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  • Ashley Chen

Straight A’s: Asian Americans and Affirmative Action

2022, April, and the gut-wrenching feeling that I hadn’t been accepted into a T-20 school.

I mean, I didn’t have a 4.0… but I still had a 3.96. I didn’t have a 1600 SAT… but I still had a 1530. I didn’t take every AP class… but I still got 5s on seven of them. I didn’t publish a New York Times #1 Bestseller… but I still published over 200 pieces of mixed media during my high school career.

Maybe it was the fact I “forgot” to report the three-thousand five-hundred ninety-two hours of community service I have contributed to promoting racial justice for Asian Americans. Or maybe I forgot to add the fact that my organizational principle has established the entire Google Drive framework for one of the largest speech and debate teams in the world, allowing for seamless beginning to end logistical travel coordination for years to come. Or, it was definitely the fact that my command over the English language did not consist of enough random large number generators and buzzwords to waltz my way into Harvard.

Alternatively, I could rudely point at affirmative action to have been public enemy #1 for all Asian Americans, as if Harvard’s class of 2026 Asian American population isn’t already a whopping 27.9%. This percentage doesn’t really spread insight into Asian Americans being rejected by Harvard because they were Asian and almost seems to prove the opposite. It doesn’t answer a couple key questions:

  1. How many Asian American students applied to Harvard?

  2. How many were then accepted?

  3. What were their stats and extracurriculars?

  4. What did they highlight in their essays?

  5. How did their interviewer portray them?

  6. Where did they go to school?

Yet for some reason, affirmative action is gone.

The main complaint against affirmative action for Asian Americans can be summed up in one word: meritocracy. This argument believes that working hard should get us where we want to be in life. It’s as simple as that. This reflects in Asian American experiences as our youth is spent testing into gifted programs, taking all possible AP classes, interning at future career prospects, attending national competitions, and everything else that can possibly be written on a college application.

Meritocracy is a safe haven for Asian Americans. We believe that we worked hard to test into our selective gifted programs or middle schools, only to exist in this Asian American bubble for the entirety of our secondary education. From there on out, the school district’s resources are put towards us: better teachers, better counselors, accelerated learning, and advanced curriculum. If it wasn’t for those resources, we wouldn’t be in these programs in the first place. Then, like clockwork, we’re all spewing out the same responses in class and all have the same mindset. We’ve practically been educated by the same people in the same classrooms with the same people like a loud Asian American echo chamber. In the same sense, we’re all stressed about the same topics and worried about the same issues.

“In the forms of higher admissions standards, de facto racial quotas, and racial stereotypes, this discrimination unjustly imposed unbearable study loads and stress on Asian-American students, possibly leading to depression, anxiety, and other psychological problems among some Asian-American youth.”

“Because if I’m not doing it, other Asians are.” Affirmative action pitted Asian Americans against Asian Americans, resulting in undue stress and impossibly high workloads. We’re all each other’s competition, sometimes friendly and mostly not. We sniff out where a friend of an enemy of a friend got into college then judge. It’s as if we’re all playing on this flat, open battlefield and scornful that some people are winning.

There’s a shared thought that might be shared amongst many Asian Americans: why do I have to work so hard when other races have it easy? This perpetuating ideology creates a divide along a racial line, one of which is racist and apathetic.

I feel strangely uneducated about the topic of affirmative action despite being Asian. I’ve listened to more complaints about the matter than actually educating myself on it, and my AP Gov class didn’t do it justice. I have read the differing opinions of Supreme Court Justices Sotomayor and Thomas, both who benefited from affirmative action yet stood on opposite sides.

My unrefined thoughts on affirmative action are as follows:

  1. Precondition. If affirmative action didn’t exist in the first place, minority groups, including Asian Americans, wouldn’t even be able to consider attending college in the first place. Efforts from the Civil Rights Movement paved the way for minority enrollment in elite schools.

  2. Before 2003. Even before Grutter vs. Bollinger, practices of affirmative action were being implemented in higher education. In 1969, the year after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, black enrollment at elite colleges like Columbia doubled. This article illustrates in incredible detail about both the positives and negatives of race-conscious admissions.

  3. Triumphs. In Grutter vs. Bollinger, the Supreme Court determined that race-conscious admissions promoted diversity and did not “unduly harm nonminority applicants.” This case also determined that race-conscious admissions did not violate the Equal Protection Clause or Title VI.

I believe the practice of affirmative action in college admissions after 1969 was a step in the right direction. This practice was able to bring more diversity on campuses. Recently, the Supreme Court determined that race-conscious admissions violate the Equal Protection Clause and Title VI. I believe that this undoes the precedent set in Grutter vs. Bollinger while also placing us before 1969 where colleges can no longer promote racial diversity. I’m not sure what this implies for the future of college admissions; is it even possible that the ethnicity breakdowns of colleges don’t change?

Furthermore, overturning affirmative action doesn’t solve any problems that Asian American youth face. Even though we have gotten rid of affirmative action, the root cause of what distresses Asian American youth is still there. Revoking affirmative action doesn’t mean that all of a sudden, Asian American youth are not testing into gifted programs, taking all possible AP classes, interning at future career prospects, attending national competitions, etc. We had more merit tearing down legacy admissions than affirmative action.

Perhaps, this means a couple more Asian American students can say that it was all “worth it.” But we’ve got to ask ourselves, was it really all worth it?

Image Courtesy of The Philadelphia Citizen

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