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Making Hay With Shifty Labels

UC admissions: Political rhetoric has made the terms 'white' mean haves, 'minority' have-nots.

April 09, 1998|EUGENE VOLOKH | Eugene Volokh teaches constitutional law at UCLA Law School

Asians are now white.

Don't believe me? A recent MSNBC news headline announced a "Plunge in Minority University Enrollment" at the University of California, with UC Berkeley reporting that "minority admissions had declined 61%." Actually, the total percentage of racial minority students at Berkeley, Asians included, fell from 57% to 49%. If you exclude the burgeoning group of people who decline to state their race, the minority percentage fell only three percentage points, from 61% to 58%.

The drop was exclusively among blacks, Latinos and American Indians. Asians, who make up less than 10% of the California population, apparently aren't a "minority."

Or listen to former state Chief Justice Rose Bird. Last year, she wrote a commentary saying that, without race preferences, the UC system would be "nothing more than a group of elitist, 'lily white' institutions." A co-organizer of Jesse Jackson's recent march in favor of race preferences called UC Berkeley's law school, whose entering class last year was 20% minority, including 14% Asian, "lily-white." Asians aren't just white; they are lily-white.

I first noticed this effect 10 years ago, at a party where a friend of mine commented that the guests were all white. I responded by mentioning about 10 Asians present. Oh, she said, that's right, but you know what I mean. At a recent UCLA conference, two speakers complained that everyone on the panel was white, without even realizing that one of the speakers was ethnically Chinese and another was an Asian Indian with skin darker than that of many American blacks.

To some extent, this sort of mistake is funny and even a bit heartwarming. The racial divisions between white and Asian, once so stark and to many almost unbridgeable, are quickly fading away. Marriages between Asians and whites are increasingly common; while anti-Asian bigotry exists, it is (at least among whites) much rarer than it was only one or two generations ago. As with the experience of the Irish, Italians, Jews and many other groups in America, the Asian experience shows that racial divisions and hostilities can subside over time.

But there's a sinister aspect to this as well. To begin with, calling Asians "nonminorities" or even "white" is an error and a denial of their heritage. Asians have succeeded even though they are a racial minority; this fact deserves to be acknowledged. It redounds to the credit of the many Asians who worked terribly hard against often overwhelming odds. And it's evidence of the essential fairness of the American capitalist system, which has rewarded this hard work even though many people, including many government officials, tried to penalize it.

Calling Asians white also creates new lines, possibly very dangerous ones. "White" has stopped meaning Caucasian, imprecise as this term has always been, and has started to mean "those racial groups that have made it." "Minority" has started to mean "those racial groups that have not yet made it." This new division is as likely as the old to create nasty, corrosive, sometimes fatal battles over which racial groups get the spoils. So long as we think in terms of "white" and "minority," we risk disaster, no matter which races are put in which box.

And finally, calling Asians white is often a tool for misleading the public. Falsely calling a school "lily-white" gets a strong reaction from readers. Accurately saying, "There are relatively few blacks and Latinos at the school, but there are many Asians, perhaps more than there are whites" leads to a much more complex (as well as more well-informed) response. Falsely talking about plummeting "minority" admissions makes more political hay than accurately describing decreases among some racial groups and increases among others.

Ultimately, the only way to solve any of our problems, including our racial ones, is to tell the truth. We should celebrate the fact that Asians have succeeded. We should do things to make sure that all people, regardless of their race, have a chance to succeed. But in our fight for this success, we should be scrupulously honest about what's really going on.

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