“If you are an Asian American — or even if you simply have an Asian or Asian sounding surname — you need to be careful about what you do and don’t say in your application.” That’s from The Princeton Review, and it’s indicative of what Asian-American teenagers can expect to read in college admissions guidebooks and hear from high school counselors.
Year after year, Asian-American applicants of diverse backgrounds hear the same discouraging advice: They must choose between their hobbies, interests, and goals on the one hand, and the school of their dreams on the other. A student who chooses the latter must forgo a major in math or the sciences, and disavow her ambition to become this nation’s next great doctor, engineer, or research scientist. She should stay away math club, chess club, and computer club, and write her admissions essay on a topic other than the importance of her family or the benefits of living in two cultures.
Because an Asian student who wanted to major in math, or become a doctor, or join math club, or talk about what her family meant to her, might be viewed by admissions counselors at elite universities as too much like the “typical Asian.”
Take Harvard. For years, admissions counselors warned Asians to be careful about what they say in applications to elite universities like Harvard and its Ivy League brethren. For good reason. Harvard has a long history of discrimination, spanning from discrimination against Jewish applicants in the 1920s to discrimination against Asian applicants today.
Harvard considers race in admissions. Asian applicants who earned the highest academic marks and athletic awards are still rejected by Harvard at a disproportionately high rate. Harvard offered a surprising explanation. The University’s admissions counselors assigned Asian applicants low scores in “personal qualities.” But alumni interviewers, after speaking with the same applicants, found no such personal defects.
In 2014, a group of Asian students filed a civil rights lawsuit against Harvard. After years of litigation, the trial court ruled against the students, and upheld the University’s racial preferences. The students have appealed that decision to the court of appeals, and the case looks primed for eventual review by the Supreme Court.
The Court may use the opportunity to revisit its decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, which held that a University’s interest in diversity is so compelling that it justifies discrimination on the basis of race.
Yet racial discrimination results in real harms. It tells high school students that their race prevents them from being true to themselves: from pursuing their ambition to become a doctor to perfecting their craft as an engineer. And it runs contrary to the great promise of America that everyone can strive toward their goals regardless of what they look like or where they come from.