China U

I’m Chinese, and I Know Why There Aren’t More Asians in the Ivy League

Affirmative Action has turned around to bite some of the people it was designed to benefit.

of the Harvard Crimson of the Yale Bulldogs during the game at Harvard Stadium in their 131st meeting on November 22, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
of the Harvard Crimson of the Yale Bulldogs during the game at Harvard Stadium in their 131st meeting on November 22, 2014 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)


This article originally appeared in Chinese under the headline “Getting into a Famous School Is Hard in China — Is it Even Harder in the U.S.?” on the website of U.S.-China Dialogue, a project of Asia Society, edited by Zheng Huiwen. Foreign Policy translates, with edits for clarity and length.

There’s an American-born Chinese person in California by the name of Wang Zili. Like a lot of determined youth envisioning the American Dream, Zili hopes to leave a legacy of hard work, and create four years worth of beautiful memories, along the banks of the Charles Rivers in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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When Zili applied to Harvard, he submitted these marks to the admissions officer: 2,230 on the SAT (out of 2,400); captain of his high school debate team; third place in an international piano competition; participation in school chorus, which sang at President Obama’s inauguration party; and rich volunteer experience, including tutoring for immigrants and poor children.

If hard work pays off, should Zili’s dream come true? Nope. Zili was rejected, and harshly. Many other minority applicants without shiny credentials got their wish, receiving an offer; many white Americans (who are not supposed to receive special treatment) also got accepted. Their backgrounds all paled in comparison to Zili’s.

If you have all of the other requirements to be a highly competitive applicant, but you aren’t selected, the only result left is that you have suffered “racial discrimination.” You’re not in, because you’re Asian. In an age when all of American society flaunts racial equality — and when university acceptance is such an important matter — how can the historical relic of “racial discrimination” occur so openly?

It started with a U.S. national policy: affirmative action. Everyone knows that the United States once had an extremely serious racial discrimination problem. The civil rights movement of the sixties created a great wave against racial discrimination, and many sympathetic people who had received unequal treatment themselves thought that a serious illness required strong medicine: as the first offenders, white people would have to pay the price!

As a result of this, schools at every level — which are the most important determinant of economic status — became the main weapons in the counter-strike against racism. Many policies came out that stripped white people of their opportunities and distributed them to racial minorities.

It’s important to reiterate that black people were the main force in the civil rights movement. Asians didn’t even contribute soy sauce. So all of the legal rulings spurred by civil rights were written in response to the relationship between blacks and whites. That has made it harder for other minorities to protect their rights.

It’s said that the point of affirmative action is to look after racial minorities. Asians have suffered the kinds of historical wrongs that the policy is meant to address; so how come affirmative action has become the main culprit in holding Asians back?

Truth is, in terms of their economic status and academic accomplishments, Asians have already mostly drawn even with white people, even surpassed them. As a minority that takes seriously education and hard work, Asians have improved their lives immensely since coming to America just generations ago, and Asian students have quickly stood out. America, a society still led by white people, has started to call Asians a “model minority,” who have already realized “quasi-whiteness” in their economic and intellectual lives. This is meant as praise, however it means that Asians must pay a price at the school gates.

Asian students were once a class protected under affirmative action, along with African-Americans and other minorities. But because Asian students have performed better and better, with higher and higher grades, they’ve opened light-years’ worth of distance between themselves and other racial minorities.

Therefore, every major school has discovered that Asian applicants are too outstanding, and if their applications were considered equally alongside other minorities, it would lead to two results: First, the proportion of Asian students among minority students would become greater and greater. Second, the proportion of Asian students among all students would also get larger and larger. Many schools, even those with many outstanding Asian students, have held onto some completely illogical prejudices about Asian students. For example, they think that Asian people can only study engineering, lack leadership, are too quiet, lack guts, are too conservative, etc.

So with the number of Asian students growing, schools felt they had to do something. So they did. In simple terms, they revoked the protection that affirmative action had afforded Asians, and, under the guise of affirmative action, suppressed Asian applicants.

Look at the example of Zili. Among an Asian, a white person, and another racial minority, all of equal credentials, we are very likely to see their likelihood of acceptance like this: Other minority > White > Asian. Many statistics prove that, at least out of a student population with identical grades, Asians have the lowest acceptance rate, and other racial minorities the highest, with white people in the middle.

Some sociologists studying this phenomenon have termed American treatment of Asian students “negative action.” The result of negative action is that a white person always has a higher chance of acceptance than an Asian with equal, and perhaps even superior credentials.

Asians are being discriminated against by the very same schools that were supposed to protect them in the name of the justice, freedom, and equality that they claim to espouse. And a policy originally intended to protect Asians has become a guise permitting discrimination against them. It’s truly laughable.

Now that they’ve become aware of this in recent years, many Asian groups have been challenging these unfair selection practices. In the United States, there have been two types of legal challenges against “negative action” in higher education. The first is conventional lawsuits under the 14th amendment to the U.S. constitution. The other is complaints directed at the U.S. Department of Education and the civil rights division of the Department of Justice.

At its root, the discrimination against racial minorities, including Asians, traces to a longstanding estrangement that still exists. But as Asians become more common in America, mainstream culture is going to slowly accept Asians, and itself be affected by Asian culture. In this way, Asians will sooner or later stop being “quasi white” and instead become the cultural “whites.”

In the meantime, there may need to be a second civil rights movement, but one that I hope has both Asians and other racial minorities in the lead role. Asia may again be called the world’s center, and the issue may not become the whitening of Asian Americans, but the Asian-ing of white Americans.

Photo credit: Getty Images

Correction, Aug. 28, 2015: The Chinese-language version of the article translated above was edited by Zheng Huiwen. An earlier version of this article attributed editorship to Zhu Xi.

Tianpu Zhang is a 2016 JD candidate at NYU School of Law.

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