Affirmative Action: The Asian-American Struggle

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Harvard’s admissions policy uses age-old stereotypes to keep Asian-American admittance low. SARAH HAMILTON / GRAPHICS DEPARTMENT

Asian-Americans boast higher weekly earnings than their Caucasian counterparts. And over 52 percent of Asian-Americans have attained a college degree out of the 33 percent of college-educated Americans  (includes associate’s degrees). Only 26 percent of Americans have a 4 year bachelor’s degree.

Despite all the success in achieving stellar test scores and grades, a deep-rooted prejudice is embedded within the policy affirmative action.

Affirmative action was originally implemented in 1961 when President Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925 requiring federal contractors to “ensure that applicants are treated equally without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” The intent was to make it easier for marginalized groups to get opportunities in education and employment.

Although affirmative action was a social justice measure, it ended up fostering discrimination and would inevitably end up being debated heavily in the court systems. Supreme Court cases like Fisher v. Texas and Regents of the Univ. of Cal. v. Bakke scrutinized the legality of factoring race into college admissions. While universities are able to consider race in admissions, using racial quotas was ruled to be discriminatory.

Harvard’s admission process exemplifies this unfair practice. The Harvard Admissions team rates each applicant on a one to six scale of desirability — one being the highest and six being the lowest — based on different character traits. Some examples of these traits are “likeability” and “attractive to be with.” The Harvard Admissions team consistently rated Asian-American applicants lower on this personality scale while giving higher ratings to other ethnic minorities.

The hypocrisy lies in the fact that Harvard alumni rate Asian-American applicants’ personalities, on average, as high as applicants of other ethnicities during interviews. Additionally, researchers at Princeton University concluded in a 2009 study that Asian-Americans have 67 percent lower odds of admission than Caucasian applicants with comparable test scores. In an attempt to stop this probable discriminatory treatment of Asian-Americans, the upcoming case Students for Fair Admissions vs. Harvard will bring the debate to the forefront.

Due to this practice, Harvard has been able to keep Asian-American admissions artificially low by using subjective criteria like gravitas and leadership potential. Harvard’s admission process has gravely disadvantaged Asian-American applicants through affirmative action’s practice of racial diversification. According to the Princeton study, “Admission Preferences for Minority Students, Athletes, and Legacies at Elite Universities”, “The bonus for African-American applicants is roughly equivalent to an extra 230 SAT points (on a 1600-point scale), to 185 points for Hispanics, 200 points for athletes, and 160 points for children of alumni. The Asian disadvantage is comparable to a loss of 50 SAT points.” The manipulation of SAT test scores are used to cap Asian-American admissions.

Harvard and Stanford graduate, Ron Unz, published a study of Ivy League admissions called “The Myth of American Meritocracy” in 2012. He found that Asian-American admissions rates were stagnant at around 16 percent from 1995-2011, despite the demographic’s increasing number of applications. This pattern creates an “informal quota system” limiting Asian-American admission. It appears that diversity through affirmative action depends on race quotas and would inevitably lead to conflict with the “equal protection clause” under the 14th Amendment.

Harvard is undisputedly one of the greatest institutions in the United States and produces some of our finest leaders. Unfortunately, Asian-Americans are not seen as leaders in the community despite their academic feats. According to Stefanie K. Johnson and Thomas Sy at the Harvard Business Review, “Asians are particularly high on competence (they were seen as successful and intelligent) and low on social skill (nerdy, antisocial).” The article further states that Asian-Americans, like women, are “often seen to fit low to mid-level management positions but not top-level leadership.”

The mischaracterization of Asian-Americans as shy, submissive, aloof and disconnected from society must change.

The Harvard case is a reminder that there is still progress to be made in our educational system. We need to find a way to foster diversity in a non-discriminatory manner. Affirmative action was established to create equity, but its current use at Harvard has harmed the dignities and self-worth of many current and potential Asian-American applicants. The bar set for success in education as an Asian-American is already extremely high. The extra hurdles they must face in order to be viewed as leaders instead of meek and unlikeable people in the eyes of biased evaluators create a sense of hopelessness. Institutions like Harvard need to be reminded that subjective admissions practices that blatantly discriminate, both legally and socially, must come to an end.

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