Opinion: Affirmative action and the insecurity of Asian-Americans

Graphic by Emma Li

Growing up in a Chinese-American household, I was raised to value achievement in quantifiable, measurable forms. I was taught to follow the rules of the system and pursue paths with predictable outcomes. For many Asian-Americans like myself, the expectations we were raised with fuel the explosion of fury in the affirmative action debate.

The New York Times recently released a series of reports surrounding the Asian-Americans against Affirmative Action lawsuit. Claiming that Harvard University discriminates against Asian-American students on the basis of race, Students for Fair Admissions, a non-profit including more than a dozen Asian-American students who were rejected from Harvard, successfully gained backing from the Justice Department and forced Harvard to turn over thousands of admissions files.

The crux of the lawsuit lies in the quota system, as Students for Fair Admissions points out the unfairly stagnant rates of Asian-American acceptances into Harvard and fuels the claim that the acceptances of less qualified non-Asian minorities are to blame.

However, enrollment among non-Asian people of color is low enough as is, with Harvard’s class of 2021 comprising of 14.6 percent African-American students, 11.6 percent Hispanic or Latino students, and 2.5 percent Native American or Pacific Islander.

Asian-Americans still make up a significantly higher percentage of enrollment (22.2 percent) in comparison to other minority students — yet the class is still roughly 49 percent white, which was actually considered a historic milestone for Harvard; the class of 2021 was the first “majority minority” class.

Furthermore, the model minority stereotype plays a large role in the issue of blanketing “Asian-American” as a label. Many non-East Asian ethnic groups that fall under the label of “Asian-American” face severe underrepresentation in higher education and would likely support or benefit from affirmative action.

Beyond the discussions of race looms a greater issue — the legacy advantage. According to the Los Angeles Times, from 2010-2015, Harvard’s admission rate for legacies was 34 percent, while its admission rate for non-legacies was six percent.

Prestigious private schools often have athletic preferences in admissions as well. Schools like Harvard have historically been known to recruit in sports such as sailing, fencing, lacrosse, and golf, which are often inaccessible to the average student from a low-income or middle-class community. These types of institutionalized practices further demonstrate how schools like Harvard are designed for and cater to the comforts of the elite.

Beneath the surface, Students for Fair Admissions represents the invisible power of white control and manipulation, the persistence of a distinctly American social structure designed to keep people of color as second class citizens. Its president, Edward Blum, a member of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, was described by the New York Times as “a one-man legal factory with a growing record of finding plaintiffs who match his causes … trying above all to erase racial preferences from American life.”

Blum’s most high-profile cases included Fisher v. The University of Texas at Austin. Fisher, a white applicant, accused The University of Texas at Austin of racial discrimination in admissions, despite the fact her grades and test scores were objectively below average, and according to ProPublica, only five black or Latino applicants with lower test scores and grades were offered admission to the university, compared to 42 white applicants.

Asian-Americans have become the pawn of white society, the “model minority” group conveniently employed to pit minorities against each other and weaken solidarity among people of color, reinforcing the social stratification of the status quo.

As an Asian-American college student who had undergone the admissions process, I have also struggled before to take a confident stance.

I understand the feeling of desperation to be accepted into a prestigious university, to validate oneself through academic achievement, to make one’s family proud, and to seek the unsaid promise of success from an elite educational institution.

These feelings played a role in my decision to attend Pitzer College after originally being waitlisted and instead committing to University of California, Santa Barbara.

Although I could, at the time, think of countless reasons that a private, exclusive ‘dream college’ like Pitzer would be a ‘perfect fit’ for me, I could not think of a single valid, pressing reason to not attend UCSB, or think of anything wrong with it, outside of the fact that it wasn’t Pitzer College, one of the Claremont Colleges.

Being miraculously admitted to Pitzer made me question everything — my obsession with getting into a ‘dream’ college, my instinctual dissatisfaction with my earlier college acceptances, and my preconceived notions about higher education.

People like Blum, along with the ‘eliteness’ and exclusivity of private universities that make them so enviable and coveted, thrive upon Asian-American insecurity, conformity, and acquiescence to the system.

The root of these problems begin when all students, especially Asian-American students, put private, elite institutions on pedestals and assume they will get them farther in life than a less ‘prestigious’ college, public college, or junior college, when more than enough data has debunked these misconceptions.

More importantly, these problems are rooted in our ignorance toward the fact that we are all complicit and willing consumers in the endlessly unjust industry of private education, created for the white elite by the white elite.

I am here now.

But as an applicant who had undergone all the heartbreaks and anxieties of the college admissions process, I only wish I could have trusted myself a bit more and genuinely believed I would be successful, worthy, and happy wherever I went, regardless of the name, prestige, or privilege that comes with a private education.

Sometimes, I wish I had not chosen to be complicit in a system that told me my self-worth was inextricably connected to the reputation of the school I attended, the same system that prompts students to turn life into a race and form unsubstantiated assumptions about the ‘qualifications’ of others.

Asian-Americans need to realize their support of affirmative action is a step toward greater equity in society and strengthened solidarity among people of color. The problem is deeper than what lies with Harvard, Blum, legacies, and quotas. This entire lawsuit is a reflection of the internal self-damaging, conformist, and insecure mentalities of many Asian-Americans. I am one of them, learning to grow through these insecurities as well.

Milly Chi PZ ’22 is an aspiring media studies major from Buena Park, CA. In her free time, she can be found engaging in creative pursuits and fueling her superstitions about palmistry and zodiac signs.

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