Last June, the Supreme Court issued their ruling on the case Students for Fair Admissions vs. Harvard, banning federally-funded colleges from practicing affirmative action based on race. As an Asian student, this decision unquestionably benefits me—I now have a better chance of getting into my first-choice college, though to what extent is still an open question. Still, I have some very conflicted feelings.
As many have fairly pointed out, white people have enjoyed an even more extreme form of affirmative action for generations. Until recently, top schools denied admission to nearly all non-white people by virtue of their race. Even today, the application process favors white applicants. The legacy system, which favors students applying to the same school their parents went to, disproportionately benefits white people.
Yet, many people fail to mention that affirmative action is just as much, if not more, an Asian issue. The thesis of the Harvard lawsuit which overturned affirmative action was that the university’s “personal rating” punished Asian students by virtue of their race. According to a 2013 internal review, if Harvard only admitted students by academic achievement, Asians would make up 43% of the class, but instead, they were only 19%.
The report also found that, for students with comparable academic rankings or SAT scores, white students were generally admitted at higher rates than were Asian American students.
Asians are often overlooked in conversations such as these—often treated as another shade of white, ignoring Asians’ unique identity and history. As an Asian person, it’s frustrating to see that, while Asians were at the center of the affirmative action lawsuit, they were absent from the discourse that followed. This New York Times opinion did not mention the word “Asian” once. Neither did this one; nor this one in CommonWealth. Indeed, it’s a struggle to find any opinion article in favor of affirmative action that even mentions Asian students.
I agree that colleges need diversity and that admitting students solely on their ‘academic merit’ is discriminatory. Oftentimes, test scores, grades, and extracurriculars more accurately measure a student’s wealth than their intelligence.
However, when I searched for opinions to justify hurting Asians’ college admissions chances, I found lengthy discussions of legacy admissions and historical discrimination, neither of which have benefited Asian students to the same degree.
Maybe this is because, if you look at what little admissions data we have access to, affirmative action becomes a lot harder to accept. This study published in the European Economic Review, which compared Asian students with white students at Harvard, found that, if an Asian student was treated like they were white, their admission rate would rise by 19%. The study only considered Harvard since most private universities’ admissions data remains private.
Indeed, Asians are overrepresented at the University of California (UC), where race-based affirmative action is banned. Despite making up 19.9% of California high school graduates eligible for UC admission, Asians represent 40.3% of in-state freshmen.
Much—though not all—of the Harvard discrepancy comes from a loosely defined ‘personal rating.’ This metric seeks to quantify “likeability, courage, and kindness.” Asian students scored dramatically lower here, not only compared to white students, but to all other races.
When I first learned about this, I thought it was a fair assessment. It sometimes does feel like Asians spend more time studying and less time outside than other groups. However, the authors of the study noted, “This occurs despite Asian Americans being stronger on the observables associated with these ratings [personal and overall]; and indeed stronger on the observables associated with every modeled rating.”
‘Observables,’ according to the study, represent the qualitative scores that researchers have access to—including standardized test scores, extracurricular ratings, and teacher recommendations.
For every other race, a higher extracurricular and academic rating and strong teacher recommendations implied generally meant a high personal rating. This pattern did not hold for Asian students. Despite having the strongest metrics across the board, Asian students had lower-than average personal ratings.
When you strip away the subjectivity, look at the measurables like extracurriculars or academics, and analyze how they correlate with the personal rating for every single race other than Asians, it becomes clear that something discriminatory is at play. The researchers termed this the “Asian American penalty.”
People have bought into the myth that Asian students are more shy, less independent, and more studious than students of other races. For a time, I bought into that idea, being Asian myself. It appears that Harvard has as well.
Given that there’s been such robust discussion over implicit discrimination in how colleges rate academics or extracurriculars, all of which is incredibly valid and important, it shocks me how so many people have turned a blind eye to the personal rating, an entirely subjective metric that consistently underrated Asian students in a way that fits a common stereotype.
The data show that Asians are overrepresented in elite universities because they’re overrepresented in elite applicants.
It’s still important to recognize that only parts of the Asian community prioritize academics and push students to do everything possible to succeed. This, among other factors including recent immigration, has resulted in some Asians being better off financially than the rest of the country.
Yet, this flawed perception of Asian students has affected Asians as a whole. Race-based affirmative action only considers the five major racial categories. It treats a rich, educated person the same as a poor, recent immigrant as long as they’re from the same race. Asian Americans are the most economically divided group in the country.
The stereotype of the elite Asian largely comes from East Asians and South Asians who have immigrated in recent decades. The Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 made it easier for Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people with university degrees from their home countries to secure visas to the U.S.
For example, Indians, the wealthiest ethnic group in the country, largely immigrate to America through the H-1B visa program, a program for people with a Bachelor’s degree or higher.
Because of how the American immigration system works, these Asians came to the U.S. already educated and wealthy. In turn, they intensely pushed their kids to pursue higher education. That’s where the stereotypical Asian comes from.
But assuming that all Asians are like this is an overgeneralization. While Asians in general have a median household income of $88k, higher than the national average of $74k, this varies heavily based on ethnic origin. People from Bhutan, for instance, have an average of $44k.
A refugee fleeing persecution in Nepal is not the same as an Indian engineer. A descendant of the Chinese railroad workers is not the same as the child of a Taiwanese professor. Yet, they’re all lumped together under the umbrella term, “Asian.”
Race-based affirmative action encouraged a soft form of discrimination for the appearance of diversity.
I’m not arguing that affirmative action is always bad. I don’t like the fact that colleges are now limited in their ability to build a racially diverse campus, one that looks like the country it’s meant to represent. Elite schools seek to educate the next generation of leaders, researchers, and professionals. If their student body only consists of wealthy whites and Asians, that’s a problem.
However, I also disliked that when applying to college before affirmative action’s repeal, I didn’t have to focus on just being the best student, I had to be the best Asian. My dream schools were only going to accept so many people of my race, and in order to be one of them, I needed to shrug off the “Asian American penalty” and be disproportionately successful.
Race was socially constructed by people who wanted to create a hierarchy that benefited Europeans. We shouldn’t ignore race—it has divided society for centuries, and we can’t expect the effects of racial segregation to have disappeared in a few years. Yet, we continue to classify individuals using this deeply flawed metric. We shouldn’t conflate vastly different people—people who differ in religion, culture, education—just because they happen to come from the same continent, the largest continent in the world that holds 60% of Earth’s population.
Schools need diversity. However, having diversity of thought, class, and experience, are all far more important than diversity of race. Letting a student’s race play any significant role in their admissions is inherently reductionist.
Colleges have an opportunity to vastly improve diversity—they can eliminate legacy admissions.
I’m not saying that America’s colleges should replace all their Black and Latinx students with Asians—having representation from these communities is inherent in a diverse student body. A student from an underrepresented race may certainly have a unique, powerful story to tell. However, schools should evaluate each student’s experience uniquely, not through the blunt instrument of race.