Imagine an affirmative action 200-meter dash. If you’re African American, you get a five-second head start. If you’re white, you take off when you hear the starter pistol. If you’re an Asian American high school student, as I am, you have to wait five seconds after the starter pistol before you can go.
This might sound ridiculous, but that’s how it sometimes feels, especially in light of the ruling handed down this week in a 2014 case brought against Harvard University by Students for Fair Admissions. The suit alleged that Harvard’s admissions policies used race as a predominant factor in evaluating applicants and in so doing set a higher bar for Asian students. Judge Allison D. Burroughs rejected those arguments and said the school’s affirmative action policies were fair.
Harvard has said its affirmative action program increases diversity and gives disadvantaged students a better chance of getting into an elite university. But every system that gives one group an advantage ends up putting another at a disadvantage.
The problem isn’t that Asian Americans aren’t well represented at elite universities. At Harvard, for example, the most recent class admitted is about 25% Asian American. The problem is that the admittance rate for Asians — the rate at which they are accepted compared to the rate at which they applied — is lower than for any other race or ethnicity. According to the Harvard Crimson, about 5.6% of the Asian Americans who applied to Harvard in 2017 were admitted, compared to 7% of white applicants, 6.8% of African American applicants, and 6.1% of Latinos.
A 2013 analysis by Harvard, later cited in the lawsuit, examined admissions data to see what would happen if admissions officers judged students only by academic achievements and test scores. Under such a standard, the analysis found, Asian Americans would make up 43.4% of the admitted class, compared to their actual 18.7% share. Even when all an applicants’ attributes were considered — extracurricular activities, personal ratings, etc. — Asians were still found to be sorely underadmitted.
Many Asian American students are immigrants themselves, or the children or grandchildren of immigrants. Our families generally came to the U.S. seeking greater opportunities, and they almost all faced high barriers to socioeconomic mobility. They worked hard and broke barriers, only to find their descendants punished by Harvard and other elite schools because of their success.
Both my parents grew up in Taiwan before coming to America to pursue their master’s degrees. My dad often tells me how poor he was after he graduated from university and got a job. His wages were so low he slept in his office at night on a Murphy bed that he nailed together with scraps from Home Depot and lived on instant noodles.
He struggled to save money for a down payment on a house, knowing he would have to rent out rooms, at least initially, to make the mortgage payments. But he was determined to achieve his piece of the American Dream.
My parents encouraged me to succeed, too, never suspecting that I’d be punished in the college admissions process for meeting their expectations. Even though I spend a majority of my free time focusing on academics and activities that put me at the top of my class, I may very well never make it to an Ivy League university because of my skin color.
It’s not that I can’t understand the other side. Universities want to build classes that reflect the diversity of the United States. And I know that America is still working to overcome the legacy of slavery, which has condemned many black students to poverty and inferior schools. I also understand that many Latino students have faced similar kinds of deprivation and discrimination.
But in higher education today, Asian Americans also are experiencing textbook discrimination: Some of us are denied admission purely because of our skin color. We are not admitted to many top universities in the numbers our achievements would justify.
The most galling thing of all is that, even as Asian Americans are punished for their achievements, less accomplished children of wealthy alumni and big donors get favored treatment in admissions. How can this possibly be justified?
Another huge problem with admissions policies toward Asian Americans is that they tend to lump us all into a single category of “model minority,” when we are in fact a diverse group. Yes, some of us have grown up privileged, but many others have not. They have grown up poor, sometimes facing the insecurity of uncertain immigration status for their parents or themselves, or struggling to learn English.
Like many stereotypes, the model minority trope does have some basis in fact. I am Taiwanese American, a group with some of the highest household incomes and one of the lowest crime commission rates of any ethnicity. We even have a Wikipedia page highlighting our success.
But the stereotypes have negative implications, too. As a group, we’re not considered creative. We’re thought to be followers rather than leaders. These things are absurd, of course, as we’re individuals with a range of different talents. But I worry that it is easier for admissions officers thousands of miles away to assume such stereotypes are accurate.
The fact that we aren’t rewarded in proportion to our achievements only serves to worsen competition among my Asian peers, undermining our mental health and straining parent-child relationships. Many of us set unrealistic standards, and we tell ourselves that because of our skin color, we must have the highest GPAs and test scores. I witnessed the downside of that kind of striving first-hand when Palo Alto experienced a suicide cluster in 2008. Six teenagers took their own lives and devastated our community.
I know of cases in which Asian American students have tried to circumvent affirmative action. They change their last names or lie about their race on college applications. No one should have to deny his or her heritage to get a fair break.
Ethan Hwang is a junior at Palo Alto High School, where he is a staff writer for his school’s web journalism publication, the Paly Voice.