Affirming Affirmative Action: A Chinese-American Perspective

Christopher Wan
Dec 27, 2019 · 11 min read
Photo: Harvard University

Three months ago, a federal district court ruled that Harvard’s practice of racial preferences in undergraduate admissions is constitutional. In protracted litigation that raged on for more than five years, the plaintiffs, a group of anonymous Asian Americans, have argued that Harvard intentionally discriminated against Asian Americans; that Harvard over-emphasized race as a factor in admissions; that other race-neutral alternatives exist to promote diversity; and that ultimately, race should be completely removed from the admissions process. But this case is far from over. The plaintiffs have already appealed the case to the 1st Circuit, and experts opine that this case is almost guaranteed to go to the Supreme Court.

The tension underlying this case underscores the discontent among the Asian community around affirmative action. Now, to be fair, I am sympathetic. I understand the feeling all too well. Before college, I made it my goal to get into a top institution. On the day that Harvard released its decisions for early action, I even wore a Harvard shirt to school because I thought I’d get in [I didn’t]. In general, many Asian-Americans have idolized Harvard and other elite colleges as mystical bastions of higher learning and gatekeepers of success. It’s Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Stanford, MIT (hereafter HYPSM, pronounced hips-um, apparently), or bust.

Given the high value placed on HYPSM, the frustration with affirmative action is understandable, but I believe it is fundamentally misplaced. I write this piece with a Chinese-American lens, admittedly from a position of privilege. I went to Yale for undergrad, but it wasn’t until after I graduated that I adopted a more expansive view of affirmative action and its effects on society. As a Chinese-American, I believe that a constitutional race-based affirmative action measure advances important social goals and that the real problem is how we Asian-Americans view elite institutions.

The Constitutional Question

While my background as an Asian-American contributes nothing unique to a legal analysis, the constitutional question is a threshold matter that draws the outer bound for affirmative action policies. I therefore address the issue, but feel free to skip this section.

The Supreme Court first confronted affirmative action in Regents of University of California v. Bakke in 1978. There, UC Davis Medical School admitted minorities through a “special admissions program” that filled 16% of the class with minorities. The court found it unconstitutional to totally exclude non-minorities from a specific percentage of the seats. In other words, no hard quotas.

Twenty-five years later, in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, the Court examined the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policies in its law school and its college of arts and sciences, respectively. In Grutter, the Court held that a school may examine race in a “flexible, non-mechanical way” to further its educational interests, even where the school seeks to achieve a “critical mass” of minorities (as distinct from a hard, fast quota). In Gratz, however, the Court held that categorically granting minorities more “points” on an admissions rubric is unconstitutional because it does not give each applicant the “individualized consideration” necessary.

Finally, in 2013, the Court in Fisher v. Univ. of Tex. at Austin stated three principles for examining affirmative action policies:

(1) The university’s admissions process must withstand strict scrutiny. This scrutiny requires that an affirmative action policy be narrowly tailored to further the asserted, compelling interests of diversity.

(2) A university must give a principled explanation of its educational goals and why its policies would further those educational goals.

(3) A university must prove that a nonracial approach would fail to promote its interest in diversity. In other words, racial preferences must be necessary to furthering the interests in (2).

Given the Court’s holdings on affirmative action, it’s hard to see a “holistic” admissions process being unconstitutional unless it categorically treats all minorities differently from all non-minorities.

Policy Considerations

I reject any unconstitutional race-based affirmative action measures. But given a constitutional race-based measure, I believe it furthers important substantive policies. As a general matter, Asian-Americans should be aware (if not sympathetic) of these policy considerations.

The first-generation Asian-American story is a familiar one. Parents immigrate from Asia in order to provide a better life for their children. Many think HYPSM is the gateway to upward social mobility.

This thinking is false. HYPSM is neither necessary nor sufficient for “success.” To begin, Asian Americans do not need Harvard on their resume in order to “succeed” in society today. One need not search too hard to find examples. From my personal life, when I worked at Facebook, the vast majority of my friends were not from HYPSM. In law school, my smartest classmates are not from HYPSM.

Nor is HYPSM itself a guarantee of “success.” To be sure, studies have shown that students at elite universities have higher earnings after college than their peers at lower-ranked institutions. But there is a selection bias problem. Alan Krueger has argued vigorously that it is not the schools themselves that lead to success, but the inherent qualities (such as perseverance and creativity) of the students at those schools. An Asian-American applicant who could’ve gotten into HYPSM but did not due to racial preferences presumably has such characteristics in spades. The qualities of that applicant at 18 are a better predictor of her future success than the school she ultimately graduates from at 22. Krueger writes:

My advice to students: Don’t believe that the only school worth attending is one that would not admit you. That you go to college is more important than where you go. Find a school whose academic strengths match your interests and which devotes resources to instruction in those fields. Recognize that your own motivation, ambition and talents will determine your success more than the college name on your diploma.

However, the story is different for under-represented minorities because society systematically stereotypes these minorities as categorically lacking the aforementioned traits necessary for success. The benefit of HYPSM to blacks and Hispanics is far greater than the benefit to others because it acts as a comparatively stronger social signal. Indeed, a study found that black Harvard students are 200% as likely to get a particular job than black students at less prestigious universities. Comparatively, white Harvard students are less than 40% likely to get a particular job than their “less prestigious” counterparts. The disadvantages that blacks suffer are so large that black Harvard students are about as likely to land a particular job as white students that graduate from far lower-tiered universities.

Opponents will argue that even though Blacks and Hispanics benefit disproportionately from attending HYPSM, it does not necessarily follow that Asian-Americans should be penalized. Fair enough. Yet, to call this a “penalty” would be too myopic a view. If, in the long-run, an Asian-American will do about equally as well if she went to either Harvard or a top state school, why not consider opening up that spot at Harvard for a minority who will benefit?

Affirmative action creates organic opportunities for educational cross-pollination. In turn, this fosters new ideas and leads to new innovation.

This innovation is increasingly important. There are more and more careers today where decisions made by a small body of individuals affect a wide swath of people. In politics, our leaders push sweeping domestic and international policies. In technology, entrepreneurs and CEOs write software that everyone in the world uses. It is therefore important for individuals in positions of power not only to be diverse, but also to be steeped in diverse perspectives as early as possible, so that the decisions they make are not narrowly self-serving.

Affirmative action accomplishes this. In the liberal arts, a class full of white people will approach issues in criminal law differently than a class full of black people. A class full of Chinese people will think about political issues in Hong Kong differently than a class full of white people. Conversations outside the classroom, in the hallways and dorms, facilitate further exchange. Personally, I learn just as much from my peers as I do from my professors.

This also applies to the sciences. For instance, facial recognition software has problems recognizing black faces because its algorithms are usually written by white engineers who build on pre-existing code libraries, typically written by other white engineers. In 2015, Google had to apologize after its image-recognition photo app initially labeled African Americans as “gorillas.” Amy Webb, an AI futurist, wrote in her book The Big Nine, that AI has a “pipeline problem,” where professors and students in the sciences are overwhelmingly male and lacking in diversity. Fei-Fei Li, who runs Stanford’s Institute for Human-Centered AI, said:

As an educator, as a woman, as a woman of color, as a mother, I’m increasingly worried. AI is about to make the biggest changes to humanity, and we’re missing a whole generation of diverse technologists… If we don’t get women and people of color at the table — real technologists doing the real work — we will bias systems. Trying to reverse that a decade or two from now will be so much more difficult, if not close to impossible.

At the end of the day, the question for me boils down to this: What will our future look like, and who will the future serve if the ones building it are all white, or all Asian?

Systemic Changes

While I broadly agree with affirmative action policies as they exist today, there are a few avenues I’d like to explore. Such avenues would ideally further the policies discussed above.

Although racial preferences are a good way to achieve classroom diversity, there may be other policies that are more effective. Indeed, the Supreme Court (discussed above) requires colleges to prove that non-racial approaches would fail to promote diversity, or that such approaches are infeasible due to inordinate costs. Over the years, states have banned the use of racial preferences and devised some alternatives, including enacting affirmative action for economically disadvantaged students; increasing financial aid; admitting students in the top of all high school classes regardless of SAT or ACT scores; eliminating legacy preferences; boosting community colleges transfers; and increasing recruitment and K–12 pipeline partnerships.

The most popular alternative measure among these is socioeconomic status (SES). Raj Chetty has studied the effect of elite college admissions on individuals across the socioeconomic spectrum. More students in the Ivy League come from families in the top 1% of the income distribution (14.5%) than the bottom half of the income distribution (13.5%), and elite colleges successfully “level the playing field” across students with different socioeconomic backgrounds.

But the question of whether SES-based admission positively impacts those admitted students is different from the question of whether such admission promotes racial diversity as well as racial preferences do. On this latter question, the evidence is mixed. While schools like the University of Washington and the University of Georgia have increased racial diversity by using SES-based affirmative action, UC Berkeley, UCLA, and the University of Michigan have not been able to sustain prior levels of racial diversity. SES alone may fail at being a sufficient proxy for race due to the interplay of other constraints such as lack of affordable housing, and fair wages. Cutting against using these race-neutral measures is the fact that incorporating these factors may result in a combinatorial explosion of different models.

There may yet be other measures. Peter Thiel has argued that preferences could (and should) be given on the basis of “unusual characteristics,” not on the basis of race. While sound in theory, this approach is difficult in practice due to the presumably inordinate cost of identifying and classifying such characteristics and devising a fair, systematic way to compare the gamut of people’s experiences.

Mismatch theory argues that affirmative action policies increase diversity in college but ultimately decrease diversity in professional fields. Proponents argue that students who are given large preferences end up struggling in college, thus decreasing their own confidence and pushing them away from more “high-achieving” professions.

Although the mechanism is plausible, the empirical evidence is ambiguous on whether mismatch actually exists. On one hand, studies have found that students were most likely to graduate by attending the most selective institution that would admit them. This finding held regardless of student characteristics — better or worse prepared, black or white, rich or poor. On the other hand, researchers found that California’s Prop 209, which bans racial preferences for affirmative action in UC schools, resulted in a 4.4% increase in the graduation rates of minority students. The researchers attributed 20 percent of the increase to better matching.

In any case, perhaps an innocuous solution would be for HYPSM to inform all admitted students of how similar students in their position have fared at the university. Such a change puts power in the hands of students to make more informed decisions in accepting the offer of admission while not depriving them of the opportunity to attend in the first place. Another more difficult solution would be to reduce the possibility for mismatch by designing measures to increase retention, achievement, and support for poor minorities while they are in school.

A Flawed Mental Model

The truth of the matter is that constitutional race-based affirmative action policies are a net positive to society. The more pervasive problem is the Asian-American perception of elite institutions. The “HYPSM or bust” mentality has a few fundamental flaws:

(1) It is false. As discussed, Asian-Americans do not need to go to HYPSM in order to have a successful career.

(2) It breeds resentment towards minorities.

(3) It ultimately hampers real success by letting parents and society define what is good, admirable, and worthy of our time and effort. In an effort to mold ourselves into an image of what we think elite institutions would like to see in applicants, we fail to meditate on what makes us unique, what we actually want in life, and what we think about the world. People who blindly follow their parents can be especially susceptible to this. Once in college, the student body further defines what to pursue. Nearly forty percent of students in elite colleges go into finance. Companies like McKinsey and Goldman Sachs become the creme-de-la-creme. Rather than becoming creators of independent thoughts, we become receptacles for gold stars. When does it end?

Here are the ways we should be thinking instead:

(1) Stop thinking so highly of HYPSM and the students that go there.

(2) Understand the benefits of affirmative action and racial preferences.

(3) If you possess the caliber to attend an elite college, you don’t need that college to succeed.

(4) There is no formula to get into an elite college, so stop searching for one.

(5) Think long-term. Under-represented minorities are not eating our lunch. The pie is not fixed. In the end, we can all win.

There exists a Chinese WeChat group for parents of HYPSM kids. Thousands of parents ask the obvious questions: “what dorm are your kids in? are the facilities nice? how is your kid getting to and from the airport?” Yet many also talk about their children, their children’s lives at school, and their children’s aspirations. It’s as if their children’s affiliations with HYPSM have now been imputed to the parents. They’ve reached the pinnacle. They’ve “overcome” affirmative action. It’s a dream come true… or is it, really? Is this group merely a community, or is it a cult, or worse yet, is it a myopic monument to ourselves?

Age of Awareness

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Christopher Wan

Written by

Writing about law / policy, business strategy, and technology at Diving into these topics @Stanford; Previously: SWE @Facebook, CS @Yale

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn | Tune in at | Connecting 500k+ monthly readers with 1,200+ authors

Christopher Wan

Written by

Writing about law / policy, business strategy, and technology at Diving into these topics @Stanford; Previously: SWE @Facebook, CS @Yale

Age of Awareness

Stories providing creative, innovative, and sustainable changes to the ways we learn | Tune in at | Connecting 500k+ monthly readers with 1,200+ authors

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