The anti-Semitic origins of diversity and racial 'representation'

John Kane-Berman on the long history of complaints about minority 'over-representation'

Writing recently on Politicsweb, James Myburgh described how a German think-tank put out a report in 1936 highlighting the “dangerous” over-representation of Jews in high schools in Berlin. For example, in ten districts of the city the share of Jewish pupils in schools was higher than the Jewish share (4.3%) of the overall Jewish population of Berlin.

Across Prussia, 3.1% of pupils in higher boys’ schools as of 1st May 1932 were Jewish. This was three times the Jewish share of the total Prussian population, which was only 1.1% according to the 1925 census.

Even before the report was published, the Nazi party had been concerned about the problem it discussed, and the new Nazi government wasted no time in dealing with “overrepresentation”. A law against “overcrowding of German schools and universities” was gazetted in April 1933. It limited the number of non-Aryans (students with at least one Jewish grandparent) to their proportion in the overall non-Aryan population of the Third Reich.

Dr Myburgh’s article was prompted by a paper presented last month by South Africa’s Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC). Its authors also complained about “over-representation”, this time of whites and other minorities in some of South Africa’s best schools.

The writers took the view that the more a school’s racial demographics deviated from the demographic make-up of the country’s population, the more “segregated” it was. On this yardstick, even former white schools that were now predominantly black African were still “segregated”, as the desired norm for white pupils was 3.8% (their share of the total school-going population). Any excess was a case of the “hoarding of educational opportunities by the white minority and other socio-economically advantaged groups”.

“Over-representation” of minorities in educational institutions has exercised people in other countries too. In The Affirmative Action Hoax, a book published in 2005, Steven Farron, a former professor of classics at the University of the Witwatersrand, traces how “affirmative action” and “diversity” policies practised by American universities originated in attempts to limit the numbers of Jews they enrolled.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, an examination was established for admission to university in the United States (US). It was widely adopted because it applied a uniform and transparent academic standard across the country. But very soon “the Jewish problem” emerged. Not only were there too many Jews in various universities, but they were also winning too many scholarships. By 1919 the proportion of Jews at elite American universities was several times the proportion of Jews in the American population.

In 1918 a dean at Yale argued for a “ban on the Jews” because they had been winning every scholarship of any value. Four years later he observed that “despite the handicap of poverty and the necessity of working their way, the Jews make better average records than their Gentile fellows”.    

Professor Farron’s alma mater, Columbia University, had already tried to deal with the issue. It was bothered by the fact that not enough students from the “better families” in New York were being enrolled. Recognising that public opinion made class or racial distinction difficult, it introduced non-academic criteria for admissions, including “geographic origin” to counteract the large population of Jews in New York.

A scholarship fund was established in 1914 in favour of graduates of private schools, who were more likely to be Protestant than Jewish. Religious affiliation and father’s place of birth were added to the criteria a few years later, before the proportion of Jews was explicitly limited to 20%.

In the early 1920s a Harvard plan to keep the number of Jews down to 15% provoked public outrage, so that institution devised a new goal, which was to make its student body “properly representative of all groups in our national life”. One of the new questions on its application form asked “what, if any, changes have been made in your name or that of your father?”

Even so, according to the university’s dean’s office, 27.6% of the new class in 1925 were definitely Jewish and 4.3% possibly Jewish. To prevent a “dangerous increase” in the proportion of Jews, character testimonials were then added to the admission requirements for academically admissible students. These additional criteria succeeded in keeping the Jewish proportion at Harvard down to 15% from the late 1920s to the mid-1940s. This was still five times the proportion of Jews in the US population.

The chairman of Yale’s admissions board was worried that the proportion of Jews in its entering classes had increased from 2% in 1897 to over 13% in 1921. He wanted to keep “low-class Jews” down to 10% but recognised that quotas were out of the question. So Yale started seeking a “balance and mix” of students. In efforts to obtain a “more accurate check on the race” of applicants, it asked for both parents’ birthplaces, as well as their mothers’ maiden names. Also, preference in admissions was given to sons of alumni.

According to Professor Farron, other elite universities adopted similar policies of adding “nebulous” non-academic admission criteria in order to practise discrimination “circuitously”. Princeton transferred admissions from a committee that considered only academic qualifications to one that also looked at leadership. This enabled it to halve the number of Jewish enrolments between 1922 and 1925. Stanford reduced its Jewish enrolment to less than 3% by assigning a 40% weight to character in admissions decisions. The University of Chicago adopted a policy of keeping “the percentage of Jews at the university the same as the percentage of Jews in the city”.

Non-elite universities throughout the US, says Professor Farron, also adopted non-academic criteria to limit their Jewish enrolment.

The policy was carried over into professional schools as well. Columbia’s Jewish medical enrolments were reduced from 50% in 1919 to 20% in in 1924, the medical dean explaining that “the racial and religious make-up in medicine ought to be kept fairly parallel with the population make-up”. A 1946 survey found that all of 39 major medical schools asked applicants for their religion.

Law schools, as well as engineering, dental, pharmacy, and veterinary schools all reduced their Jewish enrolments between 1935 and 1946.

However, starting with New York in 1946, states began to pass anti-discrimination laws. Numerous other “subjective” admission criteria were then applied to circumvent these. According to Professor Farron, it was not until 1957 that a public outcry arose against the “un-academic emphasis” of American education, following which universities had to pay increasing attention to aptitude tests and similar academic criteria.

Of course, the battle against racial and ethnic discrimination at American universities is by no means over. The principal victims, Professor Farron’s 2005 book pointed out, were now whites. But he also says that if racial discrimination is to be practised it should be done explicitly by quotas instead of through the “shameless frauds and blatant lies” that the more “circuitous” methods of achieving that objective involve.              

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom. Readers are invited to take a stand with the IRR by clicking here or sending an SMS with your name to 32823. Each SMS costs R1. Ts and Cs apply.