Sitting in the back seat of my mom’s car, my ten-year-old self timidly asked, “When I grow up, should I live in Massachusetts or California?” Upon further clarification on my sudden interest in seemingly arbitrary states, my mother realized that my actual question was, “When I grow up, should I go to Harvard or Stanford?” That was the first time I talked to my parents about colleges or universities. When I look back on it now, I don’t remember any details on what sparked the conversation except that a classmate told me that I was “smart enough” to get into Harvard. If only my fifth-grade self knew the irony embedded in that statement.
I was in middle school when the Department of Justice acted on the Students for Fair Admissions lawsuit against Harvard. It was also in middle school when I realized that filling in the circle next to “Asian American” on my standardized tests and career path surveys held meaning beyond just basic personal information. And while I had the GPA and test scores — given that they would be maintained throughout high school — to get into prestigious universities, that filled-in circle could deem my efforts futile.
Affirmative action, a method of accommodating minority groups that have been disfavored in the past, has caused disputes in education across the country. It originates from an executive order in 1961 created to prevent discrimination in workplaces. Today, elite universities such as Harvard utilize affirmative action in their admission processes.
According to a New York Times article written by Jay Caspian Kang, the trial for the lawsuit took place over three weeks in late 2018, with the Students for Fair Admissions making three claims against Harvard: the use of race in the university’s admission process exceeds the Supreme Court’s allowance; Harvard created an illegal quota system; Harvard did not thoroughly consider race-neutral alternatives. Judge Allison Burroughs is to release a decision on the case in the coming months.
As part of a response to the lawsuit, Harvard mentioned personal rating as a substantial factor in admitting students: “The personal rating reflects a wide range of valuable information in the application, such as an applicant’s personal essays, responses to short answer questions, recommendations from teachers and guidance counselors, alumni interview reports, staff interviews, and any additional letters or information provided by the applicant.” This system of application information along with alumni and admissions officer interviews stirred a debate over the stereotypes Asian Americans are put under. “I think it’s larger than Harvard. The real question is: Do we want to live in a society where character or skin color is the driving force for our discussions about merit?” college student Kenny Xu said. “In singling out Asian Americans for exclusion, Harvard panders to the worst stereotypes about us: that we are math geniuses with no personality.”
As a result, in order to distinguish themselves from other first-generation Asian Americans with immigrant parents, students unintentionally create a rift in the Asian American community. It is then frowned upon to fit in stereotypes and be “uninteresting” but also frowned upon to break the stereotype of being academically inclined — further accentuating the race to becoming superior to other Asian American students, leading to tension and competition. As Kang said, “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.’”
Despite the dispute on affirmative action, an intricate process of aiding minorities, the concept itself is not inherently malicious. Hispanic and African American students and families benefit substantially from affirmative action. According to an article by Katie Reilly, “Overall, black and Hispanic students are under-represented at the most elite colleges in the U.S. and over-represented at less selective schools, according to an analysis by the left-leaning Center for American Progress. A 2017 analysis by the New York Times found that despite affirmative action policies, black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented at top colleges than they were 35 years ago.”
Yet, there are other ways to combat low admission rates for these minority groups. Financial aid and efforts to improve the overall crime-ridden neighborhoods by providing opportunities will not only benefit the student population but also families of those students. Without getting to the root of the problem, the phrase “affirmative action” has lost its actual meaning. Affirmative action is necessary in order to aid minorities, yet the result shouldn’t be a disadvantage to another minority group. “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,” Kang said. “‘Diversity’ became the new justification for considering a student’s race. It was no longer about righting history’s wrongs or ending poverty. It was now about the ‘something’ a student from a different background could ‘bring’ to campus.”
Though, the diversity of student bodies is, admittedly, an important component of universities’ social structures. According to Reilly, a 2015 article by Liliana Garces, an associate professor of education at the University of Texas, found that “the ban on affirmative action at the University of Michigan affected aspects of campus climate that are ‘critical’ to the success of students of color who remained at the school. She found that it silenced conversations about race and racism, made it more difficult for community members to vocalize support for racial diversity initiatives, and made administrators feel ‘disempowered’ to resolve issues related to race.”
Four years ago, I was told that I was “smart enough” to get into Harvard. Four years later, I realize that “smart enough” isn’t enough. In another four years, it will be time for me to actually start applying to colleges and filling in the little circles next to “Asian American” on my applications. I don’t think that Asian Americans are all, as Xu said, “math geniuses with no personality.” And it is our mission, as a community, to break that stereotype.
Illustration provided by npr.org