Where Does Affirmative Action Leave Asian-Americans?
The New York Times August 28, 2019 looks at the efforts to diversify, the Asian population, and the lawsuit against Harvard University
Where Does Affirmative Action Leave Asian-Americans?
A high-profile lawsuit against Harvard is forcing students and their families to choose sides.
By Jay Caspian KangPhotographs by Ronghui Chen
Published Aug. 28, 2019
Updated Aug. 30, 2019
For the purposes of this article, Alex Chen, an 18-year-old senior at the Bronx High School of Science in New York City, is the “typical Asian student.” Alex has a 98 percent average at one of the city’s elite public high schools, scored a 1,580 on the SAT and, as far as he knows, has earned the respect of his teachers. Alex is also the vice president of technology for the Bronx Science chapter of the National Honor Society, the director of graphics and marketing for TeenHacks L.I. (“the first hackathon for teens in Long Island”), a member of the cross-country team, the vice president of the school’s painting club, the president of the Get Your Life Together club (visitors from various businesses come talk to students) and the senator for his homeroom. In his free time, he plays Pokémon and goes on long jogs through Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. His parents, Qiao and Su, emigrated from China in the ’90s and worked their way through commuter colleges in Queens. They live along with Alex’s little brother in a modest apartment in outer Queens. In the specific yet ultimately abstracted and perhaps inhuman calculations particular to selective college admissions, Alex is a first-generation (considered a plus), middle-class (minus) Chinese-American (minus, arguably) with two college-educated parents (minus) from a major American city (minus) with aspirations to study either computer science (minus, given all the Asians who want to go into STEM disciplines) or political science (plus).
When I first met him in early August 2018, we struggled to find a time to meet up to talk about his thoughts on affirmative action and its effect on Asian-American students. Deep into the summer vacation before his last year of high school, Alex had been interning in the office of Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou while also completing a study on congressional legislators with a professor at New York University. There just was no time.
After Alex canceled our first agreed-upon date, I told him that in addition to writing for The New York Times Magazine, I was also writing a book, ran a small production company and had an 18-month-old daughter. And yet, despite these various jobs (as well as the fact that I wasn’t on summer vacation), I could meet him on any day and at any time for however long he pleased. My flexible schedule wasn’t a favor to him but simply a reflection of the life of a relatively productive adult.
“Well, that’s you,” Alex said, a bit scornfully.
We finally settled on a meeting in the financial district. Alex suggested a Dunkin’ Donuts exactly one door down from his internship office. When I arrived, I saw that it had no tables or booths, just three stools pushed up against the front window. I was hungry and slightly irritated, so I texted him and said I’d meet him at a Cuban lunch counter nearby. He walked through the front door a moment later — thin, with short-cropped hair, a neatly tucked button-up shirt and creaseless pants. He had a look of mild agitation about him, one that never really subsided. We shook hands.
“This is my list of priorities for the summer,” he said, opening a document on his phone. “You can see the sociology study is way up high because it’s really important to me, and cross-country is less high but still important.”
“Do you enjoy running?” I asked.
“Sometimes,” he said. “Do you want to see my list of colleges?”
He pulled up a spreadsheet on his phone with the names of 11 colleges listed in color-coded columns. “So, Binghamton and Rochester are the safeties, which is great, because I’d be totally thrilled to go to both. Carnegie Mellon and Rice are matches where I’m pretty sure I can get in. And these schools in red are my reaches.” Yale, M.I.T., Cornell, Princeton, Stanford, Vanderbilt and Brown.
“Would you really be happy going to Binghamton or Rochester?” I asked.
“Yes, because the value would be there for the price I’ll end up paying. They’re great schools and cheap.”
“I see Harvard isn’t on your list,” I said. “Are you worried it’ll be impossible because of ... you know.”
“I’m applying to Yale.”
“Sure,” I said. “But Harvard is Harvard.”
“Yes, and Yale is Yale,” he said.
“Do you want to go to Yale?” I asked.
“Define ‘want,’ ” he said.
It went on like this for a while. After a brief discussion about his internship and what it taught him about the importance of local political representation, I finally asked him how he felt about affirmative action.
“It’s complicated,” Alex said. “I understand why it exists and why it might be necessary to create the society we all want,” he went on. “But I also understand there are ideas that make it seem like Asians aren’t discriminated against at all.”
“What ideas?” I asked.
He gave me a look that communicated his deep, and perhaps justified, frustration with me. These ideas, I gathered, had been implicit in every conversation Alex had ever had about college admissions, but they rarely found clear expression. “So how do you feel about affirmative action?” I asked again.
“I understand the thinking behind affirmative action, but I just wish the message wasn’t that Asians are all so privileged and rich and buying their way into colleges,” he said, referring to the perception that Asian parents in effect buy their kids’ test scores through expensive preparation programs and private tutoring. “And I wish that it didn’t mean that my work didn’t count in the same way as other people’s work.”
This was an unsatisfying answer but not an uncommon one. In 2014, an organization with the cryptic name Students for Fair Admissions filed a lawsuit against Harvard College on behalf of Asian-American applicants who claimed they had been victims of discrimination and bias. In August 2018, the Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in the case, arguing against Harvard’s motion to dismiss it and claiming that “Harvard has failed to prove that its use of race survives strict scrutiny.” Following all the attention that action received, I began asking Asian kids across the country about affirmative action, which was widely seen to be the real issue.
The case, which after a lengthy trial last autumn is expected to be decided by Judge Allison D. Burroughs sometime in the coming months, has pushed many Asian-Americans into a spotlight they had eagerly been avoiding for the past 20 years. The students felt uneasy, and perhaps unworthy, discussing race, especially within a context where they were personally implicated. As such, many refused to go on the record for fear of saying something controversial. The opinions ranged from “We shouldn’t be punished for doing well” to “We all need to sacrifice to make a better, more just society.” Most of them said they had always known it would be harder for them to get into college, but only a few called this an injustice. There was nothing approaching a consensus, but they were, for the most part, extremely conflicted and embarrassed by the whole business.
Their internal conflict, however inchoate and strangled by euphemism, paled next to the angst of what I’ll call the upwardly mobile Asian-American population — the sort of people who had attended Harvard or Yale or Princeton or Stanford and who, in other circumstances, would have publicly and loudly supported any goal pursued in the name of diversity. Over the past year, I found myself constantly talking about the Harvard case with this cohort, many of them friends and colleagues, not only for journalistic reasons but also because it was always on our minds. These conversations usually started with perfunctory statements like “Listen, I know I’m not supposed to say this” or “This is a complicated issue,” but they almost always ended with a surprisingly declarative conclusion.
“Look, I support Harvard’s right to pursue the diversity they want,” said one Asian-American who described herself as a “staunch supporter of affirmative action.” “But of course they discriminate against Asian kids.”
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On the first day of the trial for Students for Fair Admissions (S.F.F.A.) v. the President and Fellows of Harvard College, which took place over three weeks in late 2018, a problem presented itself: It was almost impossible to figure out who or what, exactly, was on trial. In his opening statement, Adam K. Mortara, the lead attorney for S.F.F.A. and a former clerk for Justice Clarence Thomas, declared, “The future of affirmative action is not on trial.” Then he added, “Diversity and its benefits are not on trial.” This came as news to the dozens of Asian-American activists who had traveled to Boston to support the lawsuit, as well as the gallery of reporters who piled into the stiff, unyielding press benches in Courtroom 17 of the John Joseph Moakley United States Courthouse in Boston with assignments to cover “the affirmative-action trial.”
A thin man sat in the back of the courtroom in a suit two sizes bigger than what’s fashionable these days. Every now and then he would jot down something in a notebook and then return to watching dispassionately with his hands folded in his lap. This was Edward Blum, the 67-year-old president of S.F.F.A., and paradoxically enough, given that he is a white man with no direct connection to the school, the only person named on the side of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit against Harvard. Blum is not a lawyer or a politician, but he may be the most influential and effective opponent in the country of any progressive policy that tries to distinguish people by race and ethnicity. He exerts influence, in large part, because of his connections to wealthy conservative donors, but also from an indefatigable resolve to flood the legal system with lawsuits, some of which eventually make it to the Supreme Court.
In addition to S.F.F.A., Blum also heads the Project on Fair Representation, the litigation fund behind Fisher v. the University of Texas at Austin, the last major challenge to affirmative action to reach the Supreme Court, in which Abigail Fisher, a white woman, was one of two women claiming to have been rejected from a spot she deserved because of preferences given to people of color. On two separate occasions within the last decade, Blum and his attorneys argued that the University of Texas was placing too much weight on race in nonautomatic admissions. Blum lost this challenge in 2016, but he has also done quite a bit of winning: In 2013, he won a landmark decision in Shelby County v. Holder, which gutted the key provisions of the 1965 Voting Rights Act by effectively ending federal oversight of elections. Blum would not be taking the stand in the Harvard case.
A sweeping elimination of affirmative action still requires the cooperation of the Supreme Court, which was responsible for another odd dynamic in the trial. A vast majority of the testimony and argumentation was about Asian-Americans, but the actual lawsuit unfolded in a way that didn’t have much to do with Asians at all. The inevitability of an appeal, which would then raise the stakes, made the entire trial feel somewhat like an opening act. At the #DefendDiversity rally at the start of the trial, Jessica Tang, president of the Boston Teachers Union and a Harvard alumna, said that “Edward Blum is not a friend to Asian-Americans” and accused him of using Asian-Americans as pawns in a vile legal game. S.F.F.A. was making three broad claims:
One: Harvard’s use of racial preferences far exceeded the Supreme Court’s allowance of race as “one, nonpredominant factor in a system designed to consider each applicant as an individual,” as Justice Anthony Kennedy described it in Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003. A landmark affirmative-action ruling, it involved the University of Michigan Law School and upheld the principle that race is only supposed to be a “plus” that is considered when two applicants are otherwise indistinguishable. In those instances, race can be a “tip” that allows a university to seek the diversity it desires.
Two: Harvard, by keeping black, Latino and Asian admissions rates at a relatively steady equilibrium, despite demographic changes in its applicant pool, had created a de facto quota system. Quotas have been illegal since the Supreme Court’s 1978 decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the first major challenge to affirmative action in higher education.
Three: Harvard had not adequately explored race-neutral alternatives required by the legal parameters of affirmative action. This requirement was reaffirmed in Fisher v. University of Texas, allowing a school to consider an applicant’s race only when “no workable race-neutral alternatives would produce the educational benefits of diversity.”
Despite what Mortara said about affirmative action not being on trial, S.F.F.A. has been extremely forthright about its expectation that regardless of Burroughs’s decision, it will eventually be arguing in front of the Supreme Court. Over the course of the past year, I asked Blum on a few occasions what he hoped to get out of all this. His stance never changed. His “mission,” he told me again in August, is to remove race from college admissions: “We believe that a student’s skin color or ethnic heritage should not be used to help or harm that student’s prospects of being admitted to a college or university.” When I asked if the ultimate goal, then, was to end racial preferences not only in college admissions but also in all parts of the law, Blum said: “Yes! Absolutely. I won’t deny it.”
To get to the Supreme Court, S.F.F.A. needed to justify the lawsuit both in the courtroom and to the public. According to Blum, Abigail Fisher, the daughter of a family friend, had suffered greatly from her years of national attention as a result of her case against the University of Texas. To avoid putting another young person through the same thing and to bring a fresh angle to the fight, Blum and his attorneys decided to represent an anonymous and amorphous group of plaintiffs. (Every request I made to talk to any of these unnamed persons was denied by S.F.F.A.’s attorneys.) They chose, instead, to build a case out of spreadsheets and statistical data obtained through pretrial discovery, which in turn set up something of a phantom showdown: Students were discussed almost entirely through the abstraction of test scores, grades and extracurricular accomplishments. In their opening and closing statements, the attorneys for S.F.F.A. went through charts and spreadsheets, many of which were centered on something called the “personal rating,” a portion of Harvard’s application review that judges traits like “courage,” “openness to new ideas and people” and “effervescence.”
Their charts showed that Asian-American applicants outperformed white applicants in academics and extracurriculars and lagged behind in athletics and legacy considerations. When it came to the personal rating, Asian applicants rated significantly worse. Harvard never convincingly explained or contested the disparity.
Harvard’s defense, argued by Bill Lee, a 69-year-old Chinese-American attorney and a graduate of the class of 1972, was mostly predictable, if not entirely coherent. On one front, Harvard resorted to bureaucratic denial: It claimed that every piece of information, however damning, had to be placed within the context of the entire admissions process. And while Lee took great pains to detail how an application went through an initial reader and then an alumni interviewer and then a subcommittee and then the final 40-person committee, he never addressed the specifics of how decisions were made, except to say that the committee considered “the whole person.” In the end, the only definitive, knowable thing about the admissions process was that race was said to be only one small part of an opaque process.
On the other front, Harvard and its allies went on an ideological offensive. The multicultural and empathetic vision of the country — represented on Harvard’s side by lawyers of all races and a steady stream of Asian, black and Latino students who gave testimony about why they, despite less than perfect test scores and G.P.A.s, deserved to be on campus — would not be possible without the tireless efforts of places like the Harvard admissions office to change the face of elite society in America. Lee ended his opening statement with a personal anecdote: Forty-two years earlier, when he argued his first case in front of a federal judge, every person in the courtroom, save the deputy, was a white man. “Look around the courtroom today,” Lee said. “Many institutions, many people have contributed and worked tirelessly to make this happen. Among them are colleges and universities.”
This could easily have been seen as a shot at S.F.F.A.’s cross-examining lawyers, who were all white. But Harvard’s story made even less sense than S.F.F.A.’s. The array of amicus speakers gave breathless testimony about the dangers of gaslighting and the crippling self-doubt that comes with being told that your feelings of alienation and racial othering are all imagined or not worthy of concern. Then Lee stood up and told the judge that S.F.F.A.’s own claims of implicit racial bias were outrageous, because Harvard admissions were an unknowably complicated, nuanced and sensitive process that involved 40 thoroughly trained people.
Lee and the Harvard admissions officers who were called to the stand also talked about the school’s endlessly adjustable process, which could take factors like standardized test scores and G.P.A.s and place them within the proper context. The goal in all this, of course, was to root out systemic racism and relative privilege. But when it came to explaining away the disparities in the personal rating, Harvard presented years of data showing that Asian-American applicants, despite superior academic and extracurricular ratings, uniformly received worse recommendations from their teachers and guidance counselors. Lee did not extrapolate on what this might mean, but there was really only one possible conclusion to draw: If there was bias in the personal ratings, it came from the teachers and guidance counselors, not from Harvard’s admissions officers. And Harvard, despite its complex and sensitive system calibrated to ferret out and correct bias, apparently took these teachers and guidance counselors at their word — Asian students, year after year, were just a bit less personally appealing than white students and significantly less personally appealing than those who were black or Latino.
When Mortara and S.F.F.A.’s other attorneys asked Harvard admissions officers on the stand if they believed Asian applicants had less desirable traits than their white counterparts, they, of course, said no, they did not.
From a letter to The Harvard Crimson by a student named David A. Karnes, arguing against affirmative action for Asian-American applicants:
“Current U.S. Census figures show that Asian-Americans today penetrate all income levels and, in general, have attained an above-average standard of living. The barriers to equality which did indeed exist in the past for this group have largely vanished.”
And a rebuttal, a few weeks later, from a student named Charles D. Toy:
“Mr. Karnes adheres to the same misconception about Asian-Americans which has plagued them since intelligent people began to recognize and repudiate the savagery of official discrimination. Because he now perceives some ostensible penetration by Asian-Americans into various social and economic levels, Mr. Karnes concludes that most Asian-Americans no longer suffer the oppression of their status as a minority in this country.”
These two letters were published in the fall of 1976. Earlier that semester, Josephine M. Lok and Bet Har Wong, Asian-American freshmen roommates at Radcliffe, tried to attend an orientation banquet for minority students and found that they were not among the invitees. In a lengthy article about the beginning of the Asian-American student movement at Harvard published in March of this year in The Crimson, Lok said she didn’t really make a big deal of the omission because “we didn’t have that whole awareness.” But other Asian-American students on campus saw the incident as representative of their unseen, and largely unwelcome, presence there. This stood in direct contrast with federal law at the time; in 1977, for example, the Department of Labor designated minority groups as consisting of “negroes, Spanish-speaking, Orientals, Indians, Eskimos and Aleuts.”
According to the article describing Wong and Lok’s strange rejection, after a group of Asian students confronted Fred Jewett, the dean of admissions, he told The Crimson in 1976 that Harvard did not count Asians as minorities because their enrollment numbers exceeded their share of the general American population. The demographics of the Harvard applicant pool, in other words, overruled everything else, whether common sense or the lived realities of many of the Asian students who attended Harvard.
These deliberations over race and privilege did not take place in a vacuum. In 1975, just a year before Wong and Lok were turned away from the minority-students banquet, Allan Bakke, a 35-year-old white man, was rejected for the second time by the medical school at the University of California, Davis. At the time, under a transparent affirmative-action policy, the school had reserved 16 of each class’s 100 spots for a “special admissions” program that considered the applications of “economically and/or educationally disadvantaged” students. Those applicants deemed disadvantaged were evaluated by a separate committee with different standards. After Bakke sued U.C. Davis, a California court ruled that the school’s program violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which prohibits racial discrimination. In 1978, the Supreme Court agreed that Bakke had been discriminated against.
In the court’s decision in Bakke, Justice Lewis F. Powell cited Harvard’s admissions plan as the paragon of how diversity could be pursued in college admissions — because the school acknowledged, he wrote, that “a farm boy from Idaho can bring something to Harvard College that a Bostonian cannot offer. Similarly, a black student can usually bring something that a white person cannot offer.” The Bakke ruling meant that explicit quotas were unconstitutional, but when confronted with two equally qualified students, a school could give a “tip” to the one who could bring his or her unique regional or racial flavor to the college’s melting pot.
The spiritual language of affirmative action — to remedy the nation’s sins and to help underprivileged minorities who had been the victims of generational oppression — fell out of the legal conversation around affirmative action, mostly because any talk of “giving a leg up” to a certain number of students sounded too much like a quota system. “Diversity” became the new justification for considering a student’s race. It was no longer about righting history’s wrongs or ending poverty. It was now about the “something” a student from a different background could “bring” to campus.
In 1988, William Bradford Reynolds, who was an assistant attorney general and chief of the civil rights division in the Reagan administration’s Justice Department, spoke at a symposium on Asian-American university admissions sponsored by Senator Tom Daschle of South Dakota, a Democrat. By this point, official complaints of discrimination had been filed by Asian-American students at several top universities. In 1984, after a lengthy internal review, Brown University concluded that Asian-American applicants had been “treated unfairly.” By the time Reynolds took the stage to give his remarks, the Office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education had begun investigating admissions at several schools, including Harvard and U.C.L.A.
Until Reynolds’s speech, the question of discrimination against Asian applicants had not been explicitly placed within the context of affirmative action, at least not by someone in such a prominent position. But he noted “substantial statistical evidence” that Asian-Americans faced “higher hurdles than academically less qualified candidates of other races,” and he added that “rejection of such applicants ironically appears to be driven by the universities’ ‘affirmative-action’ policies aimed at favoring other, preferred racial minorities.” In this formulation, Asian students were being pitted against other minority groups for scarce, precious opportunities.
Over the next two years, the rules of the racial zero-sum game of college admissions took shape. The solidarity movements that started at Harvard in the late ’70s were supplanted by an uneasy coalition of conservative white politicians, writers and attorneys and Asian-American legal activists. In 1990, according to a lengthy study by Dana Y. Takagi, a professor at U.C. Santa Cruz, the Office of Civil Rights opened an investigation into whether white applicants had been discriminated against at U.C. Berkeley. One of the original complainants was Arthur Hu, a Chinese-American software programmer who, using data made public by the school, had painstakingly charted the test scores and academic credentials of black, white and Asian applicants.
Thirty years after Reynolds’s speech, Students for Fair Admissions revisited the 1988 playbook and filed its lawsuit against Harvard, claiming that its admissions process had discriminated against Asian applicants. During that time, the Asian population in the United States has grown to more than 21 million in 2016 from roughly 3.5 million in 1980, and a relatively narrowly defined group that used to apply mostly to Chinese and Japanese immigrants has been expanded to include everyone from the Hmong people to Koreans to South Asians. Attempts to corral all these peoples into one monolithic identity have become increasingly harder to reconcile. Asians are found throughout the socioeconomic spectrum. If it’s a silly endeavor to quantify racial oppression, it’s also absurd to equate the experience of a Sikh kid in Wisconsin with that of a Korean-American kid in Los Angeles.
And yet, when it comes to college admissions at elite schools, the conversation seems stuck in the past. None of the underlying questions have changed since Wong and Lok were turned away from that freshman banquet. Are Asians actually minorities? And if diversity — whatever that means — is the goal of affirmative action, how many Asians does a school really want on campus?
I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I found Alex somewhat annoying at first. If I had been an alumni interviewer tasked with rating Alex’s personality on a scale of 1 to 6, with 1 being a student who showed unusual intellectual curiosity, grit and effervescence and 6 being a mumbling 4chan troll who would be a nightmare for his roommates, I would have given Alex a solid 3.
In my early 20s, I taught high-school English, and like many teachers, I grew to see students as types that recur over and over again. Alex struck me as the sort who would turn in perfectly competent papers about the assigned book, whether by Hawthorne or Ellison or Salinger, but wouldn’t engage with the text on an emotional level, at least not in the “Dangerous Minds” way that most young teachers want to see. And so I saw in Alex the stereotype of the Asian grade-grubbing machine. His résumé seemed filled with dubious positions: Really, what is the vice president of technology for a National Honor Society chapter?
I don’t say any of this to excuse myself or even say something as banal as “sometimes stereotypes are real.” I would just like to clear the air before we go on much more about Alex Chen, affirmative action and the broken way we talk about race and privilege in this country. The act of reporting on your “own people,” especially for prestigious outlets, requires a certain arrogance and presumption — that because you look like your subject, your perspective carries some revelatory power that might escape a standard, white journalist. I used to believe this was true, but I am no longer so certain.
Like Alex, I am a first-generation Asian-American with two college-educated parents. Unlike Alex, I grew up in majority-white, upper-middle-class college towns that exposed me to all the pathways to success that lay outside pure academic achievement. I spent my early childhood in a graduate-student housing complex just a few blocks from Harvard’s campus, where my father was getting his post-doctorate degree in organic chemistry. My mother made ends meet by babysitting for the children of professors. (In my early 20s, I ended up at the Columbia M.F.A. creative-writing program with the sister of one of these children. Her father was a famous physicist who wrote best-selling novels, and although I never brought up the fact that my mother had changed her sister’s diapers, I’ve thought a lot about how quickly the gap in our backgrounds had been erased.) By the time I graduated from a very good public high school in North Carolina, I could rattle off almost all the other very good high schools across the country, whether St. Mark’s, Isidore Newman, Montgomery Bell Academy, Thomas Jefferson Academy, Harvard-Westlake, Lexington High School or New Trier. By the time I was in my 30s, in a professional world stocked with Ivy Leaguers, I realized that everyone I knew from the D.C. area went to Sidwell Friends or Georgetown Day or Potomac, and everyone I know from Los Angeles went to Harvard-Westlake. Perhaps such distinctions seem trivial in the face of every other type of privilege, but within the context of one Harvard alumnus or alumna interviewing a prospective one, these references can lay out the common ground. What might seem like grade-grubbing ambition in a foreign context gets humanized within familiar spaces.
During that first meeting, I asked Alex if he had ever considered applying for a scholarship at any of New York City’s elite private schools, like Horace Mann, Collegiate or Dalton.
“What are those?” he asked. “Are those schools in the city?”
Which is all to say, if we’re going to see how Alex Chen, who would receive roughly the same credits and debits from affirmative action as I would, measures up, we should at least give an honest accounting of his past.
So here are some more relevant facts: Alex’s father, Qiao, immigrated to the United States in 1994, when he was 21. He grew up in poverty in the countryside of Fujian Province. He describes his hometown as a thoroughly corrupt place where people like him could not get anything done without bribing a local official. When Qiao was 18, his father moved to Flushing, Queens, where he found construction work and began saving up money. Qiao came three years later, after his father secured a green card, and worked in restaurants around Queens and Long Island. He spoke no English, but he enrolled in Queens College, which had an E.S.L. program for international students.
In 2000, Qiao brought his wife, Su, to the United States, and she moved into the basement apartment Qiao shared with his father in Flushing. Qiao saw life in America pragmatically — he acknowledges that he faced discrimination — and it was hard to go anywhere outside Chinese-speaking enclaves. He felt that his classmates at Queens College treated him like a low-rent immigrant. “The bad part,” he said, “was that I didn’t know the language, so I didn’t feel like I could fight back.” But those humiliations paled in comparison to life under corruption in China. “Everything was open in America,” Qiao said. “If I had the right paperwork for something or if I finished the work I was supposed to do, the right thing would get done. At least I could trust that.”
Qiao eventually found weekend work selling computer parts until he settled into a stable job as a technician. Su, who gave birth to Alex a few years after arriving in Flushing, struggled with life in the United States. She had been a middle-school teacher in China, but now she bounced between car dealerships, restaurants and, finally, an ice-cream parlor.
Alex was a bright and self-motivated student, someone whom Su “never had to worry about.” In the eighth grade, he came home and asked his parents if he could take the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT), the multiple-choice examination that determines entry into the city’s top public high schools. Su and Qiao were not planning on pressing Alex to take the SHSAT. And he did not enroll in an intensive prep course. “We are not tiger parents,” Su said. “Alex cares so much about his schoolwork, and we just supported him. But really, we did not know too much about any of this, and so he figured it out himself.”
Alex got into Bronx Science, widely considered the second-best of New York City’s three original specialized high schools. Qiao and Su, eager to help their son, but like so many immigrants hampered by the barriers of language and an unfamiliarity with the American school system, joined a group on the Chinese social-media service WeChat in which Chinese parents at Bronx Science talked about their children’s homework and their concerns about the school.
In the summer of 2018, the parents in the WeChat group began talking about proposed changes to the admissions criteria at the city’s specialized schools. Mayor Bill de Blasio and Richard Carranza, his schools chancellor, had proposed a new system that would phase out the SHSAT over two years and replace it with a University of Texas-style admissions program that would award seats to top students at all of the city’s middle schools. These changes would result in a radical shift in the racial demographics of the specialized high schools. At Stuyvesant, regarded as the most prestigious of the three specialized high schools, black and Hispanic students made up roughly 14 percent of the student population in 1976; Asians accounted for 16 percent. By 2017, black and Hispanic students had dropped to just 4 percent; Asians, by contrast, were now 74 percent of the student body. By spreading out admissions to the entirety of the city’s middle schools, many of which are overwhelmingly black and Latino, enrollment of underrepresented minorities was projected to go from its current 10 percent to nearly 50 percent. After presenting the plan, Carranza said, “I just don’t buy into the narrative that any one ethnic group owns admissions to these schools,” a clear reference to Asian-American students and their parents.
Qiao and Su’s WeChat group quickly turned into a political organizing platform. Participants began reaching out to other groups, including ones that supported the affirmative-action lawsuit against Harvard. The Chinese-language news broadcasts they watched every night provided blanket coverage of the SHSAT issue. “Many of our friends work in restaurants and are very poor,” Su said. “They don’t know anything about how to make their kids successful except SHSAT and then study hard to go to an Ivy League school. They feel like if you take that away, you are taking away their hope, because they don’t speak English well and have a hard time understanding how else to succeed in this country.” In mid-June, Qiao attended his first protest, which reconnected him with other parents who hadn’t found the same route to the middle class.
This past February, a workshop on the subject of race was offered to middle-school parents; it was run by the Center for Racial Justice in Education, a training organization. When Ingrid Flinn, a white mother of an adopted Asian child, questioned a white, male presenter from the center about the dearth of attention given to Asian-Americans in his presentation, he said that Asians benefited from white supremacy because of their proximity to white privilege. (The center denies that its workshop said Asians benefited from white supremacy.) The implication, Flinn felt, was that there was little need to talk about Asians. Yet they make up about 16 percent of students in the New York City public-school system, and by every measure, they suffer the highest poverty rates of any ethnic or racial group in the five boroughs.
I thought back to a morning when I met Alex in Van Cortlandt Park, a stretch of groomed pasture just about a 20-minute walk from Bronx Science. He and his cross-country teammates were meeting for their first practice of the year: South Asians, two girls wearing head coverings and full-length athletic wear as well as a handful of half-Asian kids. As they stretched, they joked about being out of shape and complained about the 1 train service up to the Bronx. According to the racial-privilege hierarchy of the New York City public schools, all those kids, with all their different backgrounds, skin tones and countries of origin, are the same as Alex. None of them warrant a mention in discussions of racial hierarchies.
The Rally for the American Dream kicked off in Boston’s Copley Square on the eve of the trial. The organizers had promised “thousands” of demonstrators who would be rallying in favor of S.F.F.A.’s lawsuit. This optimistic projection (only a few hundred showed up) had been made by Yukong Zhao, a 56-year-old Chinese immigrant from Orlando who is the president of the Asian-American Coalition for Education and the author of the 2013 book “The Chinese Secrets for Success: Five Inspiring Confucian Values.” (The values: “Determination for an Outstanding Life,” “Pursuing an Excellent Education,” “Saving for a Better Life,” “Caring for Your Family” and “Developing Desirable Friendships.”) Zhao walks with a bit of a stoop, but he exudes an optimistic, cheerful energy when talking about America and its promise.
Zhao had always been involved in politics, but ever since he immigrated to the United States in 1992 to go to graduate school in urban studies and get an M.B.A., he has mostly expressed his opinions through writing. In one piece he wrote for The Orlando Sentinel, titled “Immigrants Can Add Valuable Ingredients to Melting Pot,” Zhao posed this question: “Why do so many immigrants prosper in America? Because we have suffered many life challenges from where we started to become Americans, we have valuable experiences we can share with struggling families, our spirit to overcome challenges, and our great cultural heritage on education and money management.”
Zhao, who became an American citizen in 2009, began his transition from writer to activist in October 2013, when Jimmy Kimmel put together a round table of young children for his late-night show and asked them what the United States should do about its $1.3 trillion debt to China. One suggestion, from a floppy-haired blond kid in a blazer and tie, was “kill everyone in China.” The joke sparked the expected online outrage among Chinese-American advocacy groups. Hundreds of protesters took to the streets of several American cities to call for Kimmel’s firing. Kimmel quickly apologized, and ABC pulled the segment from its archives and YouTube.
Fresh off what these activists saw as a victory against the Kimmel show, the nascent movement turned its attention to Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 (SCA-5), a proposal in the California State Legislature that would have significantly scaled back Proposition 209, the 1996 ballot initiative that effectively ended affirmative action in California state universities. They followed up with civil rights complaints, including one that involved Zhao’s son. An informal partnership with Edward Blum soon followed.
Zhao has a complicated relationship with Blum. He says he appreciates all Blum has done for the cause, but he resists what he sees as the white-savior narrative. Asians, without any help from white people, had been challenging elite colleges since the 1980s. He understood that Blum’s money and connections might go further with the press and even the courts, but he saw this latest lawsuit and S.F.F.A. as a natural outgrowth of his grass-roots movement. “Asian-Americans filed all the complaints and stopped SCA-5,” he said. “This is not about conservatives or Republicans. We are not their tools. We are fighting for our children.”
I met Zhao at his hotel overlooking the Charles River on the morning of the Rally for the American Dream. He hadn’t been sleeping well, and his left eye had exploded into a deep, concerning shade of red. He asked if I wanted to hear him practice his speech — there were some passages where the English might need a little help. Zhao paced between the two queen beds and ran through his speech in his thick accent but practiced delivery. It was long and filled with purple phrases about freedom, fairness and the American dream. I could sense the hours he had spent on the speech, fine-tuning every phrase and making sure he gave proper credit to everyone who had put together the rally. On his first run-through, he asked me if it was “IN-actment” or “EN-actment,” and then a few moments later, was it “unethic” or “unethical”? Toward the end, I told him he had wrongly said “risen up” rather than “rising up.”
He asked if he should lose the kicker: “God bless America. And God bless Asian-American children.” I told him that I thought it would be a bit off to end with a phrase that made it seem as if Asian-American children needed a separate blessing from God. He puzzled over it for a bit, his glasses pushed far down on his nose, and ultimately agreed. As we crossed over a bridge into Boston, Zhao said, “Jay, I am frustrated with my pronunciation. If I had better pronunciation, I could make a much bigger impact on American society. I can work on everything else — ideas and writing — but the pronunciation is so hard to improve.”
I did not agree with much of Zhao’s speech, but I felt a connection with him, unexpected but undeniable. How many times had my own parents asked for help with emails or letters to school? And how had their limitations and perpetual foreignness affected their ability to stand up for themselves? Zhao kept telling me that he was fighting for me and my young daughter. It was hard to know what to make of this declaration, but I never doubted that he believed it. Whenever he hears talk about relative privilege or white supremacy or all the advantages Asians have over other minorities, he considers his own childhood under the Cultural Revolution, his own path to the United States and his struggles with learning the language, and fails to see why the spoils of that work, which include a big house in a gated community, couldn’t be achieved by anyone else.
This need to be seen — to have the struggles of Asian-Americans and the discrimination they faced be recognized — was echoed by Mortara in his closing statement for the S.F.F.A. lawsuit. “Someday this will be written about in the history books, and those books will say: There was Asian discrimination at Harvard,” Mortara said in court. Choking back tears, he said, “Of that I’m confident.” And while I might have been surprised by the outpouring of emotion and skeptical of his methods, I did not doubt Mortara’s sincerity either.
During the time I spent talking to Asian-American students about affirmative action, I noticed that many of them wanted to talk, instead, about their immigrant parents. For them, the issue was relatively simple. “The way they see it, they came to this country with nothing and went through a lot of discrimination,” a student at an elite, high-profile public high school in New York told me. “They don’t understand why the system says they have an advantage over anyone else. I disagree with them on a lot of it, but I understand why they feel that way.”
For many of these parents, the Harvard case, with its revelations about personal ratings, as well as what many of the parents in New York see as the erasure from the city’s Department of Education, has created a binary choice. They can choose the side that is trying to get more of their children into Harvard and other elite schools, or they can choose the side that will not even bother mentioning them. Qiao Chen, despite the protestations of his son, voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Although he now regrets the choice, he told me that he did it because liberals do not care about Asian-Americans.
“Sparse country” is the term Harvard uses to describe the geographic areas of the United States that are underrepresented in the student body. This includes the usual suspects — Wyoming, Alaska, Montana — but also states with large metropolitan areas like Nevada, Arizona and Oklahoma. To geographically diversify its incoming freshman class, Harvard gives a bump to promising students from sparse country. It also recruits heavily to ensure that the top students in Arizona and Alabama and Maine consider coming to Harvard over their local state colleges and universities. Recruitment certainly does not equal admission, but Harvard starts to shape its incoming class through these early encounters and follows up diligently and often through email, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.
This process begins with sophomores and juniors who take the PSAT, and later the SAT. Harvard purchases scores from the College Board and mails invitations to apply to students with strong scores relative to their demographic group, whatever that might be. In sparse country, the admissions office extends an invitation to any white student who scores above 1,310 on the tests and any black student who scores above a 1,100. Male Asian students from the same places need to score a 1,380 on the tests to receive an invitation to apply. For female Asian students, the cutoff is 1,350.
For the past four decades, these types of decisions have been the purview of William R. Fitzsimmons, a graduate of the class of 1967 and Harvard College’s dean of admissions. Fitzsimmons, who goes by Fitz, grew up in his family’s gas station in Weymouth, a working-class suburb on Boston’s South Shore. In the parlance of his office, he was a “first-generation college student” from an “economically disadvantaged” background, as well as a star hockey goalie. Although he wasn’t an “economically disadvantaged” minority, he understands what it’s like to be different at the most elite educational institution in America.
Fitz, with his strong, square jaw, carefully measured Boston accent and tweed jackets, perfectly fills the role of the Harvard man. Over four days of testimony, he laid out his legacy — he came to the Harvard admissions office in 1972, took over a few years later and has been the dean since 1986. This presented something of a problem for the defense because every bit of mail, every spreadsheet, every memo or communiqué issued by the Harvard College admissions office since the Nixon administration reflected on Fitzsimmons’s office.
During a bizarre section of Fitzsimmons’s testimony in which he claimed a 1,100 on the PSAT was only “slightly lower” than a 1,380, an S.F.F.A. lawyer named John M. Hughes posed the following hypothetical: Let’s take two students at the same high school in Las Vegas. One white, the other Asian. The white student scores a 1,310. The Asian student receives a 1,370. According to Fitzsimmons’s testimony, the white student would be invited to apply to Harvard while the Asian student would not. How, the attorney asked, could Fitzsimmons begin to explain this?
In response, Fitzsimmons talked about his own days at Harvard and a roommate from Mitchell, S.D., home of the celebrated Corn Palace, and how he had been a “great ambassador” for his home state. “There are people who, let’s say, for example, have only lived in the sparse-country state for a year or two,” Fitzsimmons noted.
The implication, of course, was that an Asian applicant from Oklahoma or Nebraska or South Dakota or Alaska does not count when it comes to “geographic diversity.” In Harvard’s eyes, this Asian, even if his family settled in Nevada after helping build the transcontinental railroad, could never be an “ambassador” for his plot of “sparse country.” He was, instead, an Asian-American like other Asian-Americans. The white student’s family, by contrast, could have recently moved to Las Vegas to work in the emerging tech field, and he would still be assumed to be a fitting representative of the Silver State.
When Harvard went looking for a South Dakotan, did it just look for a white kid who grew up on a ranch and worked the concession stands at the Corn Palace? When it wanted an Oklahoman, was it really seeking out a cowboy who also liked high-school debate and biology? Harvard’s vision of diversity seemed stuck in a time before immigration and demographic change. During his cross-examination, Fitzsimmons was asked several times if the Harvard admissions process had changed at all in the 46 years he had worked in the admissions office. Fitzsimmons, every time, said the system had remained almost exactly the same.
On the third day of the trial, I had dinner with Sally Chen and her friend Thang Diep, both in Harvard’s graduating class of 2019, at a Japanese-barbecue restaurant in Harvard Square. Thang, a senior neurobiology major and one of the main voices testifying in support of Harvard at the trial, had been repeatedly misidentified in media reports about the trial as a “refugee.” This, he said, was “really annoying,” and he requested I not make the same mistake. Thang’s grandparents were the actual refugees — they were the ones who fled Vietnam and settled in Reseda, a middle-class suburb in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley. When Thang was 8, he and his parents immigrated to join them in California. Thang spoke almost no English, but through a self-imposed regimen of assimilation, he worked his way into one of Southern California’s most prestigious magnet high schools.
People on Harvard’s side testified about Thang’s essay, emphasizing his divulgence that he placed a pencil between his teeth while practicing his pronunciation because he heard that was the quickest way to overcome the steep learning curve that separates a tonal language like Vietnamese from English. In comments, one of Harvard’s admissions readers wrote, “Essay- immigrant Vietnamese identity & pencils as tools.” And then, “Add’l- grappling with sexual identity.”
Thang was valedictorian of his high-school class, but he scored only a combined 1,360 on the verbal and math sections of the SAT, and his other standardized test scores weren’t much better. These results most likely would have put him outside the lower threshold for Harvard, which, as it said throughout the trial, turns away dozens of applicants with perfect scores every year.
Sally and Thang were the de facto counterexamples in the trial. Their smiling photos were shown on the courtroom television screens; their G.P.A.s and test scores were discussed, at length, by Fitzsimmons and the stream of pro-diversity speakers backing Harvard. Sally, who grew up in a low-income immigrant household in San Francisco, proved that highly motivated, poor Asian students would be admitted to Harvard. Thang, whose low SAT scores were put on parade throughout the trial, proved that Harvard actually did care about Asian struggle narratives. But Thang’s and Sally’s stories, which were pushed out to the media, existed almost as ornamentation to the actual trial. In fact, it wasn’t clear if Harvard or its experts knew much about Asians at all. On the second-to-last day of the trial, Mortara went through a litany of stereotypes about Asian applicants — one-dimensional, future doctors, children of mathematicians and engineers. He asked David Card, an economist testifying for Harvard as an expert witness, if he was aware that they were, indeed, stereotypes. Each time, Card said he wasn’t sure.
Both Sally and Thang seemed aware of their role in the trial. But they also don’t see the trial as a fight between concerned Asian parents and Harvard’s admissions office, but rather as the last defense of affirmative action against a man who had successfully undercut the Voting Rights Act and who seems hellbent on ending racial preferences everywhere. “I don’t really feel like I’m on the side of Harvard,” Sally said. “As someone who advocates against Harvard on many issues, it’s really hard to give Harvard this kind of power. So I think of it more as having a broad impact on the baseline for not just here but a lot of other places, like workplaces and other universities.”
Sally’s dilemma was shared by many of the alumni, students and faculty who showed up to the courthouse. It’s difficult to defend a vision of diversity that has had many of its clearest and most evocative claims of racial and economic justice stripped away by decades of court challenges, demographic change in the applicant pool and escalating hypercompetitiveness for a fixed number of seats. During the trial, the racial and social-justice reasoning — the spirit of affirmative action — was never really stated. What stood in its place, mostly because of the legal realities of “diversity,” which constrained what Harvard could defend in court, was the sense that students of color on campus needed to have others who looked like them. This justification exposed one of the puzzling contradictions at the heart of this case: By law, Harvard cannot have a quota system. But it also looks as if Harvard believes there is a set range of how many black, Latino and Asian students ought to be on campus. Roughly 30 percent of the seats in every Harvard class go to athletes, legacies, the children of faculty and applicants on the dean’s interest list, composed in large part of the children of donors. This group, called A.L.D.C.s, get into Harvard at a rate of about 45 percent, far greater than the 5 percent rate for the rest of the pool. Two percent of Asian applicants are A.L.D.C.s. The zero-sum view of this arrangement never asks why the spots for more Asian kids couldn’t come from the pool of A.L.D.C.s.
S.F.F.A.’s attorneys did not contest the defense of the benefits of diversity, as displayed in court. There was no need, really. They chose, instead, to pick out a few contradictions in Harvard’s practices that implicitly questioned whether the school’s actual practices measured up to its expressed, righteous defense.
In the months after the trial’s conclusion, I asked Harvard on numerous occasions to explain its admissions process. (I made several requests to interview Fitzsimmons as well. All of these were denied.) The stock answer, always delivered from the P.R. office, never deviated from what Harvard has consistently said: We have a complicated and in-depth process that involves dozens of people and hundreds of hours, and there’s no way to quantify it. You just have to trust it.
Some clarity, however dim, can be found in Plaintiff’s Exhibit 555 from the trial: “Ethnicity was only considered a ‘plus’ when the applicant wrote about or indicated the significance of his or her heritage, or when there was some other indicia in the file of the applicant’s involvement with ethnic community organizations or groups.”
This passage comes from the 1990 report on Harvard’s admissions practices filed by the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education. In the 28 years since then, the personal essay has become an even larger part of how Harvard makes its race-conscious decisions, so much so that in a draft of instructions sent out last year, the admissions office specified that “the consideration of race or ethnicity should be in connection with the application’s discussion of the effect an applicant’s race or ethnicity has had on the applicant, not simply the fact alone.”
When Sally was applying to colleges, she says, her guidance counselor advised her to not write her essay about her identity, because “nobody wants to read another Asian immigrant story.” Sally ignored him and wrote about acting as a translator for her parents as they encountered the humiliations and hassles of working-class life.
Sally scored a 1,550 on the SAT. She was student-body president at Lowell and played violin in the school orchestra. But during the trial, Harvard’s attorneys intimated that she would not have gotten into Harvard without her personal qualities, calling her admission “a wonderful example of the consideration of an application by a group of people who ultimately came to the correct decision and admitted Ms. Chen. But it was only the result of an iterative and open process.” As proof, they pointed to her application, which included an interviewer’s report mentioning her ethnicity on two occasions:
“Categorized as low-income and with Taiwanese-speaking parents, she relates to the plight of the outsiders in Ralph Ellison and William Faulkner. ...”
“Her claims about making friends across multiple social groups seem credible. As the youngest of 4 in a culturally Chinese home, she feels a responsibility to take care of her parents. Recommending a 1 specifically for Contribution because of her demonstrated energy and specific desire to connect socially with everybody. As the youngest of 4 in a small apartment, she has lots of experience with being a roommate in close quarters.”
It’s worth asking if a white student, who did not bear the stereotype of the shy Asian who only hangs out with other Asians, would need to “credibly” claim to want to make friends across “multiple social groups.” And while it’s difficult to read too much into such brief notes, Sally’s top personality score seemed to come from the fact that she broke the stereotype and wouldn’t just be quiet and self-segregated. If this is Harvard’s idea of “diversity,” it’s a white-down vision that rewards students for acting, in essence, more like wealthy white kids.
But the emphasis on the essay revealed a much more troubling standard. Harvard, in essence, is saying that if you want your race to count, you need to prove to us why it matters. Or perhaps, to be more precise, when you write an essay to present who you are to the most prestigious college in the country, you should reduce your life to a moment of trauma.
At dinner at the Japanese steakhouse, Thang seemed to understand all this. While quietly searing his steak on the tabletop grill, he said: “I don’t want to defend Harvard. But it’s the better of two evils.”
In September 2017, Delmar Fears, a 19-year-old junior at Cornell, walked up to the office of President Martha E. Pollack. As co-chair of the group Black Students United, she was accompanied by hundreds of chanting students who had all come to deliver a set of demands. The list mostly included administrative and curricular changes, from the creation of a “minority-liaison-at-large” position to the hiring of psychologists and physicians of color. But the ninth demand, sandwiched between the creation of a “student honor board” and a “permanent presidential task force,” set off an unexpected maelstrom.
“We demand that Cornell Admissions to come up with a plan to actively increase the presence of underrepresented Black students on this campus. We define underrepresented Black students as Black Americans who have several generations (more than two) in this country. The Black student population at Cornell disproportionately represents international or first-generation African or Caribbean students. While these students have a right to flourish at Cornell, there is a lack of investment in Black students whose families were affected directly by the African Holocaust in America. Cornell must work to actively support students whose families have been impacted for generations by white supremacy and American fascism.”
Fears and her group received weeks of blowback from conservative websites, and Black Students United later said it regretted the wording of its statement. But that year Fears wrote a final paper on the issue titled “Who Makes Up the 7 Percent of Black Cornellians?” which detailed some of the demographic change that had taken place on exclusive college campuses. In a 2004 New York Times article, Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chairman of Harvard’s African and African-American studies department, and Lani Guinier, a professor in the law school, pointed out that while Harvard had increased its black undergraduate population to 8 percent, a majority of those students — up to two-thirds — were international students, first- or second-generation immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean or the children of biracial couples. What was rare, Gates said, was the black student whose four grandparents lived through slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow. Mary C. Waters, the head of Harvard’s sociology department, told The Times, “You need a philosophical discussion about what are the aims of affirmative action. If it’s about getting black faces at Harvard, then you’re doing fine. If it’s about making up for 200 to 500 years of slavery in this country and its aftermath, then you’re not doing well.”
In 2007, Camille Z. Charles, a professor of sociology and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania, and three co-authors, Margarita Mooney, Douglas S. Massey and Kimberly C. Torres, published a study in The Journal of Education titled “Black Immigrants and Black Natives Attending Selective Colleges and Universities in the United States.” Charles, Mooney, Massey and Mary J. Fischer followed up that research with a 2009 article, “Affirmative Action Programs for Minority Students: Right in Theory, Wrong in Practice.” Both papers reported an “overrepresentation” of black immigrant students at highly selective colleges and universities compared with black Americans whose ancestors were enslaved.
Charles’s study drew on data from 28 schools, going back to 1999. Nearly 20 years later, she is confident that the proportion of black immigrants has increased, but she can’t say exactly how much, because schools do not make that information accessible to the public. “It’s a way to have some plausible deniability,” Charles told me. “The schools are purposefully not paying attention to the backgrounds of the black students they admit. In the ’80s and ’90s, low-income black students could talk about overcoming obstacles in their essays, but over time, that narrative has worn thin. But the immigrant narrative, which is also an American narrative, in some ways might have become a more appealing story for admissions officers. A student can write, say, ‘My parents were doctors in Nigeria, but they had to start all over in the United States,’ and that story doesn’t invoke white guilt. It doesn’t even tie to affirmative action in the same way, because there isn’t this assumption of lesser qualifications that still follows black American students, no matter their backgrounds or their parents’ backgrounds.” Charles continued: “I think there are American blacks whose families have suffered generationally who are being squeezed out.”
Charles, it should be said, did not undertake her study in order to pit one group of black people against another. And she emphasizes that she does not think affirmative-action spots should be taken away from black immigrants.
Edward Blum, Delmar Fears and Yukong Zhao may not agree on much of anything, but they all have made versions of an argument that the spirit of affirmative action has been replaced by a largely cosmetic, overly simplified diversity that allows elite institutions to report gains in black and Latino student populations without having to engage in the harder work of undoing systemic inequality. Waters’s question from 2004 has largely gone unaddressed: If you stop random supporters of affirmative action on the street and ask why they believe in it, they will most likely discuss the need to address the harms of historic, institutional racism. They may talk abstractly about a poor, “inner city” or “urban” kid in, say, Detroit and how his test scores, grades and accomplishments should be evaluated in the context of the extraordinary inequality within this country.
The truth at Harvard and other elite private colleges is that the supposed zero-sum game of admissions slots isn’t really between Asian immigrants and the descendants of enslaved people, but rather between Asian immigrants, Latino immigrants and black immigrants. Some inevitable, deeply uncomfortable questions arise: If you compare an Asian-American student raised in poverty by parents who fled Vietnam during the fall of Saigon with the son of Chilean doctors who come from generational wealth and sent their child to 12 years of private school, who is more privileged? If you accept that the child of, say, solidly middle-class Ghanaian immigrants has to deal with racism in the work force, profiling by the police and all the harms of systemic inequality while the same working-class Asian kid gets to slide into whiteness, how much advantage do you give to ameliorate the disadvantage between one immigrant and another? What if you replace the working-class Vietnamese student with the daughter of Bangladeshi immigrants, who, among other things, has had to deal with the profiling of Muslim communities and Trump’s travel ban? These are not outlier examples used in bad faith to present a provocative but false choice. At Harvard and other elite schools, the outlier example is the “inner city” kid from Detroit.
These bizarre, discomforting litigations of race and privilege make sense only within the context of the most exclusive places in America. But if Harvard loses in the Supreme Court, Blum will be closer to his goal of eliminating racial preferences, not only in college admissions but also in every other corner of federal law. Even if Blum eventually loses this case, it’s hard to imagine that he will stop. In 2014, S.F.F.A. filed another discrimination lawsuit, against the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The U.N.C. case, which has yet to go to trial, is not about Asian-American applicants, but the goal is the same: end affirmative action everywhere.
On March 12 of this year, a group of federal prosecutors in the same Boston building as Judge Burroughs’s courtroom unsealed the indictments in Operation Varsity Blues, the nationwide college-admissions bribery case that set off a monthslong media circus involving everyone from the actress Felicity Huffman to the head coach of Yale’s women’s soccer team. Legally speaking, Varsity Blues has nothing to do with S.F.F.A. v. Harvard, but the scandal recast the affirmative-action debate in a bit of a humiliating yet ultimately necessary context: It felt as if a bunch of minorities were clawing at one another while a line of entitled, less qualified white kids walked through the gates of Ivy League schools as their alumni parents unpacked an S.U.V. filled with weird rackets and skis.
A few weeks later, I met Alex again at a bubble-tea shop in Flushing. Congratulations were in order — after a somewhat rocky admissions process in which he had applied early to Yale and been deferred, was accepted to Binghamton, Rochester and Rice but rejected at Brown, Princeton and Stanford and was wait-listed at Vanderbilt, Carnegie Mellon, M.I.T. and Duke, Alex had received some good news. He had been accepted at Yale, his dream school.
“How’s it feel?” I asked.
“I mean, I’m excited,” he said.
“Did you expect to get in?”
“Of course not! I mean, it’s Yale. ...”
“Were you upset that you didn’t get into some of those other schools?” I asked.
“No, why would I be upset?”
“Like Brown. ... Don’t you think you were qualified to go to Brown?”
“Well, I don’t think I really fit the type of super intellectually curious student that Brown says they’re looking for,” he said. “I mean, it’s not that I’m not intellectually curious — I am — but they seem to want people who don’t really know what they want to do yet and think the entire world is fascinating. I’m a bit more focused than that.”
He said his opinion of affirmative action had evolved. “My thinking has really changed,” he said, noting that his government class had discussed affirmative action and how it connected to white supremacy. He still thought it was “wrong to have a system where some people’s work was less valued than others,” but he said he appreciated why it might be necessary to adjust for differences in background.
My understanding of him had changed, too. Despite all his résumé building and the involvement in random clubs and his own admitting that some of that effort had been so much padding, I could see that his was an inquisitive mind, and he wanted more than simply to disprove the trope of the cynical Asian grade-grubber. His core interests lay in the sociological data projects he had done at N.Y.U. and then at the offices of Assemblywoman Niou. I asked if he had written about his data work for his essay. He said he had mentioned it, but that he had mostly written about being the child of immigrants.
“Didn’t you know you weren’t supposed to write about that?” I asked, thinking of Sally Chen’s guidance counselor.
“What?” he asked.
“I think they’re tired of hearing the immigrant story, especially from East Asian kids of college-educated parents,” I said.
“What!” he said again, with what sounded like genuine disbelief. He stirred his bubble tea with a straw and laughed a bit sheepishly. “I wish someone had told me.”
Jay Caspian Kang is a writer at large for the magazine and the author of the forthcoming book “The Loneliest Americans.” He previously wrote an article about a fraternity death and Asian-American identity.