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Affirmative action hurts Asian American kids like me

Asian American students are forced to achieve higher grades and test scores in order to overcome negative racial stereotypes.

Harvard Yard on the campus of Harvard University.TONY LUONG/NYT

This spring, I was accepted to Brown University. But what should have been a moment for celebration was overshadowed by the enduring controversy over racial bias in college admissions.

Today, most top colleges use “race-conscious” admissions policies, actively considering an applicant’s race when deciding which students to accept. The unpopular practice — disapproved of by 74 percent of the American publicdisadvantages Asian American students like me, who are forced to achieve higher grades and test scores in order to overcome negative racial stereotypes.

Next month, the Supreme Court will hand down rulings in Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina and Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, two cases that will determine whether public and private universities can continue to use race as a criterion in the admissions process. Legal analysts expect the court to find “race-conscious” admission policies to be in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits racial discrimination at institutions receiving federal funds. I’m hopeful this will happen — an applicant’s race has no bearing on how well they can contribute to a college’s community.

Education has always been important in my family. My maternal grandparents originally hailed from South Korea, where their childhoods were marked by food shortages as the Korean War waged on around them. Still, they worked hard in school, and after graduating from Seoul National University, they journeyed to the United States in the 1960s to pursue doctoral degrees at Purdue University.


As they became accustomed to America, the abundance of educational opportunities convinced them to stay and raise children in their new home, so they obtained green cards after their student visas expired and became naturalized citizens shortly thereafter. When my mother was born, my grandparents instilled the value of education in her, letting her know that if she worked hard in school, she could open doors to greater opportunities.


To my grandparents, the United States was a magical place characterized by its boundless opportunities; America’s educational prowess allowed academic-minded young people from a war-torn nation to advance in life and become professors and chemical engineers. Unfortunately, the aspirational view of American higher education that drew my grandparents to this country is growing increasingly at odds with reality, as today’s university administrators work to artificially quell the number of Asian Americans in higher education, on the basis of racial tropes.

Old reporting from Harvard’s student newspaper reveals that stereotypes about Asian Americans are deeply ingrained in the university’s admissions practices. A slew of racially insensitive comments unearthed by the Department of Education exposed that Asian American applicants had been repeatedly stereotyped as bland and boring people who lacked personality and leadership skills, as well as the ability to contribute to a diverse campus culture. For instance, one admissions officer wrote that an applicant’s “scores and application seem so typical of other Asian applications I’ve read: extraordinarily gifted in math with the opposite extreme in English.”

The consequence of these “race-conscious” practices is best exemplified by the distribution of “personal ratings” — the encapsulation of an applicant’s likability, friendliness, and other traits by a single digit. Historical data show that significantly worse “personal ratings” are awarded to Asian American applicants on average. Even Harvard’s own internal review confirmed that its admissions system was biased against Asian Americans, though the investigation was conveniently abandoned before a final conclusion could be reached.


In practice, these stereotypes continue to result in staggering racial disparities in acceptance rates. One professor found that at Harvard, a hypothetical Asian American male with a 25 percent chance of admission would see his chances shoot up to 36 percent if he were white, 77 percent if he were Hispanic, and 95 percent if he were African American. In fact, the racial disproportion is so extreme that Harvard’s internal admissions data show that Hispanic students in the sixth-lowest academic decile and African American students in the fourth-lowest academic decile are gaining admission at higher rates than Asian American students in the top academic decile.

Today, these “race-conscious” admissions policies serve as obstacles for the 19 million Americans of Asian descent pursuing the American dream. My grandparents, and many others like them, immigrated to the United States because they believed that if their children and grandchildren studied hard in school, they would have the opportunity to go on to great colleges. If America is to continue living up to this promise, students of all races must have an equal shot at being admitted to our nation’s best schools.

The Supreme Court should step in, uphold the Civil Rights Act, and kickstart an overhaul of out-of-date admissions policies at colleges across the country.

Alex Shieh is a contributing Globe Opinion writer and founder of The Phillips Academy Poll, a polling firm run by members of Gen Z. Follow him at @alexkshieh.