Reihan Salam is of Bangladeshi extraction and went to Harvard, so he is in a position to explain precisely where Sarah Jeong’s animosity toward white men is coming from.
In some instances, white-bashing can actually serve as a means of ascent, especially for Asian Americans. Embracing the culture of upper-white self-flagellation can spur avowedly enlightened whites to eagerly cheer on their Asian American comrades who show (abstract, faceless, numberless) lower-white people what for. And, simultaneously, it allows Asian Americans who use the discourse to position themselves as ethnic outsiders, including those who are comfortably enmeshed in elite circles.
Think about what it takes to claw your way into Americaâ€™s elite strata. Unless you were born into the upper-middle class, your surest route is to pursue an elite education. To do that, it pays to be exquisitely sensitive to the beliefs and prejudices of the people who hold the power to grant you access to the social and cultural capital you badly want. By setting the standards for what counts as praiseworthy, elite universities have a powerful effect on youthful go-getters. Their admissions decisions represent powerful â€œnudgesâ€ towards certain attitudes, beliefs, and behaviors, and Iâ€™ve known many first- and second-generation kidsâ€”I was one of themâ€”who intuit this early on.
Consider the recent contretemps over Harvardâ€™s undergraduate admissions policies. Critics argue that the university actively discriminates against high-achieving Asian American applicants by claiming that a disproportionately large number of them have lackluster personalities. One obvious reaction to this charge is to denounce Harvard for its supposed double standards. This reaction might be especially appealing to those who see themselves as the sort of people whoâ€™d be dismissed by Harvardâ€™s suspect screening process, and whoâ€™d thus have every reason to resent it. Viewed through an elite-eye lens, though, this sort of reaction can seem a little gauche. Youâ€™re saying, in a sense, that you canâ€™t hack itâ€”you just canâ€™t crack the code. To a successful code-cracker, that could seem more than a little pathetic.
So what if youâ€™re an Asian American who has already made the cut? In that case, you might celebrate Harvardâ€™s wisdom in judiciously balancing its student body, or warn that Harvardâ€™s critics have a darker, more ominous agenda that canâ€™t be trusted. This establishes you as an insider, who gets that Harvard is doing the right thing, while allowing you to distance yourself from less-enlightened, and less-elite, people of Asian origin: Youâ€™re all being duped by evil lower-whites who donâ€™t grok racial justice.
And if youâ€™re an Asian American aspiring to make the cut, even with the deck stacked against you, you might eschew complaining in favor of doing everything in your power to cultivate the personal qualities Harvard wants most, or at least to appear to have done so. One straightforward way to demonstrate that you are Harvard material might be to denounce Harvard as racist, provided youâ€™re careful to do so in a way that flatters rather than offends those who run the university and are invested in its continued success. For example, you might reject the notion that affirmative action is the problem while arguing that Harvard shouldnâ€™t endeavor to increase representation of rural and working-class whites, on the spurious grounds that all whites are privileged. That youâ€™ll make these claims even though you yourself are hardly among the most downtrodden is immaterial: The important thing is to be interesting. What better way to demonstrate that youâ€™re not a humdrum worker bee, afflicted with a lackluster personality, than to carefully and selectively express the right kind of righteous indignation?
I certainly donâ€™t mean to single out Harvard. As the senior assistant director of admissions at Yale recently observed, â€œfor those students who come to Yale, we expect them to be versed in issues of social justice. We encourage them to be vocal when they see an opportunity for change in our institution and in the world.â€ Picture yourself as an eager high schooler reading these words, and then jotting down notes. You absorb, assuming you hadnâ€™t already, what it takes to make your way in contemporary elite America. And as you grow older, you lean into the rhetorical gambits that served you so well in the past. You might even build a worldview out of them.