Deconstructing Affirmative Action: Bias Against Asian-American Students

In recent months, the affirmative action debate has rekindled and shifted its focus once again. With a new set of identities but an old set of arguments and principles, Asian Americans now lay at the center of the current narrative regarding the topic.

“Harvard consistently rated Asian-American applicants lower than others on traits like ‘positive personality,’ likability, courage, kindness and being widely respected.”

Students for Fair Admissions, a nonprofit membership group of more than 20,000 students and parents are now in the midst of a lawsuit against Harvard University on the basis that the university’s admissions practices unfairly discriminates against Asian Americans. The issue has been contentious among the general public and the Asian-American community alike. The question remains whether those highly qualified, yet rejected applicants were the victims of a naturally cutthroat admissions process, or of discriminatory policies centered around the idea of affirmative action, traditionally thought of as a “leftist” idea.

Nowadays, like the vast majority of college admissions, Harvard engages in a holistic review of applicants, taking into account race, class, and a variety of other factors that aren’t grades or standardized test scores. However, it can be incredibly unclear as to how universities incorporate these predetermined factors into their admissions decisions. A recent New York Times analysis of Harvard admissions files states that, “Harvard consistently rated Asian-American applicants lower than others on traits like ‘positive personality,’ likability, courage, kindness and being widely respected.” With such subjective yet consistently negative evaluations of Asian American applicants, discoveries like this seemingly incriminate the very core of affirmative action policies. It seems as if simply being Asian-American results in the attribution of a plethora of negative personality traits to one’s character. This, obviously, is racism. However, it’s also important not to conflate fair and morally righteous affirmative action policies with blatant racism, which is the more pertinent issue in this specific case.

One day before the trial, Founder of Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) speaks to reporters at a rally in Boston (Oct.14).

One day before the trial, Founder of Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) speaks to reporters at a rally in Boston (Oct.14).

Anti-Asian stereotypes are an unfortunately common experience, even in higher education. Asian Americans have spent decades trying to fight the “model minority” stereotype, the idea that Asian Americans are a group of diligent, quiet, hard working “have’s” rather than “have not’s.” After all, as a broad demographic, Asian Americans have the highest average incomes out of any ethnic group. However, Lauren Lee, a first year Economics and Global Studies major here at the U states that,

“The model minority stereotype can be very limiting to Asian Americans. When you put all of us into a box, expecting that we will all study hard, keep our heads down, and go to be software engineers, doctors, lawyers, etc., then you limit us from truly becoming involved and immersed in America.”

When these harmful stereotypes are then extended to personality traits and character, racialized judgements of Asian Americans have truly been endorsed, and perhaps internalized. Tri M. Vo, a senior at the University of St. Thomas states that,

“The model minority has certainly trained me to think I can't be a part of things I love, like punk music. It's image of success doesn't welcome artistry and entrepreneurship, two very risky vocational modes, that would allow Asians to be recognized as innovators and thought leaders.”

The model minority stereotype has historically been applied as the way minorities “should” act. It’s best to work hard to achieve the “American dream,” but it’s also best to stay quiet, and not to speak up or speak out about the variety of discriminatory experienced by minorities on a day to day basis. Any application of this stereotype in to admissions policies is clear and blatant racism. Harvard’s characterization of Asian Americans as having lower courage, likability, and kindness are all indicators that the model minority stereotype at the very least, pervades the subconscious mind of admissions officers at the highest levels of education - allowing for implicit biases to creep into admissions processes.

“The model minority has certainly trained me to think I can't be a part of things I love, like punk music. It's image of success doesn't welcome artistry and entrepreneurship…”

However, this conviction of higher level admissions officers is a distinctly separate issue from the criticism of affirmative action. As a system, affirmative action is centered around the idea of creating a fairer playing field for minorities, accounting for privileges that certain groups may hold, but others do not. It helps foster the ideals of American meritocracy, where success is based solely upon the integrity, talent, and diligence of individuals, rather than uncontrollable situations that people may be thrust into.

Although this may mean that Asian and Caucasian Americans as a whole will be held to a higher standard when it comes to college admissions due to the privileges they hold over other racial minorities in the United States, this does NOT mean that it is acceptable to racialize the characterization of Asian Americans, apply obvious stereotypes, and allow discriminatory thinking to restrict opportunities, even for those who hold privileges. This, by definition, is still racism.


References

[1] “PROJECT ON FAIR REPRESENTATION ANNOUNCES LAWSUITS CHALLENGING ADMISSIONS POLICIES AT HARVARD UNIV. AND UNIV. OF NORTH CAROLINA-CHAPEL HILL.” Students for Fair Admissions, studentsforfairadmissions.org/project-on-fair-representation-announces-lawsuits-challenging-admissions-policies-at-harvard-univ-and-univ-of-north-carolina-chapel-hill/

[2] “https://Hds.harvard.edu/Hds/Admissions-Aid/Frequently-Asked-Questions - SEO Test Free Tool.” Owl.english.purdue.edu/Owl/Resource/747/01/ - SEO Test Free Tool, https://hds.harvard.edu/Hds/Admissions-Aid/Frequently-Asked-Questions

[3] Hartocollis, Anemona. “Harvard Rated Asian-American Applicants Lower on Personality Traits, Suit Says.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 June 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/06/15/us/harvard-asian-enrollment-applicants.html

[4] "Median Household Income in the Past 12 Months (in 2016 inflation-adjusted dollars)". American Community Survey. United States Census Bureau. 2016. Archived from the original on 17 April 2016. Retrieved 29 September 2018.


Thank you for reading this first edition of the Asian-American Student Union’s Advocacy Journal!