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Where Does Affirmative Action Leave Asian-Americans?

The New York Times
Ronghui ChenFor
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Photographs by Ronghui Chen for The New York Times.Supported byBy Jay Caspian KangPhotographs by Ronghui ChenFor the purposes of this article, Alex Chen, an 18-year-old senior at the Bronx High School of Science in New York City, is the “typical Asian student.” Alex has a 98 percent average at one of the city’s elite public high schools, scored a 1,580 on the SAT and, as far as he knows, has earned the respect of his teachers. In the specific yet ultimately abstracted and perhaps inhuman calculations particular to selective college admissions, Alex is a first-generation (considered a plus), middle-class (minus) Chinese-American (minus, arguably) with two college-educated parents (minus) from a major American city (minus) with aspirations to study either computer science (minus, given all the Asians who want to go into STEM disciplines) or political science (plus).When I first met him in early August 2018, we struggled to find a time to meet up to talk about his thoughts on affirmative action and its effect on Asian-American students. “So how do you feel about affirmative action?” I asked again.“I understand the thinking behind affirmative action, but I just wish the message wasn’t that Asians are all so privileged and rich and buying their way into colleges,” he said, referring to the perception that Asian parents in effect buy their kids’ test scores through expensive preparation programs and private tutoring. In 2014, an organization with the cryptic name Students for Fair Admissions filed a lawsuit against Harvard College on behalf of Asian-American applicants who claimed they had been victims of discrimination and bias. In August 2018, the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the case, arguing against Harvard’s motion to dismiss it and claiming that “Harvard has failed to prove that its use of race survives strict scrutiny.” Following all the attention that action received, I began asking Asian kids across the country about affirmative action, which was widely seen to be the real issue.The case, which after a lengthy trial last autumn is expected to be decided by Judge Allison D. These conversations usually started with perfunctory statements like “Listen, I know I’m not supposed to say this” or “This is a complicated issue,” but they almost always ended with a surprisingly declarative conclusion.“Look, I support Harvard’s right to pursue the diversity they want,” said one Asian-American who described herself as a “staunch supporter of affirmative action.” “But of course they discriminate against Asian kids.”On the first day of the trial for Students for Fair Admissions (S.F.F.A.) v. His “mission,” he told me again in August, is to remove race from college admissions: “We believe that a student’s skin color or ethnic heritage should not be used to help or harm that student’s prospects of being admitted to a college or university.” When I asked if the ultimate goal, then, was to end racial preferences not only in college admissions but also in all parts of the law, Blum said: “Yes! In their opening and closing statements, the attorneys for S.F.F.A. went through charts and spreadsheets, many of which were centered on something called the “personal rating,” a portion of Harvard’s application review that judges traits like “courage,” “openness to new ideas and people” and “effervescence.”Name: Catherine Ho, 19.Education: Harvard College, class of 2021.Photographed at Harvard in Cambridge, Mass.Their charts showed that Asian-American applicants outperformed white applicants in academics and extracurriculars and lagged behind in athletics and legacy considerations. And while Lee took great pains to detail how an application went through an initial reader and then an alumni interviewer and then a subcommittee and then the final 40-person committee, he never addressed the specifics of how decisions were made, except to say that the committee considered “the whole person.” In the end, the only definitive, knowable thing about the admissions process was that race was said to be only one small part of an opaque process.On the other front, Harvard and its allies went on an ideological offensive. The multicultural and empathetic vision of the country — represented on Harvard’s side by lawyers of all races and a steady stream of Asian, black and Latino students who gave testimony about why they, despite less than perfect test scores and G.P.A.s, deserved to be on campus — would not be possible without the tireless efforts of places like the Harvard admissions office to change the face of elite society in America. Then Lee stood up and told the judge that S.F.F.A.’s own claims of implicit racial bias were outrageous, because Harvard admissions were an unknowably complicated, nuanced and sensitive process that involved 40 thoroughly trained people.Lee and the Harvard admissions officers who were called to the stand also talked about the school’s endlessly adjustable process, which could take factors like standardized test scores and G.P.A.s and place them within the proper context. And Harvard, despite its complex and sensitive system calibrated to ferret out and correct bias, apparently took these teachers and guidance counselors at their word — Asian students, year after year, were just a bit less personally appealing than white students and significantly less personally appealing than those who were black or Latino.When Mortara and S.F.F.A.’s other attorneys asked Harvard admissions officers on the stand if they believed Asian applicants had less desirable traits than their white counterparts, they, of course, said no, they did not.From a letter to The Harvard Crimson by a student named David A. In a lengthy article about the beginning of the Asian-American student movement at Harvard published in March of this year in The Crimson, Lok said she didn’t really make a big deal of the omission because “we didn’t have that whole awareness.” But other Asian-American students on campus saw the incident as representative of their unseen, and largely unwelcome, presence there. This stood in direct contrast with federal law at the time; in 1977, for example, the Department of Labor designated minority groups as consisting of “negroes, Spanish-speaking, Orientals, Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts.”According to the article describing Wong and Lok’s strange rejection, after a group of Asian students confronted Fred Jewett, the dean of admissions, he told The Crimson in 1976 that Harvard did not count Asians as minorities because their enrollment numbers exceeded their share of the general American population. The demographics of the Harvard applicant pool, in other words, overruled everything else, whether common sense or the lived realities of many of the Asian students who attended Harvard.Name: Thang Diep, 22.Education: Harvard College, class of 2019.Photographed in Los Angeles.These deliberations over race and privilege did not take place in a vacuum. Similarly, a black student can usually bring something that a white person cannot offer.” The Bakke ruling meant that explicit quotas were unconstitutional, but when confronted with two equally qualified students, a school could give a “tip” to the one who could bring his or her unique regional or racial flavor to the college’s melting pot.The spiritual language of affirmative action — to remedy the nation’s sins and to help underprivileged minorities who had been the victims of generational oppression — fell out of the legal conversation around affirmative action, mostly because any talk of “giving a leg up” to a certain number of students sounded too much like a quota system. In 1984, after a lengthy internal review, Brown University concluded that Asian-American applicants had been “treated unfairly.” By the time Reynolds took the stage to give his remarks, the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education had begun investigating admissions at several schools, including Harvard and U.C.L.A.Until Reynolds’s speech, the question of discrimination against Asian applicants had not been explicitly placed within the context of affirmative action, at least not by someone in such a prominent position. But he noted “substantial statistical evidence” that Asian-Americans faced “higher hurdles than academically less qualified candidates of other races,” and he added that “rejection of such applicants ironically appears to be driven by the universities’ ‘affirmative-action’ policies aimed at favoring other, preferred racial minorities.” In this formulation, Asian students were being pitted against other minority groups for scarce, precious opportunities.Over the next two years, the rules of the racial zero-sum game of college admissions took shape. One of the original complainants was Arthur Hu, a Chinese-American software programmer who, using data made public by the school, had painstakingly charted the test scores and academic credentials of black, white and Asian applicants.Thirty years after Reynolds’s speech, Students for Fair Admissions revisited the 1988 playbook and filed its lawsuit against Harvard, claiming that its admissions process had discriminated against Asian applicants. She had been a middle-school teacher in China, but now she bounced between car dealerships, restaurants and, finally, an ice-cream parlor.Alex was a bright and self-motivated student, someone whom Su “never had to worry about.” In the eighth grade, he came home and asked his parents if he could take the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), the multiple-choice examination that determines entry into the city’s top public high schools. After presenting the plan, Carranza said, “I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admissions to these schools,” a clear reference to Asian-American students and their parents.Qiao and Su’s WeChat group quickly turned into a political organizing platform. This optimistic projection (only a few hundred showed up) had been made by Yukong Zhao, a 56-year-old Chinese immigrant from Orlando who is the president of the Asian-American Coalition for Education and the author of the 2013 book “The Chinese Secrets for Success: Five Inspiring Confucian Values.” (The values: “Determination for an Outstanding Life,” “Pursuing an Excellent Education,” “Saving for a Better Life,” “Caring for Your Family” and “Developing Desirable Friendships.”) Zhao walks with a bit of a stoop, but he exudes an optimistic, cheerful energy when talking about America and its promise.Zhao had always been involved in politics, but ever since he immigrated to the United States in 1992 to go to graduate school in urban studies and get an M.B.A., he has mostly expressed his opinions through writing. Choking back tears, he said, “Of that I’m confident.” And while I might have been surprised by the outpouring of emotion and skeptical of his methods, I did not doubt Mortara’s sincerity either.During the time I spent talking to Asian-American students about affirmative action, I noticed that many of them wanted to talk, instead, about their immigrant parents. Although he now regrets the choice, he told me that he did it because liberals do not care about Asian-Americans.Name: Sally Chen, 22.Education: Harvard College, class of 2019.Photographed in San Francisco.“Sparse country” is the term Harvard uses to describe the geographic areas of the United States that are underrepresented in the student body. “There are people who, let’s say, for example, have only lived in the sparse-country state for a year or two,” Fitzsimmons noted.The implication, of course, was that an Asian applicant from Oklahoma or Nebraska or South Dakota or Alaska does not count when it comes to “geographic diversity.” In Harvard’s eyes, this Asian, even if his family settled in Nevada after helping build the transcontinental railroad, could never be an “ambassador” for his plot of “sparse country.” He was, instead, an Asian-American like other Asian-Americans. But they also don’t see the trial as a fight between concerned Asian parents and Harvard’s admissions office, but rather as the last defense of affirmative action against a man who had successfully undercut the Voting Rights Act and who seems hellbent on ending racial preferences everywhere. In the 28 years since then, the personal essay has become an even larger part of how Harvard makes its race-conscious decisions, so much so that in a draft of instructions sent out last year, the admissions office specified that “the consideration of race or ethnicity should be in connection with the application’s discussion of the effect an applicant’s race or ethnicity has had on the applicant, not simply the fact alone.”When Sally was applying to colleges, she says, her guidance counselor advised her to not write her essay about her identity, because “nobody wants to read another Asian immigrant story.” Sally ignored him and wrote about acting as a translator for her parents as they encountered the humiliations and hassles of working-class life.Sally scored a 1,550 on the SAT. As the youngest of 4 in a small apartment, she has lots of experience with being a roommate in close quarters.”It’s worth asking if a white student, who did not bear the stereotype of the shy Asian who only hangs out with other Asians, would need to “credibly” claim to want to make friends across “multiple social groups.” And while it’s difficult to read too much into such brief notes, Sally’s top personality score seemed to come from the fact that she broke the stereotype and wouldn’t just be quiet and self-segregated. In a 2004 New York Times article, Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chairman of Harvard’s African and African-American studies department, and Lani Guinier, a professor in the law school, pointed out that while Harvard had increased its black undergraduate population to 8 percent, a majority of those students — up to two-thirds — were international students, first- or second-generation immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean or the children of biracial couples. Fischer followed up that research with a 2009 article, “Affirmative Action Programs for Minority Students: Right in Theory, Wrong in Practice.” Both papers reported an “overrepresentation” of black immigrant students at highly selective colleges and universities compared with black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved.Charles’s study drew on data from 28 schools, going back to 1999. It doesn’t even tie to affirmative action in the same way, because there isn’t this assumption of lesser qualifications that still follows black American students, no matter their backgrounds or their parents’ backgrounds.” Charles continued: “I think there are American blacks whose families have suffered generationally who are being squeezed out.”Charles, it should be said, did not undertake her study in order to pit one group of black people against another. They may talk abstractly about a poor, “inner city” or “urban” kid in, say, Detroit and how his test scores, grades and accomplishments should be evaluated in the context of the extraordinary inequality within this country.The truth at Harvard and other elite private colleges is that the supposed zero-sum game of admissions slots isn’t really between Asian immigrants and the descendants of enslaved people, but rather between Asian immigrants, Latino immigrants and black immigrants. The U.N.C. case, which has yet to go to trial, is not about Asian-American applicants, but the goal is the same: end affirmative action everywhere.On March 12 of this year, a group of federal prosecutors in the same Boston building as Judge Burroughs’s courtroom unsealed the indictments in Operation Varsity Blues, the nationwide college-admissions bribery case that set off a monthslong media circus involving everyone from the actress Felicity Huffman to the head coach of Yale’s women’s soccer team. He said he had mentioned it, but that he had mostly written about being the child of immigrants.“Didn’t you know you weren’t supposed to write about that?” I asked, thinking of Sally Chen’s guidance counselor.“What?” he asked.“I think they’re tired of hearing the immigrant story, especially from East Asian kids of college-educated parents,” I said.“What!” he said again, with what sounded like genuine disbelief.

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