When James Chen applied to law school in the early 1990s, he wrote his personal essay on how he planned to lead and serve the Asian-American community with a law degree. A graduate of Cornell University and the University of California, Berkeley, Chen worked at the investment bank Salomon Brothers before he considered going back to campus for more education. Given his credentials and Law School Admission Test score, he thought he had a good chance of gaining admission to the school of his choice: the University of California, Los Angeles. But much to his surprise, he was rejected not just from UCLA but from every law school to which he applied.
Bitterly disappointed, Chen, who is Chinese-American, decided to give his application materials to his college roommate, who is white and was applying to law school around the same time. Chen’s roommate was accepted almost everywhere — ironically, with the same essay that passionately laid out Chen’s plan to become an advocate for Asian-American causes.
“I don’t want to sound like a crybaby, but you can see exactly what happened to me 27 years ago. Why did they reject me when a similarly qualified white person used my essay and resume and got into Yale and Harvard?” Chen asked me. “Why them? Why not me?”
After seeing his white roommate succeed, Chen said he “wandered in the woods for a couple of years.” But one thing was certain: He would never become a lawyer.
Chen’s experiences led him to completely re-evaluate the admissions process in higher education. He left the corporate world to work as an independent college consultant, a platform that gave him the opportunity to experiment with the undergraduate process as well. Acting against ethical standards, Chen would submit identical applications for white and Asian students — except, of course, that they checked different boxes for race. While the students had essentially the same profiles, he found that white students were getting in but Asians were not. Chen said these “trials” only confirmed his suspicion that race played a large part in his own rejections.
And so, a little less than a decade after he first applied to law school, Chen founded Asian Advantage College Consulting, a San Francisco Bay Area–based company with the eye-catching slogan, “Beat the Asian Quota!” While he did not share specific strategies, Chen said his firm operates on the belief that universities admit students based on unofficial quotas. At schools with affirmative action programs, especially private universities like Yale and Harvard, admissions officers actively take race into consideration for black, Hispanic and other minority applicants to ensure that all students have equal opportunity given the historical and current underrepresentation of racial minorities on campus. Asians, who are also minorities in larger American society but who are not thought of as underrepresented in higher education, are generally regarded as being overlooked or adversely affected by affirmative action. For this reason, Chen and others like him believe that Asian students are only competing against each other for spots at elite universities, not against students of other races. What works for white students will therefore not work for Asians, because the admissions process is, according to him, a “rigged, zero-sum game” for Asians.
A staunch advocate of repealing race-based affirmative action, Chen prides himself on establishing one of the few college consulting firms that aim explicitly to help Asians overcome the racial “penalty” imposed on them by the current system.
“The primary purpose of affirmative action is not what it set out to be, which was to help poor minority families and give them a piece of the action,” he said. “Now, the primary purpose is to make sure those in charge today remain in charge.”
Chen believes that Asian-American students are disadvantaged in college admissions because their spots are unfairly limited — seemingly to make room for other minorities, but really to ensure that “white liberals” stay in power, he said. The genius of this system, he added, is that it pits disgruntled Asians against blacks and Hispanics, not the whites who designed affirmative action in order to protect their own children. Chen explained that, because students of color are relegated to clear but limited percentages, white students still have the vast majority of spots.
Affirmative action is not a new topic, especially in terms of its perceived impact on Asian-American communities, but two recent legal challenges posed by Asians against Harvard have intensified the debate over its race-based practices. Proponents of eliminating affirmative action often cite a Princeton study showing that, all else equal, Asian applicants must score 140 points higher on the SAT than white applicants and 450 points higher than black applicants to gain admissions. But given the emphasis on holistic qualities and the opaque nature of college admissions in general, it is difficult to tease out the nuances and determine whether or not affirmative action actually operates on a quota system that hurts individual Asian-American students. Additionally, it is worth examining just who benefits and who suffers from affirmative action among Asian-Americans, since the population itself is highly diverse in terms of ethnicity, socioeconomic status and other factors.
No matter what their final outcomes will be, both legal challenges against Harvard are already impacting similar university campuses across the country — including Yale, which is comparable to Harvard in many ways. For Asian-American Yalies, the debate is even more salient. As students who were accepted by Yale, how have they come to understand the role of their racial and ethnic identities in the admissions process? Do they believe that it is possible to have race-conscious affirmative action that addresses the underrepresentation of other minority groups in higher education while also improving current practices that seem to disadvantage Asian-Americans?
Affirmative action was first introduced against the backdrop of the civil rights movement. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925, which prohibited government contractors from discriminating based on “race, creed, color or national origin” in their employment practices and urged them to take “affirmative action” in treating employees fairly. A series of decisions under subsequent administrations solidified affirmative action for government employment and established equal opportunity programs to increase the representation of racial minorities.
The concept of affirmative action soon expanded into higher education. In 1978, the Supreme Court upheld the use of race as a criterion in the admissions process in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. Allan Bakke, a white man, had applied twice to the University of California Medical School at Davis but was rejected both times. He contended that he was denied admission solely because of his race and that the University of California had violated his Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection. At the time, the medical school reserved 16 spots in each incoming class of 100 for “qualified” minorities, thus operating with an explicit quota system. The court decided that while racial quotas were unconstitutional, race could still be part of the admissions process. For this reason, the case is largely seen as a victory for affirmative action. In 1996, however, California passed Proposition 209, which forbade public universities from considering race in their admissions decisions.
Since the 1970s, there have been similar legal cases against affirmative action. Among the most recent and significant was Fisher v. University of Texas, which was decided by the Supreme Court in 2016. Abigail Fisher, a white woman, had applied to the University of Texas at Austin in 2008 but was rejected. She was among the top 12 percent of her graduating high school class (the top decile was guaranteed admission under Texas law). Like Bakke, Fisher claimed that the university’s affirmative action program violated the Fourteenth Amendment’s equal protection clause. But the Supreme Court ruled that race was not the sole determining factor in her admissions decision and that UT’s affirmative action was part of a necessary effort to increase student-body diversity. Because it met these standards, the affirmative action program did not violate Fisher’s Fourteenth Amendment rights.
As a racial minority struggling to gain equal access to opportunities, Asian-Americans were protected under affirmative action in the 1960s and 1970s. During the 1978 Bakke case, for example, the University of California included Asians as part of its targeted minority groups because of their underrepresentation on campus.
Nevertheless, the rapid increase of Asian representation in higher education and the promotion of the model minority myth in mainstream media led to what some scholars have called the deminoritization of Asian-Americans. Through their own hard work and because of cultural values that emphasize discipline and diligence, or so the myth goes, Asian-Americans were able to overcome historical discrimination and other barriers to achieve success without the help of the larger society. As a result, Asian-Americans were held up as a “model” for other racial minorities who were perceived as problematic and also removed from affirmative action programs.
Today, Asian-Americans are at the center of several prominent legal challenges to affirmative action. Edward Blum, the legal strategist behind the Fisher case, is trying to bring another landmark case to the Supreme Court. This time, he is suing Harvard for discriminating against Asian-American applicants. Students for Fair Admissions, a 20,000-strong group that Blum started, includes a number of Asian-American applicants to Harvard who were rejected from the university. In the suit, they allege that Harvard’s admissions practices amount to a racial quota system, which was outlawed nationwide by Bakke.
The case was filed in 2014 but has recently picked up media attention since Harvard agreed to turn over six years’ worth of data on hundreds of thousands of high school students who applied to Harvard between 2009 and 2015. Just last month, Students for Fair Admissions argued for making the data public, adding that the admissions files alone were enough to prove Harvard’s unconstitutional discrimination against Asian-American applicants. As of now, the case is set to go on trial in January 2019.
In addition, the Department of Justice last fall began to investigate a 2015 federal complaint filed by 64 Asian-American organizations that accused Harvard of discriminatory admissions practices. The decision to investigate the allegations marked one of the Trump administration’s first attempts at revisiting the topic of affirmative action, which was greeted enthusiastically by groups that put forth the complaint, such as the Asian American Coalition for Education. In April, the Department of Justice joined Blum’s Students for Fair Admissions in calling for Harvard to publicly release its admissions data.
The combination of the two legal challenges with a sympathetic administration in Washington could bring about significant changes to current admissions practices, raising the question of both the contenders’ intentions and the nuances of affirmative action that could complicate the big picture that is being presented.
In the eyes of Blum and his supporters, the detriments of race-based affirmative action are obvious.
“Our lawsuit seeks to end the consideration of race and ethnicity in Harvard’s admissions policies,” Blum wrote in an email to the News. “It is our belief that our case against Harvard is so compelling that the court will conclude that Harvard is using unlawful quotas to limit the number of Asians it will admit and racially balancing everyone else.”
Blum compared Harvard’s current “‘holistic’ admissions policies” to those implemented in the 1920s, which imposed a strict quota on the number of Jews admitted to Harvard every year. According to him, Asian-Americans are essentially the new Jews of college admissions.
Yukong Zhao, president of the Asian American Coalition for Education, said his organization fully supports Students for Fair Admissions and that Blum is doing “the right thing for the Asian-American community.” Zhao added that he feels encouraged by the Department of Justice’s decision to investigate the federal complaint concurrently as Blum’s case nears trial.
“Based on our evidence, we believe that Harvard, Yale and many other selective colleges totally ignore relevant Supreme Court rulings since 1978,” he said, referring to the ban on racial quotas. “We want our children to be judged by their merit and character instead of the color of their skin. We disagree with race-based college admissions and we want admissions officers and colleges to stop this kind of unlawful discrimination against Asian-American children.”
A year after Zhao and others first filed the complaint against Harvard, he told me that this son was unfairly rejected by several universities, including three Ivy League schools. His son was a National Merit Scholarship finalist as well as the president of his high school debate team, Science Olympiad club and other groups.
“He has a lot of credentials, but he was rejected by Columbia, Cornell and others, and I think it’s totally unfair,” Zhao said. He added that his position against affirmative action only became stronger given his personal experiences as a parent.
Proponents of abolishing affirmative action often point to the University of California system as an example of what race-free admissions would look like. Since the state of California passed the proposition to remove race as a consideration in 1996, the percentage of Asian-Americans admitted by University of California schools has increased significantly. Blum’s lawsuit cites the fact that the University of California, Los Angeles, was 34.8 percent Asian in 2013, when Harvard and Yale had Asian-American enrollment numbers between 14 and 18 percent that same year. However, it is important to note that California is the state with the highest percentage of Asians in the entire country, and the population there is also growing rapidly.
Some Asian-Americans are skeptical of Blum and his organization and expressed their concern about being used as pawns in a scheme to end affirmative action for all minorities. Affirmative action is much more nuanced than facts and figures, they say. In this debate, Asian-Americans are placed in the paradoxical position of being singled out as a group that suffers from its policies and remaining as members of racial minorities at the same time.
“I think that it is a fine line to walk,” said Joyce Ho ’20, who is Chinese-American. “We are blocked in with other minorities when convenient and treated differently otherwise.”
For one, the model minority myth exacerbates tensions between minority groups in America. For another, it obscures the fact that Asian-Americans remain underrepresented in top administrative positions in government, business, the media and other sectors.
Additionally, the model minority myth and the monolithic identity that it confers on Asians elide the diversity within the Asian-American population. During the admissions process, applicants are asked to check a box that corresponds to the race they identify as, but they are not given the opportunity to specify their ethnicity. A movement to disaggregate the Asian population by subgroup is gaining momentum. Allowing people to identify with their subgroup would provide more evidence of which ethnicities remain underrepresented on university campuses and highlight, for example, the differences between East Asians and Southeast Asians.
“Practices that treat Asian-Americans as a homogeneous group for the purposes of college admissions would disproportionately disadvantage first-generation, low-income or otherwise disadvantaged Asian-Americans,” said Kento Tanaka ’20, who identifies as Japanese American.
But not everyone agrees. Efforts to disaggregate Asian America by ethnic subgroups have been met with strong backlash, particularly from East Asian individuals and groups. They demonstrate that even within Asian-American communities, there is no consensus on whether, who and how affirmative action practices help and hurt.
While the spotlight is currently on Harvard, it also casts some light on Yale. In fact, the Asian American Coalition for Education filed a separate federal complaint with the Department of Justice and the Department of Education against Yale, Brown University and Dartmouth College. The complaint against Harvard is the only one that has been picked up. Still, localizing the debate here at Yale helps explain the complex and often uncomfortable ways in which racial and ethnic identities played a role for those who were admitted.
Eight current and former Asian-American students at Yale interviewed for this article believe that affirmative action should be maintained in university admissions. As the “lucky ones” who were accepted by Yale, however, many continue to have a complicated view of whether their race actually helped or hurt their applications. Some even acknowledged their belief that their acceptance was due in part to the fact that they were different from other Asians in their communities. Somehow, they said, they managed to stand out from the crowd.
Last December, Aaron Mak ’17 published a piece in Slate that detailed his decision to hide his Chinese heritage when he was applying to Yale and other selective colleges with affirmative action programs. Throughout high school, Mak was careful to avoid extracurriculars that were stereotypically “Asian,” such as cultural clubs, pre-professional associations and robotics. He quit piano and dropped Mandarin, picking up play writing and film reviews instead (both of which he actually enjoyed). In his Yale personal essay, he opted not to write about his family’s immigrant experience, even though he candidly discussed the influence of his Chinese grandfather in his essays for University of California schools.
Most interestingly, Mak did not check the box indicating his race on his applications, hoping that admissions officers would mistake his surname for the Gaelic “Mack.” Now, more than five years later, when asked if he would make the same decision, Mak said he would like to think not, but he admitted that he also understands why high school students like him might make similar choices.
“I still support affirmative action even though I think there are things to improve about it,” he told me, adding that writing about his personal story was a constructive and cathartic way for him to grapple with the issue. “I don’t agree with the end goal of trying to abolish [affirmative action], but by examining my own experience and comparing it to what [advocates against affirmative action] are saying, I understand their position a lot more and why Asian students might be persuaded by their logic.”
Tanaka said his Asian-American identity worked both ways in college admissions. His applications drew directly from his experiences being Asian in America, but he also worried that admissions officers might box him into stereotypes about “boring Asian males,” such as the fact that he played piano and violin and was interested in STEM.
He added that it is a problem if Asians’ acceptances to Yale are contingent on their ability to act in “un-Asian” ways.
“For example, if white people are not rejected from Yale for being interested in a cappella and classics, then Asian people should not be rejected for being interested in orchestra and computer science,” he said.
Ho said that her immigrant background made up a large part of her applications, and she believes that her Chinese-American identity helped her in the admissions process. Still, she said she was concerned about not appearing too cliche or “too reminiscent of ‘The Joy Luck Club.’”
Rita Wang ’19 echoed the idea of striking a balance.
“I think I got in because I wanted to do something different from only making money, but I do think I got in because I was different from other Asian-Americans from my town, which is an interesting dynamic,” she said.
Opponents of race-based affirmative action say that, if it were abolished, it could be replaced by something else to help disadvantaged groups in American society. The most commonly proposed substitute is an admissions program that would give preference to students from low-income families.
Swan Lee, secretary for the Asian American Coalition for Education, said it is convenient to stereotype Asian-American students and believe that all of them come from privileged backgrounds with access to educational resources, such as after-school tutoring. But Lee described witnessing the son of a low-income Chinese family in Boston, where she currently lives, be passed over by “all decent colleges.” He ended up attending community college — and when that became too much for the family to afford, he joined his father to become a waiter at a local Chinese restaurant.
“We believe that the education gap has nothing to do with race — it has to do more with socioeconomic status,” Zhao said. “We really need to focus on the fundamental issue of how to improve K-12 education. Even with affirmative action, education attainment among blacks and Hispanics has not improved. You can’t just put a bandage on this issue during college admissions.”
All Yale students interviewed agree about the importance of socioeconomic diversity. At the same time, most think race should not be eliminated as a factor.
Mak explained that structural racism negatively impacts applicants of color in a way that is not entirely based on socioeconomic disadvantages. After all, race plays an important role in determining students’ upbringing before they even reach college.
“For two people who grew up on the same socioeconomic level, race can be an additional factor for mobility,” Ryan Liu ’18 said. In putting together a diverse student body at a place like Yale, he added, admissions officers should consider all factors, including socioeconomic status.
So is it possible to maintain race-based affirmative action while also making improvements to the current admissions process, which seems to hold Asian-Americans to a higher — or at least different — standard?
Chen, Blum, Zhao and Lee would say no, but Yale students interviewed remain cautiously optimistic.
Mak said he would look beyond race to address athletic recruitment, legacy admissions and other practices that tend to favor white, upper-middle-class students over Asians. Ho believes that disaggregating the Asian-American population and breaking down the monolithic front are important steps to take. Diversity should be thought of along multiple axes and in a “multiplanar way,” she said. Wang speculated that Yale could one day become an institution that is not predominantly white.
Still, according to Peter Huang ’18, institutions like Harvard and Yale should not forget that they have a responsibility to address past and current systems of prejudice against marginalized groups. Race-based af firmative action is one such way of living up to that responsibility, although it is not the only one.
“But then again, I did get admitted into Yale,” Huang said. “I may be thinking differently if I had been rejected.”