Why I Support Affirmative Action at Harvard
By Jason Fong
(Originally posted Dec 28, 2016 at Angry Asian Man).
This month, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a national affiliation of civil rights organizations focused on serving the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities, and several prospective AAPI Harvard students joined a diverse group of black, Latino, and Native American students to support Harvard's race-conscious admissions program against attacks that the program intentionally discriminates against Asian American applicants. I am one of those students.
I joined this effort because like the majority of Asian Americans, I support affirmative action, but I also did so because I think our community needs to reflect upon our shared identity as Asian Americans, especially in light of recent lawsuits by a few disappointed Chinese Americans who blame race-conscious admissions programs for their failure to gain admission to their dream schools. With the composition of the United States Supreme Court skewing even more sharply to the right under a Trump administration, the narrow majority that upheld affirmative action in Fisher II could reverse by the time the lawsuit against Harvard reaches the highest court, putting race-conscious admissions policies throughout the country in serious jeopardy.
For me, this fight isn't about my Harvard application. In fact, I know that, like 95% of almost 40,000 applicants, I'm likely to be rejected. But I won't take it personally. I don't depend on Harvard to provide me with self-worth in an admissions letter. Like other institutions, it's looking out for itself -- and trying to build a class that it feels best serves its goals.
Today, at Harvard, about one in five undergraduates identifies as Asian American. For the class of 2020, over 22% are Asian American. Yale and Princeton have similar proportions in their classes of 2020. Interestingly, at Princeton, which has also been the subject of complaints from Chinese Americans, the Asian American student population has grown by over 70% in the past 10 years. This growth may be a reflection of the fact while Asians comprise only about 6% of the total U.S. population, they are the fastest growing ethnic or racial group in America, and this steady increase clearly refutes the urban myths about "racial quotas" which have been banned for over 40 years.
Why then are some Asian Americans suing colleges like Harvard? Some argue that if someone has perfect metrics, he or she must be admitted to Harvard or at least ought to have a better chance of admission than someone whose numbers are less perfect. I don't understand how we ever got the idea that a fantastic report card, amazing test scores, and participation in activities that supposedly show "well-roundedness" mean that we are entitled to admission to our dream school. If Harvard is rejecting thousands of these types of students every year, it seems to be sending a message that it is defining merit differently from some Asian American moms and dads who cram their kids' schedules with test prep, music lessons, and debate team practices.
What makes the rejected Asian American applicant different from the tens of thousands of other talented and disappointed students? Like most people, many Asian Americans value education, but could it be that some of us have restricted our definitions of a good education to such a degree that only acceptance to a few schools out of the over 5,000 colleges in the U.S. is well, acceptable?
Part of the Ivy League obsession of some Asian Americans may be rooted in a sense of insecurity about our place in America. Many Asian Americans feel that education will, among other things, somehow protect us from discrimination. But we shouldn't have to point to diplomas, trophies, and other external markers of "achievement" to protect us from racism. Our humanity should be enough for that.
However, we know that in real life, an Ivy League pedigree is not enough to stop people from screaming at us to "go home," or that we'll be deported soon. We know that graduating summa cum laude isn't much comfort when you hit the glass ceiling at work for allegedly lacking "leadership" skills. And your Ph.D. dissertation won't count for much if you are racially profiled and escorted off an airplane.
Thus, if we are trying to use education as some of sort shield, but it isn't working, perhaps we need to ask why we aren't doing more to fight against racism more directly. And we should be working to ensure that inclusivity and equity continue to be considered important values and implemented in our colleges and universities. After all, we have benefitted from race-conscious programs in education and employment for decades, and it would be against our own interests, as well as deeply hypocritical, to advocate for their elimination -- especially because some members of our community need more support in education.
Our community is diverse, and, sometimes, that diversity is obscured by the outsized media glare on individual stories of college admissions rejections. While there are Asian Americans who feel that they have to "settle" by attending a Top 25 school rather than a Top 10 school, hundreds of thousands of Asian Americans begin their higher education journeys at community colleges. During the first year of college, Asian American and African American students have the highest enrollment rates in remedial education courses. And, in some of our communities, college is not even on the radar for the 35-40% of youth who do not complete high school.
Regardless of our individual differences, however, we are all products of our families, communities, and institutional support. I am able to write to you today because I am the product of three generations of Chinese and Korean Americans. My family was able to immigrate here because activists took to the streets to fight against restrictive immigration laws and for civil rights protections. My father was able to attend college because he benefited from admission programs that assisted low-income first generation college students. My words appear before you today because someone thought it would be a good idea to be inclusive and present diverse voices. Does that mean that other writers should now sue because their work wasn't presented here?
Affirmative action might be a convenient scapegoat for the disappointments that come crashing every admissions season. But I wonder if the problem isn't a program that fosters inclusion but rather that some of us are convinced that our academic efforts count for nothing unless we gain approval from institutions like Harvard.
If the latter is even partially true, we indeed have much soul searching to do.
Jason Fong is currently a high school senior and a Harvard applicant.