People of all backgrounds become so angry about affirmative action that it is difficult to discuss the subject. The current emphasis is on Asian American applicants to Harvard College and younger Asian American students competing for entry to the magnet high schools of New York City.
In an effort to promote reasoned deliberation, here are a few observations intended to be as objective as possible. If anyone wonders about my personal opinion, I have no doubt that Asian Americans have long faced unfair discrimination at elite institutions of higher education, and since writing an op-ed while still an undergraduate in the 1980s, I’ve advocated against that forcefully. However, the evidence suggests that Whites have been given preferences, directly and indirectly, and that factor more than anything else is the cause of the problem.
Perhaps the most important point is that Asian Americans are, by definition, Americans. Although some universities appear to embellish their reputations by including Asian foreign nationals inappropriately in numbers they are required to report, the issue is whether Asian Americans are facing bias. Asian foreign nationals and Asian Americans are as different as Europeans and White Americans. The individuals are related, including literally: Asian immigrant parents can have native-born-citizen children, though some ethnic nationalists have always objected to that despite its Constitutional basis. Asians, like others, also can naturalize.
Yet among the Asian Americans who are third-generation, or whose roots in this nation date back even further as Californians or New Yorkers, there are those who live in poverty alongside African-Americans and Latinos. The assumption that they are well-to-do can result in their omission from even programs that are meant to be universal.
A more subtle aspect of the situation is easy to overlook. Asian Americans will be disproportionately affected by any admissions policy and not just affirmative action. Even if a program is “race neutral” in both its goals and its mechanisms, Asian Americans in the aggregate will feel greater consequences. Imagine if Harvard College had a benefactor who donated a new residence hall on the condition an extra hundred undergraduates be welcomed into the entering class. Or suppose the opposite, that a devastating fire destroyed most of the dormitories such that a hundred fewer seats would be offered the following year.
In either instance, Asian Americans would seem to be singled out for disparate treatment even though there is nothing specific to Asian Americans in any decision that has been made. The reason is that Asian Americans attend four-year colleges at a higher rate than other ethnic groups, including Whites. Furthermore, Asian Americans on average display stronger preferences for prestige brands. The consequence is that, mathematically rather than racially, Asian Americans will be helped or harmed by any trends in enrollment to a more significant extent than Whites or Blacks would be.
Asian American “overrepresentation” complicates everything, rendering Asian Americans less likely to attract sympathy. It is true that, relative to the fraction they make up within the overall population, Asian Americans enjoy more than their share on elite campuses. Any analysis of proportions, however, must take into account “relative to what?” The denominator in the calculation ought to be the subset who are eligible and not the raw total. Otherwise, the comparison is inappropriate.
An inference of prejudice can be made if there is a discrepancy between the ratio that admitted students of a particular background make up among freshmen and applicants of the same background made up who satisfied the requirements, as is the case with Asian Americans. A similar conclusion cannot be made, at least not with the same confidence, if there is merely a dissimilarity between the ratio that admitted students from a community make up and that community within the public as a whole. For complicated reasons, different ethnicities have different percentages of any characteristic, such s perfect GPAs and test scores, star athletic performance, or economic disadvantage.
Any criteria for allocating coveted goods can be abused. The interest of Harvard and its peers in choosing among qualified persons, with the self-declared ambition of training leaders, has been advanced by considering metrics other than grades and test scores. These qualities, some of which are good predictors of success (such as resilience) and others of which may be both useful and suspect (legacy status, meaning one’s parents are alumni or VIP donors), can be manipulated. “Holistic review of candidates can be a euphemism for anti-Asian sentiments. This type of subterfuge is wrong. It should be stopped.
Nonetheless, Asian Americans and society as a whole would be worse off it the scarce resource of opportunity in the Ivy League or equivalent were distributed based on academics alone. Corporate America does not function in that manner. Neither does Congress. In other contexts, no less competitive, we appreciate that people display traits we value, which we ought to select for, that do not show up through high-stakes multiple-choice examination of teenagers. Any teacher, or for that matter any manager with experience, can attest to the overall failure, or significant underperformance, of persons whose book smarts cannot be doubted, and the corresponding success of those who possess emotional intelligence.
Like American Jews before them, Asian Americans are being stereotyped positively for their brains and negatively for their personalities, in order to limit their achievement. Asian American anger is justified and understandable. Their exclusion is exacerbated by the reaction to their complaints. They are dismissed all over again.
At last, Asian American concerns are being taken seriously. It has been a long time coming. There remains an opening for Asian Americans will contribute to diversity. It would be regrettable if Asian Americans were forced to be spoilers.
Frank Wu is a Distinguished Professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law, where he formerly served as chancellor and dean.