Opinion

Opinion | Janelle Wong and David Silver

Telling the wrong story about racial discrimination in education

Bernard Chow leads activists in a chant during a protest against the city's plan to revamp admissions to specialized high schools in New York, June 5, 2018. Asian students are currently overrepresented at the schools, but if a plan offered by Mayor Bill de Blasio goes into effect, that would change to give a higher share of spots to black and Hispanic students. (Kevin Hagen/The New York Times)
Kevin Hagen/New York Times
Bernard Chow leads activists during a protest against New York City’s plan to revamp admissions for specialized high schools in the city on June 5.

In 2015, Indian-American Vijay Chokal-Ingam, brother of actress Mindy Kaling, went public with his story of posing as a black man to benefit from race-conscious admissions policies at medical schools. He claimed in a CNN story that affirmative action “destroys the dreams of millions of Indian-American, Asian-American, and white applicants for employment and higher education.”

Chokal-Ingam applied to 14 schools and was admitted to just one, St. Louis University. He only applied using his false “black” identity, and although he never applied as an Indian-American, he assumes that he got into St. Louis University because he was “black.”

Students for Fair Admissions, led by Edward Blum, a conservative activist who has also advocated rolling back voting rights for minorities, is suing Harvard University for discrimination against Asian-Americans. Last Friday, the plaintiffs filed for a summary judgment, claiming their case is so strong that no trial is necessary. The case claims that a 2009 study shows that Asian-Americans must score at least 310 points higher than black applicants and 130 points higher than Hispanic applicants to get into a highly selective school. Never mind that this is a gross misinterpretation of the findings in the study, the lawsuit fits perfectly with Chokal-Ingam’s questionable narrative that black and Latino students are advantaged, and Asian-Americans are penalized, in university admissions.

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Perhaps the most incendiary claims made by Blum’s organization are that Asian-American students were rated lower than other students on “personality” traits by admissions officers and that if these personality traits were omitted from the process, Asian-Americans would be admitted at a much higher rate than they were during the period reviewed by the plaintiffs.

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The fact is, black and Latino students do not have an advantage over Asian-Americans in the US education system, including higher education. The odds of black and Latino high-school graduates enrolling in college are much lower than for Asian-Americans. Further, Asian-Americans are more likely to attend an elite private four-year institution than any other racial group. Unless one believes that there are innate intellectual differences in the abilities of black and Latino students versus Asian-American students, these trends can only indicate unfair differences in learning opportunities.

Which brings us back to the assumption that Asian-Americans face a penalty in admissions when it comes to test scores. While many assume that high performance on standardized tests results from hard work and studying, research suggests otherwise. Among the most important predictors of test scores are parents’ education and income. Few who believe in meritocracy would advocate for admitting students based on these two criteria. And yet, that is, in effect, the argument of those who believe that standardized tests should stand alone above dozens of other measures of promise that post-secondary institutions routinely use in making admissions decisions.

Test scores, of course, do play a major role in admissions, and many Asian-American students benefit tremendously. Not coincidentally, they are also much more likely than the average American to have highly educated parents and high household incomes. Why? Selective immigration policy has recruited highly-educated immigrants from Asia, especially since 1991, when the parents of many Asian-American college applicants arrived in the United States.

The personality traits rated by admissions officers are likely to be associated with overcoming challenging life circumstances. One of the realities of being black or Latino in America is that your group on the whole has more opportunities to demonstrate the ability to overcome challenges like substandard schools and poverty — much in the same way that white and Asian-American students on the whole have more opportunities to translate private test preparation and access to honors and advanced placement courses into impressive transcript statistics. It is also the case that Asian-Americans who do not attend high-performing schools or who did not benefit from selective immigration policies (such as the children of refugees from Southeast Asia) will be well-served by the current whole-student approach to admissions.

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A common refrain among Asian-American students who believe that they have faced unfair treatment in the admission process echoes Vijay Chokal-Ingam’s: If only I were black, I would get into the school of my dreams. This sentiment ignores the everyday experiences of both black and Asian-American students. To be black in the US educational system is to live farther from high-quality schools than Asian-Americans, to be referred to gifted-programs at lower rates (even when demonstrating the same levels of achievement), and, because race and income are so highly correlated, to face differential opportunities even within the same schools.

No student should face discrimination in education, but that conversation should not start with Vijay Chokal-Ingam’s story. Chokal-Ingam, using his “real” Asian-American identity, got into and graduated from an elite private institution (the University of Chicago). He has no direct evidence, since he never applied with this identity to medical school, of racial discrimination. His story is an affront to students who face real racial inequality in education.

Janelle Wong is a professor of Asian-American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. David Silver graduated from Harvard Graduate School of Education and is a senior researcher for the Center for Evaluation and the Study of Educational Equity at RTI International.