Thursday, November 08, 2012

"They take students like you there."

The touching essay I quote from below is by Eddie Frenkel, a noted Berkeley mathematician. I recommend the whole thing. Eddie and I used to play in the regular Junior Fellows basketball game at Harvard's Malkin Athletic Center (MAC), where Spike Lee and Obama also played. I don't recall ever playing with Obama, but I do remember Spike, who was teaching a film class on campus. Spike is no baller, despite being such a big Knicks fan. For some reason I came up with the nickname "Kazakhstani Kid" for Eddie, which he never appreciated. During all the years I knew Eddie we never talked about anti-semitism. I did, however, hear such stories from Bob Nozick (from his Princeton years) and Stephen Greenblatt (Yale). They were, of course, from an earlier generation.

Perceptively, Nozick once asked me if I thought Asian-Americans were discriminated against by elite universities like Harvard. Perhaps he was aware of the 1990 investigation of Harvard by the Department of Education (our conversation would have been in the early 90s); I certainly was not. See also The bar is different.

New Criterion: ... It was 1984, my senior year at high school. I had to decide which university to apply to. Moscow had many schools, but there was only one place to study pure math: Moscow State University, known by its Russian abbreviation MGU, Moskovskiy Gosudarstvenny Universitet. Its famous Mekh-Mat, the Department of Mechanics and Mathematics, was the flagship mathematics program of the USSR. Since I wanted to study pure math, I had no choice but to apply there.

Unlike the U.S., there are entrance exams to colleges in Russia. At Mekh-Mat there were four: written math, oral math, an essay on literature, and oral physics. I had, by then, progressed far beyond high school math, so it looked like I would sail through these exams.

But I was too optimistic. ...

“What’s your name?” she said by way of greeting.

“Eduard Frenkel.” (I used the Russian version of “Edward’’ in those days.)

“And you want to apply to MGU?”


“Which Department?”


“I see.” She lowered her eyes and asked:

“And what’s your nationality?”

I said, “Russian.”

“Really? And what are your parents’ nationalities?”

“Well. . . . My mother is Russian.”

“And your father?”

“My father is Jewish.”


“Do you know that Jews are not accepted to Moscow University?”

“What do you mean?”

“What I mean is that you shouldn’t even bother to apply. Don’t waste your time. They won’t let you in.” ...

But Eddie tried anyway, to no avail.

... We walked out of the room and entered the elevator. The doors closed. It was just the two of us. The examiner was clearly in a good mood. He said:

“You did very well. A really impressive performance. I was wondering: did you go to a special math school?”

I grew up in a small town, we didn’t have special math schools.

“Really? Perhaps, your parents are mathematicians?”

No, they are engineers.

“Interesting. . . . It’s the first time I’ve seen such a strong student who did not go to a special math school.”

I couldn’t believe what he was saying. This man had just failed me after an unfairly administered, discriminatory, grueling five-hour exam. For all I knew, he had killed my dream of becoming a mathematician. A sixteen-year-old student, whose only fault was that he came from a Jewish family. And now this guy is giving me compliments and expecting me to open up to him?!

But what could I do? Yell at him, punch him in the face? I was just standing there, silent, stunned. He continued:

“Let me give you some advice. Apply to the Moscow Institute of Oil and Gas. They have an Applied Mathematics program, which is quite good. They take students like you there.”

The elevator doors opened and a minute later he handed me my thick application folder, with a bunch of my school trophies and prizes oddly sticking out of it.

“Good luck to you,” he said, but I was too exhausted to respond. My only wish was to get the hell out of there!

And then I was outside, on the giant staircase of the immense MGU building. I was breathing fresh summer air again and hearing the sounds of the big city coming from a distance. It was getting dark, and there was almost no one around. I immediately spotted my parents who had been waiting anxiously for me on the steps this whole time. By the look on my face, and the big folder I was holding in my hands, they knew right away what had happened inside.
A reader sent me this list of deceptively simple "Jewish problems" used in oral exams at Moscow State University (MGU):


Yan Shen said...

"I couldn’t believe what he was saying. This man had just failed me after
an unfairly administered, discriminatory, grueling five-hour exam. For
all I knew, he had killed my dream of becoming a mathematician. A
sixteen-year-old student, whose only fault was that he came from a
Jewish family. And now this guy is giving me compliments and expecting
me to open up to him?!

But what could I do? Yell at him, punch him in the face? I was just standing there, silent, stunned."

Hey Eddie, if you don't like the anti-Semitic status quo in Russia, you're more than welcome to return to Israel. In fact, all Jewish Russians who are complaining about anti-Semitism should ask themselves why they're in Russia to begin with. Oh wait...

esmith said...

It's a sad story but, as a Russian, I must say that it sounds improbable. When I was in college, there were lots of Jewish professors in highly respected universities. Many well-known modern Russian mathematicians are Jewish. Just to name a few, Grigori Perelman (Leningrad State University, mekh-mat, enrolled in 1982, I think). Grigori Margulis (Moscow State, mekh-mat, enrolled in the early 60's, Fields Medal 1978). Vladimir Drinfeld (Moscow State, mekh-mat, enrolled 1969, Fields Medal 1990.) Maxim Kontsevich (Moscow State, mekh-mat, enrolled 1980, Fields Medal 1998.)

This is not to say that there was no anti-semitism in the Soviet Union - there certainly was some - but its degree was sometimes exaggerated, because Jews were among the few groups allowed to emigrate from the country at the time, and they were sometimes raising accusations of anti-semitism to apply for asylum abroad.

steve hsu said...

IIRC, in the Perelman bio Perfect Rigor it is stated that because of his Jewish heritage Perelman would not have been admitted to Leningrad State University had he not made the USSR math olympiad team. Anti-semitism of this sort does not preclude some big successes like the ones you list. I know that some physics institutes in the USSR did not hire Jews and there was fierce rivalry between certain "Jewish" schools of physics and others.

esmith said...

It is possible that there were informal quotas on the numbers of Jews in prominent universities. By 1984, Jews comprised about 0.5% of the population of the USSR, quotas may have been set at several times that number, as sort of "reverse affirmative action".
Keep in mind that, throughout most of the history of the USSR, Jews were represented in Soviet science and administration in numbers far out of proportion with their share of the population. I've seen estimates that, as late as 1970's, they consistently accounted for 10-15% of total membership of the Soviet Academy of Sciences. An admissions quota of, say, 2% could certainly feel anti-semitic.

Christopher Chang said...

It was almost always correct for Russian Jews to emigrate to Israel or the US when they had the chance. A very sad situation. But, because the Jews built good institutions for their people outside Russia, it was endurable.

I would like the US to be a race-blind meritocracy with a sane mix of respect for the cultures which put the most work into designing and building the country's key institutions, as well as for those who are working hardest within those institutions today. But I don't see that in the cards in the near future; certainly not the first half, and too much emphasis on the second half without the first half legitimizes accusations of parasitism.

In light of this, and the reality that US universities do a perfectly good job of educating Asian-Americans (they just don't allocate as much status to AAs as a group as would happen under a strict meritocracy), if you really care about the welfare of the Chinese people you're best off using the skills you've learned to help build first-rate institutions in East Asia. Create status, instead of fighting for a bigger slice of a large but no-longer-growing pie.

Christopher Chang said...

I put in the "if you really care about the welfare of the Chinese people" conditional because I knew I could not take that assumption for granted.

But as a practical matter, the alternative path you are choosing to take is essentially permanently unstable. You will always be visibly different from the vast majority of Americans; unfair, but this is a reality you need to deal with. If you try to play the racial spoils game, you contribute to a dynamic that drives national decline, and you encourage justified resentment against your group (just because it is not justified in your worldview does not mean it is not justified in all memetically stable worldviews, or in the distribution of intelligent worldviews that are held by actual Americans).

The one path I see to full acceptance is if Asian-Americans really start building institutions that employ/educate/effectively serve all American groups in ways that are not being done now. Imagine a genuinely centrist, top-flight Asian-American run newspaper that gained the respect of both intelligent conservatives sick of the likes of Fox News, *and* the currently NYT-reading set that have grown tired of its "low effective M" punditry. Imagine an elite, Asian-American founded university that did not count membership in the Future Farmers of America against an applicant. These kinds of massive contributions may be enough to break the back of anti-Asian racism.

But as long as you focus on your own group's "underrepresentation" in various contexts, instead of looking at what Americans in general could most benefit from, don't say you weren't forewarned of the likely consequences. I have no objection to your identifying primarily as an American, but if that is your choice, do it right.

A. Zarkov said...

For those who doubt this story, and especially for you apologists for the former Soviet Union, I refer you to the 1980 book (actually a reprint of a samizdat essay) by Grigori Freiman, It seems I am a Jew. It deals the practices of the antisemitic Steklov Institute. In the USSR to get a doctorate in mathematics, students had to submit to an oral exam given by a member of the Institute-- no written record of the exam was kept. According to Freiman, Jewish students were give virtually impossible questions to answer-- research level questions. In spite of that, a few Jewish students were so brilliant they could answer at least some. This book might be out of print, but is still available on the used market and new from some sellers.

According to one Amazon reviewer, "By the late 1970s the mathematics section of the Soviet Academy of Sciences had nearly achieved the goal of Judenfrei mathematics."

Finally don't think this can't happen here. We have a president who kept the company of antisemites such as the Rev. Wright and Louis Farrakhan. Today antisemitism comes disguised as opposition to Israel, but it's the same old stuff from Europe, Eastern Europe, Russia, and North Africa. We had it in the U.S. in the 20s, 30s and 40s in the form of quotas at Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, Columbia, and other big name schools who said they didn't want too many Jews in the student body. Many large corporations had policies of not hiring Jews such Standard Oil of California (now called Chevron). I know a gentile physicist who worked for Chevron in the late 1940s and very early 1950s who remembers being told they would not hire Jews as consultants. That was company policy. Now antisemitism is leaking back into U.S. society from the left and especially in places like the city of Berkeley. Read the saga of Sanne DeWitt and Jerusalem Bus 19

asdf asdf said...

What your posing is an Asian American led alignment with non-liberal high IQ white people. However, the exact opposite has been happening in the Asian community. Obama just won them by a bigger margin then ever. Asians are becoming more liberal, not less.

I've spent a lot of time around Asians, and they are generally 1) conformist and 2) status climbing. They almost all live on the coast in large very liberal cities and are concentrated in very liberal industries. So given #1 and #2 its almost always going to make sense for Asians to be more liberal on an individual basis even if it may lead to sub optimal group advocacy. Asians are pretty liberal and becoming more liberal. They always mimic the dominant ideology of the culture and that is liberalism (conservatism is a "loyal opposition" that shares all of liberalism's core assumptions and will almost always resemble liberalism's political stances today within two to three decades from now).

Blacks and others play the racial spoil game because they have no choice. They don't have high enough IQ to compete. It's the only strategy they have so they play it up as best they can. Individual Asians have high IQ and therefore have many different strategies they pursue to succeed. They will never act as a unified racial group.

Jews are a tiny white minority with much stronger bonds. They also had the whole holocaust thing. Finally, they are high V and can actually make their case well. It is much easier for them to pursue a unified strategy.

Hastings Banda said...

Perfect Rigor wasn't written by a disinterested obesrver. Anti-Jew-ism in the USSR was much less than in the Russian Empire.

Hastings Banda said...

Jews were even more grossly overrepresented among Bolsheviks. Stalin undid this but kept Koganovich. Now, apparently, Putin is doing the same. The Jewish % of oligarchs has been falling.

Hastings Banda said...

It's a shame the thinking on this issue is so one-sided and shallow.

If Asians were 30% of the Ivy League, if Jews were 30 % of the Ivy League (oh wait they are), or 30% of Moscow State, etc. wouldn't this be a problem even if they deserved it?

Whenever a small minority is grossly overrepresented in the elite there is a necessary loss of popular self-determination.

When the Visigoths ruled Spain it was a problem. When the English ruled Ireland it was a problem. When the Mongols ruled China it was a problem.

The problem, ultimately, is the multiethnic state. It's sure to fail.

Christopher Chang said...

I have no illusions about how unlikely my vision is, due to the political trend you mention. This is a major reason why I was happy to leave the US for an extended time.

There is an apolitical and moral case to be made for it, though. Espenshade's research has uncovered evidence of potentially illegal university admissions discrimination against both Asian-Americans and whites with the "wrong" cultural background. Despite my comments about AAs getting a perfectly good education and only losing out on some status, I'm completely in agreement with Steve's stance that violation of the law is not okay (see ). However, if white people like Espenshade engage in principled advocacy on behalf of all victims, while Asians behave in a manner that is perceived as just looking out for themselves, that helps validate negative stereotypes about Asians. For a sufficiently wealthy and connected Asian-American who wants to make it clear that Asian-Americans can be fully American and fully human, this is a proverbial $100 bill drifting around... on a very busy street, not the sidewalk, since it's as difficult as Paul Graham's "Frighteningly Ambitious Startup Ideas" ( ; there's actually considerable overlap with #3) yet it ALSO requires absorbing a large short-term status hit. But nobody said true leadership was easy.

Same principles apply w.r.t. creating better media. Given the impact of the Internet, this would probably not involve a literal newspaper. We've got to be able to do better than the Moonies...

Yan Shen said...

"However, if white people like Espenshade engage in principled advocacy on behalf of all victims, while Asians behave in a manner that is perceived as just looking out for themselves, that helps validate
negative stereotypes about Asians."

I'm sorry Chris, but look around you. Many Asian Americans, myself included, have long been critical of affirmative action, even when it only hurt whites vis-a-vis blacks and Hispanics. Many of us came from cultures rooted strongly in the belief in meritocracy. It's true that people like Espenshade exist, but the vast majority of even right-wing whites don't seem particularly eager in speaking out against anti-Asian discrimination in college admissions. Hence, my statement before that most right-white wings were motivated more by perceived ethnic self-interest rather than principled universalism. Asian Americans are by far the most principled ethnic group in this country. As far as I can tell, it's not even close.

" If you try to play the racial spoils game, you contribute to a dynamic that drives national decline"

I would never demand something that wasn't justified on the basis of merit. I fail to understand how someone could possibly argue that upholding meritocracy would lead to national decline, when it fact the exact opposite is true. When you upend meritocracy in favor of various forms of affirmative action, it leads to a sub-optimal outcome for society as a whole.

Christopher Chang said...

Yes, I know that some opposition from Asians to affirmative action is deeply principled. I used the slightly awkward phrase "behave in a manner that is perceived as just looking out for themselves" because perception is part of the problem. But there are things principled Asians can do which combat the misperceptions a lot more effectively than what's going on now.

The most important one may be to acknowledge, as Steve has, that there's a good argument that school performance *is* currently a biased predictor, favoring East Asians *over* whites, of post-graduation performance in America. "Merit" is a lot more complicated than you have been making it out to be. Yes, it's deeply weird that the American education system appears to have such a bias, and Steve's hypothesis that American academic performance may not underpredict post-graduation performance in East Asia should always be kept in mind. But it's entirely plausible that American schools are poorly serving many white males. Suppose this is true: what are the most important things to fix, then? If you're a white male in this hypothetical world, what do you think of Asian-Americans who point to your group's depressed performance as justification for more status for themselves?

It is possible to be very principled and very wrong at the same time, and it's downright common to be very principled and perceived as very wrong. When you are trying to persuade others, you must avoid the latter as well as the former.

asdf asdf said...

Yan Shen would be wise to note Asians deficiencies as you note.

However, I think he is being far more realistic in terms of understanding that life is all about "who...whom". The racial spoils game will be played whether you choose to play it or not. Choosing not to play simply means playing it very poorly, the game goes on. There is no true meritocracy/just colorblind society. The experiment of the last several decades proves that.

In successful ethnic groups it is often more profitable to cannibalize your own races success. Harvard gained a lot from having their investment banking graduates loot middle America (mostly other white people). It's no surprise they didn't want to admit those same people to Harvard (they might not get with the program) so they penalize ROTC and such.

Yan Shen said...

I hear a lot of yapping and self-righteous indignation from many white Americans, even on this blog. If you don't like what's going on, here's the simple solution. Don't let immigrants from other nations, for whom English often isn't even their first language, out-compete you.

LaurentMelchiorTellier said...

Chris is a man of principle. He's not describing a sacrifice of principle for pragmatism.

Yan Shen said...

Not to be facetious here, but your exhortation that we should be more respectful towards the cultures which created this country's institutions got me to thinking. Wasn't this country built on land recently stolen from the Native American Indians? In all fairness, it's not as if Americans have a history of being respectful towards indigenous cultures and institutions. The history of this country has been ruthlessly Darwinian. Like I always say, what's good for the goose is good for the gander...

Christopher Chang said...

Invasion of the militarily weak is the rule rather than the exception, historically speaking. The interesting question is what the invaders do with their conquests. My respect for many facets of Western civilization is based on functional value, not blind ancestor worship.

Nobody can stop you or other Asians from trying to play the ethnocentric advocacy game that has become increasingly common in the US. I expect others to do this even if you don't, and have taken action to insulate myself from the consequences.

It just strikes me as a strange choice for a young person who is aware of the things discussed on this blog. In particular, there is a very long Chinese tradition of equating merit with test scores, but here, you are exposed to many intelligent people who understand limitations of that model.

asdf asdf said...

Your right, it would be smart for white people as a whole. However, it is smart for individual white people to betray white people as a whole (just as its smart for individual Asians on this site to betray the whole). HYPS and its entire elite eco system got rich off immigration and AA. The middle of the white bell curve accumulated tremendous wealth in the post war era. It was ripe for the taking. AA and immigration were just one blank of the program to do so. Many foreign countries had vast reserves of natural and human resources to exploit. AA gave them and racial ambassadors to do so.

Blog Archive