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I’m a strong supporter of affirmative action. It has helped generate student bodies that are vastly more diverse than the ones I encountered in college. My own students learn much more than I did about different ethnic and racial groups, and they’re also less likely to exhibit biases against people who don’t look like them.
But affirmative action has sometimes reflected and reinforced biases, too. And those of us who favor it need to be forthright about that instead of circling the wagons and pretending that nothing’s wrong.
Earlier this fall the Supreme Court heard lawsuits against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, alleging that their affirmative action policies discriminate against Asian Americans. According to documents filed in the case, Asian American applicants to Harvard received—on average—higher grades and test scores than members of other racial groups but were rated lower by Harvard admissions officers on measures of personality.
That’s what lawyers call a bad fact. It implies one of two things: Asian Americans really have worse personalities, or the university is biased against them.
Harvard says it evaluates personality based on qualities like “integrity, helpfulness, courage, kindness, fortitude, empathy, self-confidence, leadership ability, maturity, or grit.” What that seems to mean, at least in part, is that people who are confident and outgoing—in short, extroverts—get a higher rating than those who aren’t.
“He’s quiet and of course wants to be a doctor,” one Harvard admissions officer allegedly wrote about a candidate. According to a New York Times review of court filings, another applicant was described as a “hard worker,” but with a caveat: “Would she relax and have any fun?”
Both candidates were Asian American. As a wide body of scholarship has demonstrated, Asian cultures tend to emphasize humility over the assertiveness favored by many people in the West.
In that sense, it’s not surprising that Harvard awarded lower average personal scores to Asian Americans than to any other group. But it is certainly appalling. If you’re an Asian American student, and you want to get into Harvard, the formula is pretty clear: don’t seem too Asian.
Nobody knows that better than the students themselves. In a recent New York Times article, a college counselor is quoted saying she discourages Asian applicants from pursuing activities like violin or piano, lest they confirm stereotypes about their group. “It is a little sad now that I think about it,” said one student, describing how she downplayed her passion for chess. “I wasn’t really able to talk about the activities that meant the most to me.”
Imagine if we learned that our Hispanic candidates were discouraged from seeming too Hispanic, or Black students from seeming too Black. That would trigger huge protests on our campuses, followed by heartfelt mea culpas from our admissions offices. But the fact that Asian American students hide aspects of themselves—to avoid appearing too Asian—barely registers on our outrage meter.
None of this means that Harvard actively discriminates against Asian American candidates, as it did against Jews in the early 20th century. Elite universities established quotas on Jewish students in order to preserve the WASPy character of their institutions. Affirmative action has the opposite goal, of course: to diversify colleges and universities that were formerly restricted to white Protestant males.
And whereas the biases against Jews were out in the open, the ones against Asian Americans are typically implicit: we’re not always conscious of them, but they still affect our perception and behavior. As best we know, nobody at Harvard declared from on high that Asian Americans have worse personalities. But it seeped into the culture anyway, like a hidden virus that we don’t recognize until a doctor diagnoses it.
Universities have invested heavily in trainings about implicit bias, on the reasonable assumption that we’ll be less likely to act on it if we’re aware of it. In a decision upholding Harvard’s admission practices, a lower court admitted that the university’s decisions “may reflect some implicit biases” against Asian Americans. It urged Harvard to conduct, yes, trainings to remedy the problem.
That’s all fine and good, but it’s cold comfort to the Asian American kid who already got rejected for seeming too Asian. And it certainly won’t work if universities continue to insist—with a straight face—that they don’t have a problem at all. During the Supreme Court argument, a lawyer from Harvard, asked about the lower personal scores for Asian American applicants, referenced potential differences in “what teachers said, what guidance counselors said, what these students wrote about.” So either the students deserved the low scores—for their poor application essays—or the people who wrote their recommendation letters thought poorly of them. Again: not our problem.
In a good-faith effort to diversify its undergraduate population, Harvard confirmed some of the ugliest stereotypes about Asian Americans: they’re diligent and hardworking, devoid of personality. That doesn’t mean affirmative action is wrong, as the conservative majority on the Supreme Court likely believes. It means that the rest of us need to work hard to make it right.