Affirmative Action and Asian Americans

Since the Department of Justice announced its investigation into the effects of affirmative action on Asian Americans, there has been renewed attention on Edward Blum’s case against race-based admissions at Harvard. I’ve grown increasingly troubled with the fierce discussion that has erupted over this news. I could easily be a plaintiff in Blum’s case: first-generation Chinese-American, near-perfect GPA and SAT score, captain of the debate team, life-long pianist, varsity tennis player, and – most importantly – Harvard reject. I understand Blum’s plaintiffs, these supposed ‘victims’ of affirmative action. In many Asian-American communities, you’re taught to work for college acceptances nearly your entire life; this, compounded with the uncertainty and emotion in the prospect of leaving home, can make rejections seem crushing and hugely personal.

“On one hand, I could easily be a plaintiff in Blum’s case: first-generation Chinese-American, near-perfect GPA and SAT score, captain of the debate team, life-long pianist, varsity tennis player, and most importantly—Harvard reject.”

But while I can relate to these Asian-American applicants, I also feel ashamed to be grouped with them. It’s no secret that Asian Americans – and particularly Chinese Americans, around whom Blum’s case seems to be built – have stood against progressive movements in the past. Anti-Blackness in the Asian American community is prevalent and has been well-documented, from mere everyday cultural attitudes to – in a more nuanced example – the widespread support of Peter Liang, a Chinese police officer who shot an unarmed black man in 2014. (Protesters argued that Liang, the first NYPD officer convicted in a line-of-duty-shooting in over a decade, was not given the same privilege as his white peers, whom, as we’ve continued to learn since, get off scot-free.) Recognizing my own community’s issues with racism, I was ashamed that, in attacking policies crucial to right past injustices, my people would yet again be seen on the wrong side of history.

But my values and larger beliefs about what American society should look like are somewhat at odds with my personal stake in the issue. Though I hate to give credence to Blum’s case, I do feel concerned about his claims that there are informal quotas for Asian Americans at elite universities, akin to those employed by the Ivy League for Jews in the 20th century, with the numbers of admitted Asian students staying relatively constant despite the community’s growth in population. Affirmative action policies should account for the ways discrimination has played out differently for different racial groups, but the representation of Asian Americans as model minorities who do not experience racial discrimination is both incorrect and deleterious. However, I also feel equally concerned about the exploitation of Asian Americans by largely white movements against ‘reverse racism’, which Edward Blum, with his endless challenges to policies that level the racial playing field, surely represents.

I don’t have the solution for what I believe should be done – but I do believe that attacking or removing affirmative action is misguided. Research has shown that diversity in schools benefit everyone, and that affirmative action policies are necessary to keep diversity in place. Further, many of the Asian American applicants interviewed in coverage of this topic have framed their college rejections as a denial of opportunity, but they do so as students at other highly prestigious universities with opportunities practically equal to those available at Harvard. Because of this, the losses suffered by these highly qualified (and often middle class) Asian American students just don’t seem severe at all. Meanwhile, admittance to prestigious universities for first-generation or low-income students can be life-changing.

“It seems irresponsible, and lacking perspective, to write off one’s college rejection as an unfair fault of the system rather than a consequence of highly subjective, multifaceted process.”

Diversity takes many forms in college admissions; it’s economic and geographic as well as racial. It seems irresponsible, and lacking perspective, to write off one’s college rejection as an unfair fault of the system rather than a consequence of highly subjective, multifaceted process that prioritizes athletes, children of donors, and legacy students far more than it does minorities. Like much else in this country, college admissions are hardly a meritocracy, and prioritizing diversity and opportunity shouldn’t be what’s villainized.

Sabrina Wang ‘19 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at s.d.wang@wustl.edu.

Sabrina Wang

Sabrina Wang '19 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. She can be reached at s.d.wang@wustl.edu.

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