Last week the Department of Justice, joined by the Department of Education, opened a new front in the fight over affirmative action, announcing an investigation into whether Yale discriminates illegally against Asian-American applicants. The move represents the latest attempt by the Trump administration to take aim at the longstanding practice of allowing race to be used as one of many factors, and never the primary or sole factor, in admissions at highly selective colleges and universities.
I am Asian-American, received two degrees from Yale, and I have conducted research on Asian-Americans for more than 20 years as a professor of Asian-American studies. I am also the parent of an Asian-American high-school-aged son who will soon be applying to college. It is for these very reasons that I oppose the investigation and support the current policy of race-conscious admissions.
For the past two decades, I have devoted much of my professional life to teaching students about the long history of racial discrimination faced by Asian-Americans in the United States. Most students have some knowledge of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans, but fewer are familiar with the ways in which anti-Asian hostility led to lynching and mob violence against Asian-Americans in the mid-1800s.
I teach thousands of students this history. I also emphasize how recycled stereotypes of Asian-Americans as "forever foreigners" have led to false charges of spying directed at Chinese-American scientists in recent times. Spending my adult life conducting research on and teaching these topics has made me keenly aware of how race has shaped the experiences of Asian-Americans.
Idea Lab: Admissions and Enrollment
At the same time, my experience as a scholar and teacher has helped me to be more aware of how Asian-Americans fit into America’s larger racial landscape. I have followed closely the Department of Justice’s investigations of anti-Asian discrimination at Harvard and now Yale, and I don’t buy the charges.
First, Asian-Americans, many of whom are Chinese-American, like me, are enrolled at Yale at a rate three times greater than their numbers in the population. This, on its face, seems to distinguish the case at Yale and Harvard from other, more traditional civil-rights investigations. It is much more typical to demonstrate discrimination though lack of inclusion.
Second, the purported evidence of racial discrimination at highly selective institutions is flimsy. While the facts justifying the case at Yale have not been released, the case at Harvard is instructive. Students for Fair Admissions, led by Edward Blum (a conservative activist who has also advocated rolling back voting rights for minorities and immigrants) is the plaintiff in the Harvard case. A main piece of evidence supplied by Students for Fair Admissions is that Asian-American applicants to Harvard score lower than other groups on the university’s "personal rating."
While the personal rating is not a measure of personality, some Asian-Americans have assumed that implicit bias is at play, such that admissions officers see them as boring, one-dimensional nerds. But simply demonstrating a lower average score on a single admissions measure is not evidence of intentional discrimination.
What’s more, Harvard’s expert did further analysis of the data used by the plaintiffs and found that Asian-Americans from California and Asian-American women score higher than other groups on the personal rating. This finding is inconsistent with systematic bias.
As a scholar, I know that some stereotypes of Asian-Americans can cut both ways. Perhaps some might see my high-schooler as a test-taking machine, but research shows that implicit bias toward Asian-Americans will lead most people, including his teachers, to raise their expectations of him and assume he has more academic potential than others. This in turn will very likely lead to the assignment of higher grades and even higher test scores.
In contrast, implicit bias will most likely have the opposite effect for my son’s black and Latino classmates. This is the pernicious reality of what scholars call the "model minority" stereotype, that views about one group depend on views about others. Eliminating the consideration of race in college admissions will not eliminate these implicit biases.
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A false "Asian penalty" narrative is embodied in the Department of Justice’s investigation into Yale. At the core is an assumption that Asian-Americans need higher test scores than non-Asian-Americans to get into a highly selective college (this myth has been debunked). Higher test scores among Asian-Americans compared with other groups are best explained by systematic group advantages, such as the higher average levels of income and parental education that result from selective U.S. immigration policies in place since 1965.
To argue that variations in test scores are a result of qualities intrinsic to "Asian culture" or group values is to rely on the very kinds of bias that the groups suing Yale and Harvard say they oppose. Furthermore, Asian-Americans who do not benefit from high levels of parental education, proximity to high-performing schools, or high levels of income do not as often demonstrate stellar test scores. The consideration of race in college admissions has been shown to help these Asian-American students. In addition, considering race as one among many, many factors in admissions helps to create a more diverse campus, which has been shown to be the best learning environment for young people.
My appreciation for the policies that will create the most diverse learning environment for students can be traced to my own learning trajectory. I grew up in the 1980s in a politically conservative county in rural Northern California. In high school, I was a Young Republican. In 1985, my hometown, Yuba City, was ranked the "worst city in the U.S.A." by Rand McNally, in large part because of high rates of poverty. Just this year, USA Today included Yuba City among the 25 worst places in the United States to raise children because high-school graduation rates continue to lag.
About 10 percent of my senior class went to a four-year college after graduation. Though my grades were high, my standardized test scores were only good, not stellar. In my college essay, I emphasized my Chinese heritage and I was admitted to Stanford, Berkeley, and UCLA. I chose to attend UCLA.
I was, perhaps not surprisingly, not academically prepared for the rigors of college. Even with a tutor, I barely passed my calculus class. My first sociology class, on urban poverty, was a revelation, however. I learned about structural inequality and the policies that shape people’s lives.
My world views changed as I read, took additional classes, witnessed media coverage of the 1992 urban unrest in Los Angeles sparked by the beating of the black motorist Rodney King, and was inspired by the bid by Michael Woo, a Chinese-American, to become mayor of that city. I became a political-science major. One of my professors hired me as a research assistant, and I learned how to conduct survey analysis of multiracial, multilingual populations. I wrote papers on Asian-American elected officials and voting behavior using graduate-level research methods.
I would not have been admitted to UCLA based on test scores alone. I would not have been admitted to Yale’s Ph.D. program in political science without the unique research training I received after I found my footing at UCLA. And I would not have succeeded as a scholar without the benefit of attending classes with students from diverse backgrounds who challenged me and made my thinking sharper.
Ending affirmative action will not have a big effect on Asian-American admission rates. But if opponents of such policies are successful, lack of diversity will create a worse learning environment for Asian-American students like my son and damage a multiracial civil-rights coalition that could protect Asian-Americans from discrimination into the future.
Janelle Wong is a professor in the department of American studies and the program in Asian-American studies at the University of Maryland at College Park.