s.

National Post
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1 comment:

  1. I think this is a clear example of the fact that contradictions in capitalism as an economic system play out as contradictions in bourgeois politics. There's very sensible reasons that the Harper goverment and its political allies are fomenting a pretty scary racism, but there are equal if not stronger reasons that a lot of the business community would be concerned about it. The right in Canada's main agenda for postsecondary education right now is privatizing and globalizing it, and racism of the sort Maclean's is putting forward is harmful for that project.


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