By Mark Lee
Northwest Asian Weekly
January 16 was a federal holiday celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. King’s legacy upholds the principle that all people, regardless of race or creed, should be treated as equals. In a democratic society, education should function as the great equalizer.
Through hard work and diligence, anyone, no matter their background, should be able to develop their abilities and achieve their goals, including getting into an Ivy League school if they are so qualified.
However, if you are Asian, you may not have fair or equal access to education at a number of the nation’s top universities.
A recent article published by Associated Press writer Jesse Washington stated the following:
“For years, many Asian Americans have been convinced that it’s harder for them to gain admission to the nation’s top colleges.
“Studies show that Asian Americans meet these college admissions standards far out of proportion to their 6 percent representation in the U.S. population, and that they also need test scores hundreds of points higher than applicants from other ethnic groups to have an equal chance of admission. Critics say these numbers, along with the fact that some top colleges with race-blind admissions have double the Asian percentage of Ivy League schools, prove the existence of discrimination.”
One widely publicized case involving this issue was a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights by Jian Li against Princeton University in 2006.
Li received a perfect score on the SAT, near perfect SAT II scores, and graduated in the top 1 percent of his high school class. Li filed the complaint “to send a message to the admissions committee to be more cognizant of possible bias, and that the way they’re conducting admission is not equitable.”
His complaint called for the suspension of federal financial assistance to Princeton until it “discontinues discrimination against Asian Americans in all forms” by eliminating race and legacy preferences. Legacy preferences are admissions preferences based on the applicant’s relationships to alumni who are also family members.
After Jian Li filed his complaint, he faced some snippy reactions and critical commentaries written about him in school newspapers. The Princeton daily newspaper also published a racist caricature regarding Li in its annual joke issue.
However, not all of the public reaction was negative. Li’s complaint was covered by several media sources, including the Wall Street Journal.
His complaint included the issue of how affirmative action for other minority groups and legacy preferences impacted Asians.
Another issue is whether there is intentional discrimination against Asians in the admissions process. This was addressed to some extent in a book entitled “The Price of Admission, How America’s Ruling Class Buys its Way into Elite Colleges and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates,” by Daniel Golden.
Golden’s book referenced a 1990 civil rights inquiry concerning discrimination against Asian Americans at Harvard. The report from the inquiry documented that Harvard admitted Asian American applicants “at a significantly lower rate than white applicants” despite their “slightly stronger” SAT scores and grades.
Harvard evaluators ranked Asian Americans lower on average than white applicants for “personal qualities.” Also, there were repeated subjective comments made about Asian American applicants, such as the applicant being “quiet/shy,” “science/math-oriented,” or a “hard worker.” Some said, “Scores and application seem so typical of other Asian applications I’ve read, extraordinarily gifted in math with the opposite extreme in English.” Others said, “He’s quiet and, of course, wants to be a doctor.”
Golden noted, “Nonetheless, the Office for Civil Rights concluded that Harvard did not violate federal anti-discrimination statutes. Although legacy and athletic preferences “adversely affected” Asian Americans, it said, the hooks were “legitimate and not a pretext for discrimination.” As for the stereotyping, it “could not be shown” to have hurt the chances for Asian applicants.
Golden included quotes in his book from Princeton economist Uwe Reinhardt, one of a group of professors who had previously raised this issue with the university’s administration. Reinhardt stated, “I tend to feel in my gut that there is an anti-Asian policy,” and noted that Asians with far higher SATs were rejected as compared to non-Asians who were accepted with lower SATs. Reinhardt referenced discussions with the administration when “they would say that academic criteria aren’t the only thing they use, and it’s useful to have different cultures represented here. You wouldn’t want half the campus to be Chinese.” “Well, why not?”
Reinhardt also stated that the stereotype about the quiet Asian student is “really a strange notion. My Asian American students are very lively. They take leadership positions. They’re not at all shy or reticent.”
It may be the case that some of the individuals involved in admissions decisions want to limit the number of Asians entering elite colleges. As a result, they may be using phony rationalizations and racist stereotyping to reject Asian applicants in an attempt to justify discriminatory acts.
King’s life demonstrated that justice can be achieved if you are willing to take a stand.
While Jian Li’s complaint and experience cannot compare to the sacrifice that King made, it nonetheless took courage to face the predictable backlash that occurred. The fact that his sole action received a significant amount of publicity shows that putting up a fight can produce results, even if they are less than ideal or perfect.
King’s legacy also shows that social change requires organized effort and careful strategy.
In some cases, one method to combat systemic bias can be a class action lawsuit. In general terms, a class action lawsuit is a legal procedure whereby a large group of people with a common cause of action combine to bring a claim in court.
Whether or not there is a basis to bring such an action regarding the admissions process for Asians is an issue that needs to be further researched and investigated before a conclusion can be reached. However, if discrimination against Asians in certain college admissions processes is occurring, it should be confronted and fought. The issue is not just about getting into elite colleges. The issue is also about whether America is truly a democracy where equality is not just a slogan, but rather is a reality in practice. (end)
Mark Lee can be reached at email@example.com.