In early October, the long-observed lawsuit against Harvard University was put to rest, in which Harvard was accused of discriminating against Asian-American undergraduate applicants. Judge Allison D. Burroughs rejected all claims in a 130-page document, admitting that the admissions process is “not perfect,” but claiming there is no need to “dismantle a very fine admissions program that passes constitutional muster, solely because it could do better.”
I grew up in the Ann Arbor Public School system for the first five years of my life. I then moved to Seoul, South Korea at the age of 10, and I was shocked by the contrasting attitudes teachers, families and students had towards education. Throughout middle school, I attended more than five hagwons, which roughly translates into “cram schools” — for-profit private institutions students attend after school for more rigorous coursework. Like most of my peers, I only got an average of 6 hours of sleep every night due to homework and standardized test training. Students were so desperate for high scores that some would cheat on major standardized tests by calling students in other countries for answers. Many also resorted to suicide — the number one cause of death for South Korean youths is academic pressure.
When I was applying to college, I moved back to the United States through a boarding school program. At this point, I was no stranger to the pressures of school. Thus, I wasn’t surprised by the nation’s skewed college process of bribing universities with donations or posing as a specific applicant, as seen in the case of "Varsity Blues." However, given my poisonous relationship with school and the cases behind affirmative action, I began to think about what it meant to the Asian and Asian American communities. It raised questions between myself and my peers about whether our efforts were futile. Were our culture and common ambition for an elite education perpetuating stereotypes that would inevitably lead to our downfall? Was our race a more significant factor in our applications than our merit?
A good place to understand an Asian/Asian-American viewpoint on affirmative action starts with the stigma around education. As a Korean American, I understand the pressure put on Asian students — especially by their peers and family — to succeed and perform well academically. Karthick Ramakrishnan, a professor of public policy and political science at the University of California-Riverside, states that the reason why Asian Americans seemingly have this overt level of interest with elite colleges is because they believe prestigious institutions will shield them from discrimination in the work place. The Harvard lawsuit represents more than the inability of admission to a university. It shows that there remains a stereotype of Asians being diligent, quiet and technically competent.
While I strongly identify and understand the affect affirmative action has had to the Asian/Asian-American community, I agree with Burroughs’s decision to not change Harvard’s admission system. Affirmative action was created in an attempt to reverse the institutional racism against those historically disadvantaged, which has existed in prestigious education for years. Researchers Jennifer Giancola and Richard Kahlenberg from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation found that “high-achieving students from the wealthiest families were three times as likely to enroll in a highly selective college as those (peers) from poorest families (24 versus 8 percent).” The New York Times also examined the racial and ethnic makeup of 100 highly selective schools. They found that Black students, who make up 15 percent of college-age Americans, only make up 6 percent of college freshmen, while Hispanic students, who make up 22 percent of college-age Americans, only make up 13 percent of college freshmen.
Because of affirmative action, schools are able to create a diverse community of different genders, sexualities, socioeconomic backgrounds, ethnicities and races. With factors such as standardized testing, AP exams, essay tutoring, college application fees, tuition fees and college visits, applying to college is typically more straight-forward if one is provided with the proper secondary education as well as socioeconomic background. Education is one of the biggest drivers of racial inequality and, while affirmative action acts as a Band-Aid solution, it allows the opportunity for overall progress.
Affirmative action remains deeply flawed and needs major reform in order to fix issues, such as “mismatching.” The “mismatch” hypothesis claims that affirmative action in fact harms minority students by admitting students who are relatively unprepared to their classmates when they would’ve found more academic success at different schools. While “mismatching” is a recent phenomenon, studies have shown the severe effects this has had on minority students. Black college freshmen are more likely to declare STEM majors than white freshmen, but are twice as likely to abandon these fields. Black students who begin college in pursuit of a doctorate are also twice as likely to be deterred if attending a school in which they are mismatched. Even though affirmative action has deep fallacies that continue a cycle of educational inequality, the system is still imperative to hiring systems and college admissions in order to create a level playing field for all people.
Instead of placing the blame on affirmative action for discriminatory actions against Asians and Asian Americans, the true root of the issue lies in applicant racial balancing. In The New Yorker, Jeannie Suk Gersen elucidates how the race-conscious holistic review of college applications is not what perpetuates Asian discrimination and explains the true cause is the “sub-rosa deployment of racial balancing” that allows Asians to seem academically lower relative to white students. Rather than pursuing the eradication of affirmative action, a more effective solution would be to transform the stigma around an Asian applicant, and how specifically they stray from the model minority stereotype. Asian students shouldn’t have to actively avoid a personality certain of being “quiet and docile” in order to be accepted by prestigious institutions.
It will be interesting to see if the Harvard case is taken to the Supreme Court in front of conservative justices such as Brett Kavanaugh and see how affirmative action will be altered or even terminated. My hope is that, while the current form of affirmative action may be deeply defective and in need of refinement, the significant role it has in shaping our workplaces and universities will be recognized. It is evident to me, from my experience as an Asian-American college applicant, that there needs to be a system that not only strives for a diverse community, but an application system that admits students of merit along with the recognition of — and the intention to put an end to — historic inequalities in education.
Cheryn Hong can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.