Should Asian Americans Be Limited Within Predominately White Institutions?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

From a reader of East Asian heritage:

When my son was in seventh grade, one of his friend told him that even if he is the football team captain and the student council president, gets straight A’s and a perfect SAT score, he still won’t be able to get into Harvard—just because he is an Asian. (He was the running back of his school football team at the time and a member of school student council.) He asked me if this is true. It saddened me that I couldn’t simply tell him it is not.

When my daughter was six, she played a game at a Girl Scout meeting to learn that they are all equal despite their different skin colors and looks; race doesn’t matter. She was taught so at home and at school for 17 years and she believed in it. I often heard her say that “race doesn’t matter” when the word was “race” mentioned—until her senior year in high school. I asked her what was so great about her friend to make him be accepted to Harvard.  Instead of telling me about his accomplishments, she said that his mother (a Caucasian woman) has some sort of Hispanic lineage, so he is a “Hispanic”.  

This race-based admission process slaps everybody on the face. It tells kids what hypocrites we all are. Our school district has zero tolerance for racial discrimination. Our children were told for all their lives that they should judge people by their character, not skin color. But right before our kids leave home for college, it is our country’s most prestigious institutions that FIRST bring them the news: What your parents and teachers have taught you are lies: Race does matter! We judge you by your skin color!

From an old Dish reader:

It is great to see you in action at The Atlantic curating the discussion instead of letting it devolve into a shouting match between trolls. As an younger, single Asian, I was completely in agreement with affirmative action. I could see that a lot of minority kids did not have the resources and means to get the kind of education that typically wealthy, white kids received. So AA as a corrective made a lot of sense to me.

Two things have made me question my perspective.

One, I went to grad school with an African American woman who came from a difficult, economically challenged neighborhood, rife with violence and drugs. She was a single mom at 17. But she worked her way to high school diploma, a college degree, and a masters. She had a very difficult time of it. But her grades were exceptional (I don’t mean exceptional for an African-American; I mean exceptional when compared to everyone). She didn’t need a leg up.

But everyone who met her initially condescended to her and assumed she was probably there because she was a minority woman. I don’t think it was fair to her. And what was she supposed to do, walk around with billboard on her head saying “I’m Mensa and I don’t need affirmative action”?

Second, I have since had a child and seen many younger cousins make their way to university and grad school. Affirmative action in action meant seeing very smart and hardworking young kids being declined by Ivys and other very good schools because they were Asian / Indian descent, and God knows we have too many of “them” already. (Meanwhile, their non-Asian minority classmates were accepted to the same schools with lower grades across the board—same high school, same everything, except skin color).

When we talk at the group level, AA is about “blacks getting the same advantage whites always had,” but at an individual level, it means smart Asian kids getting shut out in favor of black or other underrepresented minority kids. Why or how is an Asian kid’s contribution to a largely white class not contributing a diverse viewpoint?

The retort to “do away with athlete and legacy quotas”—at what point do the needs of social justice trump a college’s agency to direct its admissions and its makeup of a student body? It is an erroneous assumption to think all white kids have wealth. That is definitely not true. Neither are all African American kids disadvantaged.

A reasonable person wanting to review or question the efficacy of affirmative action isn’t a racist. Perhaps there are ways to help out kids from all economic backgrounds while not penalizing kids from one or more particular ethnic group. Those policies cannot be debated or discussed in a climate where all questioners are labeled “racists.”

(I found the above screenshot in a Harvard Crimson op-ed by Kirin Gupta, Bernadette N. Lim, and Eva Shang, who criticized “the unsettling ‘Harvard Not Fair’ campaign that seeks to capitalize on the insecurities of rejected applicants based on race.”)

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