A tale of two quotas

Barbara Kay, National Post · Tuesday, Nov. 23, 2010

In an op-ed published in Monday's National Post -- titled, Too Jewish then, too Asian now -- cultural critic Jeet Heer accused Maclean's magazine of publishing an article that was "disgracefully xenophobic."

The Maclean's writers' crime? Expressing frank concern that the heavy ethnic clustering of Asians at the University of Toronto is not conducive to an optimal social environment.

Heer is aghast that the writers question the blessings of a solely meritocratic entrance policy, even if such a process results in "racial imbalance." He is incredulous they might countenance even the idea of a quota system for Asians in the interest of a more racially diverse campus.

The very word "quota" seems to have triggered Heer's racism-hunting reflex. For his immediate impulse was to link a campus situation in our present culture to the well-tolerated anti-Semitism of the 1920s and 1930s in America's Ivy League universities. His erroneous premise leads to erroneous conclusions.

The first third of Heer's op-ed recalls the anti-Semitism of A. Lawrence Lowell, Harvard University president in the 1920s, who in order to "prevent a dangerous increase in the proportion of Jews" at Harvard, famously revised the selection process to emphasize "a personal estimate of character" along with merit in accepting entrants. By the euphemism "character," Lowell meant less brilliant, but socially refined WASP gentlemen, the antithesis of the intense, cerebral, socially awkward Jewish stereotype that he found so distasteful (he would have loathed Mark Zuckerberg, who created Facebook while an undergrad at Harvard). Heer concludes: " 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.'"

If Maclean's had done that, it would have been irresponsible journalism. Certainly, Jews share traits ascribed to Asians by Maclean's: Jews are indeed disproportionately "strivers, high-achievers and single-minded." But a benign, reality-based stereotype doesn't constitute racism. There is no substantial parallel in the two situations to justify Heer's statement. Lowell really disliked Jews; the Maclean's writers don't dislike Asians. Vicious anti-Semitism was (and is again) a widespread scourge; no comparable, sustained phenomenon-- "anti-Asianism"--exists.

To persuade, Heer's citation of Lowell's anti-Semitism would require a parallel anti-Asian quotation from an official representative from the University of Toronto. The best Heer can do is cite an admission in the Maclean's article by two high school girls to the effect that the high concentration of Asians at the U of T was an academic turn-off. My impression is that they seek a more lively social environment than is likely to be found amongst a student body made up, in large part, by disproportionately studious Asian-Canadian students. That's social pragmatism, not racism.

In the 1920s and '30s, anti-Semitism ran rampant at the very highest levels in Ivy League universities. Harvard, Columbia and other Ivy League schools lavished honours on Nazi diplomats invited to their campuses. They withheld available posts from refugee Jewish-German academics. They sent exchange students to Germany even after the implementation of the obscenely racist Nuremburg Laws. How can Heer seriously compare all that with party-minded high school girls and the earnest musings

of diversity-steeped journalists?

Moreover, since Heer finds racial quotas so repellent, why doesn't he denounce preferential admission for blacks and aboriginals, which is justified on the moral grounds that diversity trumps academic merit? Academically meritorious white males suffer from this policy. Isn't that racism?

Heer's credibility is further undermined by his parting shot at Maclean's in noting the lack of Asian names on their masthead, suggesting editorial bias against Asians. That's "weaselly rhetoric," to turn his own indictment of Maclean's' writers against him. There is no editorial bias. Asian-Canadians constitute a small percentage of the Canadian population, and it is hardly shocking, from a purely statistical point of view, that no Asian names should pop up on a masthead containing just a few dozen entries.

In today's cultural climate, racism is a serious moral crime, in fact about the most damning charge you can lay against anyone. Heer's thesis should have cleaved to the highest standards of evidence-based polemics. He has failed in that obligation, and owes Maclean's an apology for his false allegation against the magazine.