I remember how my server nearly timed out while I reread my sentences and verified SAT scores for the umpteenth time. How I had drawn in deep breaths as my cursor hovered over the submit button. Heart racing, fingers trembling, beads of sweat pearling on my forehead — I clicked. I sent four years’ worth of grades and 650 words off into the vast cyberworld with the whisper of a prayer.
Twelve months later, the school that accepted me is being charged for an unfair admissions process.
The fight over affirmative action itself is not a new one. Yale’s lawsuit is the latest allegation in a string of nationwide cases and another damning indictment for higher education’s already opaque, scandal-ridden application process. Coupled with the few infamous episodes of Ivy admissions officers dubbing its past Asian American applicants as “standard premeds” and “yet another textureless math grind,” the tale of unfair, race-based penalties might give us enough reason to worry. The plaintiffs have cited a stagnant Asian enrollment percentage among the Ivies. They have pointed at the glaring disparities in Asian representation between non-affirmative action schools in California and Harvard. They have decried the baseline SAT score requirements, taken jabs at racial consideration and exalted meritocracy, so much so that a rigged application process almost appears credible.
Almost — that is, until we dispel the swirling rumors and the faulty claims that rest entirely on the moot crutches of cherry-picked data. When the lawsuits summon evidence of a seemingly more Asian-inclusive Caltech and UC Berkeley and implicate Harvard and Yale for setting fixed racial quotas, they focus on enrollment rather than acceptance. They ignore, most critically, that the number of Asian American acceptances has risen proportionally with the growth of its applicant pool. Ed Blum and his anti-affirmative action groups have pressed the same allegations and twisted the statistics in the service of a terribly one-sided affirmative action narrative.
Already, affirmative action is already a far cry from the policy it once was. Since 1978, conservative courts have steadily whittled away at the original provisions — first ruling that schools could not explicitly hand admissions advantages to Black and Hispanic students, then limiting race as only part of a “holistic review” of the applicant. Now, race is the “factor of a factor of a factor”, considered only if it plays a part in an applicant’s certain trait (i.e., if an Asian applicant attributes his teamwork abilities to a cultural association at school). The few racy tales of judgmental Ivy admissions officers are merely the exceptions. To frame affirmative action as a political swipe that deliberately disadvantages Asian Americans and the white majority is to perpetuate a gross misinterpretation. By now, it’s no longer a tall tale — it’s an outright myth, stretched to ungodly proportions.
What makes this round of lawsuits terrifying, though, is that the anti-affirmative action movement seems to be gaining traction. The myth has not only persisted, but increased its sway. When asked about the Supreme Court’s decision to allow race-based considerations, 65% of Americans expressed their disapproval. Support for Proposition 16 — the Democratic attempt to restore affirmative action in California — has fallen tragically flat, and the measure failed.
Perhaps the most strident voices of dissent come from upper class Asian Americans. Fearful that race-based considerations may sweep its Asian American applicants into the tidy box of characterless, piano-playing math whizzes, tiger parents fume in WeChat groups, bemoaning Asian last names and funneling their worries into extracurricular stunts to help their children “stand out.”
The frustration is understandable. The fear that race considerations might group us under the stereotypes of a monolithic Asian identity seems at times a little too plausible, a little too real: I spent an entire summer hunched over the Word processor, gripped with a crippling fear that my potential pre-med track and passion for piano would encourage admissions officers to generalize my character. Rather than embrace a part of my identity, I wrestled with a Chinese culture that traditionally valued obedience, diligence and STEM-related careers. I waged a war against myself.
But affirmative action is not malicious stereotyping. We live in a society where color affects our lives, and our admissions process should acknowledge that. The disgruntled anti-affirmative action activists who so often invoke Martin Luther King’s famous pleas for a “colorblind” society play with no more than rhetoric. They’re wielding hollow words to preserve an oppressive social order, desperately clutching the rosy illusions of meritocracy. But those who are launched unjustly into power merely continue to keep their seats. An objective admissions process doesn’t exist because objectivity itself is only whatever the privileged few define it to be. In continuing to repeal affirmative action, we erase decades of progress and allow the vicious cycle of power to hurtle on. We imperil the true American dream of equal opportunity.
That’s why, nearly one year after that brisk wintery afternoon, I chose Yale. I chose it for the chance to wander through life’s crosswalks in the company of talented tenors, future Einsteins, stand-up comedians, activists — to walk among people united by an unconditional dedication to their crafts and causes. To discover, in the vibrant tapestry of our individual experiences, everything I have yet to learn and all that I may still have to offer. In these two brief months here, I’ve been inspired, awed, humbled. I’ve stretched out my wings in more ways than I can possibly count.
HANWEN ZHANG is a first year in Benjamin Franklin college. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.