It was the week identity politics ate itself. It was the week we learnt that the Massachusetts senator Elizabeth Warren is between 1/1,024 and 1/64 Native American Indian. It was also the week that Harvard — a bastion of American liberalism — was taken to court for discriminating against Asian-American applicants. Savour these moments. They may mean that we have reached a long overdue turning point.
By undergoing a DNA test, Warren no doubt intended to counter the taunt that she had made up, or at least exaggerated, her Native American ancestry. At some point, repeatedly being called “Pocahontas” by President Trump just became intolerable.
Yet the results of the test can only have been disappointing. To have it established scientifically that you are between 0.098% and 1.563% Native American is hardly a resounding vindication if, as Warren did, you changed your ethnicity from white to Native American at the University of Pennsylvania in 1989 and you agreed to be listed as Native American when you taught at Harvard, too.
In 2012 Warren claimed her mother and father eloped because the latter’s parents didn’t want their son marrying a woman who was “part Cherokee and . . . part Delaware”. Which two toenails were they worried about?
Looking back, you can see why Warren was tempted to turn the family lore that her great-great-great-grandmother was a Cherokee into a full-blown claim to minority status. She built her career as a law professor during the 1980s and 1990s, when the first great wave of political correctness was sweeping American campuses. At that time, being both a woman and a Native American suddenly became advantageous.
Similar calculations were being made by Ivy League admissions offices as they sought ways to increase the diversity of their very white student bodies. The policy of “affirmative action” was introduced, which lowered the standards expected of African-American, Hispanic and Native American applicants. The immediate and intended consequence was to deny some well-qualified white students places at Harvard and Yale they would otherwise have won.
But then admissions deans noticed a worrying trend. Each year the number of very, very well-qualified Asian and Asian-American applicants was rising. Diversity was not supposed to produce an undergraduate population that was two-fifths Chinese, if not more. The goal was a rainbow nation, not Chimerica.
As a Harvard professor, I first became aware of the issue when Ron Unz published a disturbing critique of Ivy League admissions policies. Since the mid-1990s, Unz pointed out, Asians had consistently accounted for around 16% of Harvard enrolments. At Columbia the Asian share had actually fallen from 23% in 1993 to below 16% in 2011. Yet, according to the US census, the ratio of Asians to whites aged 18-21 had more than doubled in that period. Moreover, Asians now accounted for 28% of National Merit Scholarship semi-finalists and 39% of students at CalTech, where admissions are based purely on academic merit.
Now the advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions, which opposes affirmative action, is suing Harvard for discriminating against Asian applicants. Its court filings include evidence that Harvard’s Asian applicants have better grade-point averages, higher test scores and even more extensive extracurricular involvement than their counterparts in any other ethnic group.
The way the system seems to work is that Harvard admissions officers give poorer personal ratings to Asian-American applicants. “He’s quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor,” was the verdict on one Asian who didn’t make the cut.
Don’t get me wrong. I loved my time at Harvard. The college’s dean of admissions, William Fitzsimmons, has an extraordinarily difficult task each year of selecting just 2,000 young people out of more than 42,000 applicants — which he has performed with great dedication for more than 30 years. In its way each Harvard graduating class is a work of art. But the impression has nevertheless been created that Harvard has reverted to the bad habits of the 1920s, when its president, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, sought to reduce the share of Jews in the student body by introducing loaded criteria such as “character” to the admissions process.
This is where identity politics leads. Over the past three decades, self-styled progressives have insisted with fanatical zeal on the primacy of racial and sexual identities. Meanwhile, the so-called “alt-right” has responded with increasingly overt appeals to “white nationalism”.
At times it can seem as if Americans have decided to re-enact the Civil War on the internet. But in today’s culture war there are any number of sides and issues, not just two sides and one issue.
Yet, as a newly published study shows, a reassuringly large proportion of Americans think all this is nuts. Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarised Landscape offers a new political typology that divides Americans into seven political categories:
1 Progressive activists: younger, highly engaged, secular, cosmopolitan, angry (8%)
2 Traditional liberals: older, retired, open to compromise, rational, cautious (11%)
3 Passive liberals: unhappy, insecure, distrustful, disillusioned (15%)
4 Politically disengaged: young, low income, distrustful, detached, patriotic, conspiratorial (26%)
5 Moderates: engaged, civic-minded, middle-of-the-road, pessimistic, Protestant (15%)
6 Traditional conservatives: religious, middle class, patriotic, moralistic (19%)
7 Devoted conservatives: white, retired, highly engaged, uncompromising, patriotic (6%)
On the extremes — groups 1 and 7 — life is literally as well as metaphorically black and white. Fully 99% of progressives believe that “Many white people today don’t recognise the real advantages they have.” But 82% of devoted conservatives reject this, maintaining, “Nowadays white people do not have any real advantages over others.” It’s the same polarised story on the whole suite of identity politics issues: immigration, Islamophobia, feminism.
But the picture is very different in the middle. The study characterises groups 2 to 5 as “the exhausted majority”. The striking thing is that, though they have been completely turned off politics by the shrill extremes, they still have views — and on identity politics there is no mistaking their rightward tilt.
Four-fifths of all Americans believe that political correctness has gone too far. Only 30% of progressives agree. The strongest proponents of identity politics are in fact out of sync with the great majority. And 85% of all Americans — close to 90% of the exhausted majority — also believe that race should not be considered in the college admissions process. Only 40% of progressive activists agree.
I am not saying that, at most, 1/64 of American DNA is progressive. But I am saying that identity politics is devouring itself. And, as Elizabeth Warren can testify, it tastes bitter.
Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford