Affirmative Action and Asian-Americans–The Uncomfortable Truth

August 11, 2017

Affirmative Action and Asian-Americans–The Uncomfortable Truth

by  Jeanie Suk Gersen

Image result for Harvard by The Charles River

Since the nineties, the share of Asians in Harvard’s freshman class has remained stable, while the percentage of Asians in the U.S. population has more than doubled.

The application process for schools, fellowships, and jobs always came with a ritual: a person who had a role in choosing me—an admissions officer, an interviewer—would mention in his congratulations that I was “different” from the other Asians. When I won a scholarship that paid for part of my education, a selection panelist told me that I got it because I had moving qualities of heart and originality that Asian applicants generally lacked. Asian applicants were all so alike, and I stood out. In truth, I wasn’t much different from other Asians I knew. I was shy and reticent, played a musical instrument, spent summers drilling math, and had strict parents to whom I was dutiful. But I got the message: to be allowed through a narrow door, an Asian should cultivate not just a sense of individuality but also ways to project “Not like other Asians!”

I got the message: to be allowed through a narrow door, an Asian should cultivate not just a sense of individuality but also ways to project “Not like other Asians!”– Jeanie Suk Gersen

In a federal lawsuit filed in Massachusetts in 2014, a group representing Asian-Americans is claiming that Harvard University’s undergraduate-admissions practices unlawfully discriminate against Asians. (Disclosure: Harvard is my employer, and I attended and teach at the university’s law school.) The suit poses questions about what a truly diverse college class might look like, spotlighting a group that is often perceived as lacking internal diversity. The court complaint quotes a college counsellor at the highly selective Hunter College High School (which I happened to attend), who was reporting a Harvard admissions officer’s feedback to the school: certain of its Asian students weren’t admitted, the officer said, because “so many” of them “looked just like” each other on paper.

The lawsuit alleges that Harvard effectively employs quotas on the number of Asians admitted and holds them to a higher standard than whites. At selective colleges, Asians are demographically over represented minorities, but they are underrepresented relative to the applicant pool. Since the nineteen-nineties, the share of Asians in Harvard’s freshman class has remained stable, at between sixteen and nineteen per cent, while the percentage of Asians in the U.S. population more than doubled. A 2009 Princeton study showed that Asians had to score a hundred and forty points higher on the S.A.T. than whites to have the same chance of admission to top universities. The discrimination suit survived Harvard’s motion to dismiss last month and is currently pending.

When the New York Times reported, last week, that the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division was internally seeking lawyers to investigate or litigate “intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions,” many people immediately assumed that the Trump Administration was hoping to benefit whites by assailing affirmative action. The Department soon insisted that it specifically intends to revive a 2015 complaint against Harvard filed with the Education and Justice Departments by sixty-four Asian-American groups, making the same claim as the current court case: that Harvard intentionally discriminates against Asians in admissions, giving whites an advantage. (The complaint had previously been dismissed in light of the already-pending lawsuit.) The combination of the lawsuit and the potential federal civil-rights inquiry signals that the treatment of Asians will frame the next phase of the legal debate over race-conscious admissions programs.

Just last year, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the University of Texas at Austin’s affirmative-action program, which, like Harvard’s, aims to build a diverse class along multiple dimensions and considers race as one factor in a holistic review of each applicant. Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, approved of a university’s ability to define “intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission.” Incidentally, the phrase “intangible characteristics” echoes the sort of language that often describes the individualizing or leadership qualities that many Asian-American applicants, perceived as grinds with high test scores, are deemed to lack. The complaint against Harvard highlights the school’s history of using similar language to describe Jewish students nearly a century ago, which led to a “diversity” rationale designed to limit Jewish enrollment in favor of applicants from regions with fewer Jews, such as the Midwest. If diversity of various kinds is central to an élite school’s mission, an Asian may have to swim upstream to be admitted.

The U.T. affirmative-action case was brought by a white student and financed by Edward Blum, a white Jewish conservative who is also financing the lawsuit against Harvard. Justice Alito’s dissent in the U.T. case said that, in failing to note that U.T.’s admissions practices discriminated against Asians, the Court’s majority acted “almost as if Asian-American students do not exist.” For Asian-Americans—the majority of whom support affirmative action—being cast in the foreground of the affirmative-action debate can be awkward and painful. Affirmative action has consistently been a “wedge” issue, and groups such as Asian Americans Advancing Justice have opposed attempts to use Asian students as the wedge in conservative attacks on affirmative action that may harm black and Latino students. Some simply deny that race-conscious admissions procedures are disadvantaging Asians at all, which avoids confronting a complicated dilemma.

The Harvard lawsuit does raise uncomfortable questions, especially in a time when it is also becoming less comfortable to be an immigrant. Is an admissions process that disadvantages a minority group benign, or even desirable, if that minority group is demographically over represented in higher education? Should colleges pursue their interest in a diverse class by limiting admissions of a minority group whose numbers may otherwise overwhelm the class?

Because our legal doctrine prohibits racial quotas, it is currently impossible to have an honest discussion of these questions. The truth is that, in addition to a holistic review of each applicant that considers race as one factor, colleges undertake some amount of balancing so that they do not end up with a class that is swamped by members of any particular race—or with too many scientists, poets, or dancers, for that matter. But admissions offices cannot admit to efforts at racial balancing or anything that sounds remotely like quotas. Hence, Harvard’s litigation position must attribute the resulting race composition and the percentage of Asians in its class solely to the holistic method, admitting to no racial balancing. This account is plausible if, in fact, despite disproportionately strong academic credentials, Asian applicants are severely less likely than white ones to have the special personal qualities that colleges seek.

That is the inevitable implication of Harvard’s position, which would be in line with long-standing perceptions of Asians as indistinguishable from one another. The lawsuit may well entail an inquiry into whether Asian applicants’ non-academic qualifications were disproportionately un-special compared to those of white applicants. (In addition to Harvard submitting comprehensive admissions data for discovery in the case, several competitive high schools with large numbers of Asian students are also being asked to provide information about their students’ applications to Harvard.)

But this lawsuit, and much of the discussion of affirmative action that surrounds it, makes a serious error in assuming that, in order to stop discrimination against Asian applicants, race-conscious affirmative action must end. The argument simply proves too much. Continued use of affirmative action of the kind upheld by the Supreme Court is perfectly compatible with tackling the discrimination at issue. The problem is not race-conscious holistic review; rather, it is the added, sub-rosa deployment of racial balancing in a manner that keeps the number of Asians so artificially low relative to whites who are less strong on academic measures. It is also time to look seriously at the impact on Asians (many of them immigrants or the children of immigrants) of the advantage enjoyed by legacy admissions and wealthy families who are likely to give significant donations. It distorts and confuses the debate to lay the preferential treatment for whites over Asians at the feet of affirmative action—or, on the other side, to deny that Asians are disadvantaged in admissions today.

In the pursuit of diversity, some amount of racial balancing seems unavoidable, however taboo. We should not want the composition of our élite universities to be wildly out of proportion to the racial composition of our country. Such lopsided access to gateways of opportunity and power—say, with whites being severely underrepresented at schools like Harvard—has the potential to fuel dangerous resentment and disturb social peace, at least if the change occurs too far ahead of demographic changes that are projected to make whites a minority in this country in less than three decades.


“It is unrealistic to think that universities like Harvard can immediately stop privileging white applicants, given the current whiteness of their donors, but that picture will change over time. It was as Jews gained more political power and became more likely to be donors that élite schools’ discrimination against them waned. And, for the first time, racial minorities are a majority of this year’s entering class at Harvard.”

I would not relish seeing the nation’s most élite colleges become majority Asian, which is what has resulted at selective high schools, such as Stuyvesant, that do not consider race in admissions at all. It is also extremely troubling when solely test-based admissions such as Stuyvesant’s reflect the failure to remedy structural disadvantages suffered by black and Latino students. What is needed instead, then, is race-conscious affirmative action, to address the historic discrimination and under representation of blacks and Latinos, in combination with far less severity in the favoring of whites relative to Asians.

Image result for harvard business school front yard

Harvard and other schools will vigorously defend their use of race-conscious affirmative action along the lines previously upheld by the Supreme Court. Outside of court, the Asian-discrimination claim may move colleges to refine their admissions procedures and better calibrate for diversity and fairness. It is unrealistic to think that universities like Harvard can immediately stop privileging white applicants, given the current whiteness of their donors, but that picture will change over time. It was as Jews gained more political power and became more likely to be donors that élite schools’ discrimination against them waned. And, for the first time, racial minorities are a majority of this year’s entering class at Harvard.

The enrollment of Asians is the highest ever, at more than twenty-two per cent, with their increased share cutting into white, rather than black or Latino, enrollment. Those trends will be hard to reverse, and other schools will follow suit. For Asian-American students, the imperative to show originality will continue. But I hope that we can soon say goodbye to the admissions ritual whereby an Asian student is paradoxically expected to represent other Asians by proving she is different from them.

4 thoughts on “Affirmative Action and Asian-Americans–The Uncomfortable Truth

  1. Boy, this topic touches my nerve. I’ve so much to say but I don’t know where to start…. Let me start with the Regents of the University of California vs Bakke case, in which Asian Americans’ minority status was scrutinized.

    Allan Bakke, a thirty-five-year-old white man, had twice applied for admission to the University of California Medical School at Davis. He was rejected both times. The school reserved sixteen places in each entering class of one hundred for “qualified” minorities, as part of the university’s affirmative action program, in an effort to redress longstanding, unfair minority exclusions from the medical profession. Bakke sued the school for reversed discrimination. He contended, first in the California courts, then in the Supreme Court, that he was excluded from admission solely on the basis of race. The Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that a university’s use of racial “quotas” in its admissions process was unconstitutional, but a school’s use of “affirmative action” to accept more minority applicants was constitutional in some circumstances. The ruling removed Asian Americans from minority status – de-minoritized – at the University of California (UC).

    In today’s higher education admissions policies, Asian Americans have ceased to be “minorities” because we are no longer underrepresented. In affirmative action policy debates, the statistical representation of racially defined groups, such as Asian Americans, in social institutions has served as a proxy for discrimination. Indeed, the statistically robust presence of Asian Americans in higher education is no secret. In 2000, for example, Asian Americans constituted 5.9% of college and university students, as compared to only 4% of the United States population. As such, Asian Americans’ alleged overrepresentation in higher education has served as grounds for excluding us from affirmative action programs that address the effects of past and persistent racial discrimination.

    An examination of policy shifts at UC reveals how Asian Americans
    have been “racialized” over time, through an unstable and contested
    process that began with the establishment of Asian Americans’ minority status in the 1960s and its removal in the 1980s. A useful lens for examining these historical shifts is the notion of representation. Two senses of representation are important: the statistical representation of Asian Americans in higher education and the ideological representation of Asian Americans as a model minority. These two senses of representation have interacted and become intertwined in the discourse of attorneys, university administrators, and judicial authorities, a discourse that has effectively de-minoritized Asian American students.

    Meanwhile, Asian American students, faculty, and community members have contested these representations. Because social and ideological constructions of Asian Americans – as those of all minority groups – evolve and are perennially contested, it is always possible to reshape existing representations. Thus, with an eye to facilitating positive developments in public and professional discourses, I conclude by critiquing, first, the use of parity measures as proof that discrimination against Asian Americans has ended and, second, the deployment of “model minority” discourse as a way to explain Asian American progress. My aim is to join the larger movement that challenges stereotypical assumptions and pushes for newer, more accurate means of understanding Asian American experiences.

    I resent the model minority stereotype, which lauds Asians as more diligent and thus more deservedly successful than other racial groups. This has a long history that dates back to Reconstruction. Journalists of that era praised Chinese immigrants in contrast to freed slaves in the South and Irish immigrants in the North. Such messages divided the labor force along racial lines and fueled anti-Chinese sentiment, particularly among Whites. This model minority image reemerged in the late 1960s, not coincidentally, as other “non-model” minorities struggled for equal opportunities – attributing Asian American success to cultural values of discipline, strong family bonds, and respect for authority.

    I refute this ideologically driven representation. First, the model minority image sweepingly projects cultural tendencies and successful outcomes upon a multi-faceted group that actually encompasses diverse ethnic communities, each of which has distinct types and degrees of need. Second, the image obscures persisting racial discrimination against Asians in the United States today. Third, the image attributes upward socioeconomic mobility to “culture” and to “hard work” while neglecting historical factors and structural barriers. Additionally, the image serves to divide Asian Americans from other racial groups, essentially pitting minorities against each other.

    Yet in the face of these discrediting factors, the model minority image, along with its implicit endorsement of individualism and meritocracy, has persisted in the mass media and among conservative critics of race-conscious policies such as affirmative action. Hence, in the conservative discourse, Asian Americans’ statistical representations (our rapidly increasing presence on many college campuses, which is often equated with overrepresentation) and ideological representations (our reduction to a model minority role, according to which our success is attributed to cultural peculiarities) bolster each other. These representations became prominent and mutually intertwined in the late 1970s as universities began to re-shape affirmative action admissions policies.

    The losers are Asian Americans. We teach our children if they work hard they will be rewarded. They worked hard and got the best grades they possibly could. But they are being denied admission to the universities they want. Are we being punished because we are successful? I don’t even want to talk about my experience when at the time Stanford was almost lily-white. The Asian students I met then many were foreign students on their governments’ scholarship. They have a different qualification and quota for admission.

    • Yes, the “Asian model minority” viewpoint is a stick to beat African-Americans with.
      It’s partly a social class thing. Asian-American students who come from well-educated immigrant families (i.e. parents came to US for college or grad school and stayed) do well. Not those who come from families with parents who were peasants or working class in SE Asia e.g. non-Chinese Laotians or Cambodians from the countryside.

      Similar pattern amongst Hispanics i.e. Cuban-Americans do well in USA (their parents were already wealthy or middle class when they fled Cuba). Mexicans and Puerto Ricans do not fare so well. The Cubans have an “ethnic enclave economy” advantage in Florida.

      Many prominent African-Americans actually come from immigrant
      middle class families with origins in the Caribbean. (It is very hard for native African-Americans to get out of the ghetto if they are born into it) e.g. Thomas Sowell, General Colin Powell.

    • I agree that it’s a social class thing. Being on the advisory board of several Asian American organizations, I find most of the successful Southeast Asians are of Chinese origin – be them from Vietnam, Thailand, Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Philippines, Indonesia, or Malaysia. They are the educated city folks from their original homelands and their children are mostly college bound. Many of the mountain tribal refugees who came after the Vietnam War are still in a kind of mess, living in crime infested areas, facing gang violence and drug problems daily. Many of their youngsters have not even finished high school. Teenage pregnancy is endemic. These are the people who should not be “de-minoritized”, just because they belong to one big category called Asian Americans, who on statistic are more “successful” than the White. Resources should be allocated to give their brightest an opportunity for a good education, hopefully some would return to help their communities.

  2. I am unsure if Prof Suk’s husband’s last name Gerson is related to

    But, I took delight in learning that Moses gave his son that name, when going through the Bible at Columbia’s Contemporary Civilization class. That was not a good time in my life when I thought both DSAI and TunM deserves a shot in the head. Why? Evil of Affirmative Action, I guess. Affirming a majority is no affirmation.
    The name appears to mean a sojourner there (גר שם ger sham), which the text argues was a reference to Moses’ flight from Egypt

    Today, I guess I get to appreciate the name Gershom even more, as I realize so much of the world’s problem came about when the notion of flight from somewhere disappeared from one’s conscious, …

    America had once thought of itself as a place where everyone got to escape from somewhere else. It wasn’t the case anymore.
    America too is getting old. Perhaps, that is why we all long for the moon and the space beyond.

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