April 13, 2017
Asian Americans face discrimination in the highly selective college admissions process. Sure, highly selective colleges will deny that they stereotype Asian American applicants to these applicants’ obvious detriment. But their denials run counter to the tenets of social psychology. We were all once hunter-gatherers. We all had to make rapid decisions to avoid predators, to forage for food — for the purpose of survival. Making rapid decisions about people is wired into our brains. When admissions officers have only a few minutes to review a file, they need to make rapid-fire assessments and every admissions officer, much like every human, suffers from bias blindspot — the notion that it’s much easier to see the bias in others than it is to see it in oneself. To deny stereotyping, including Asian-American students applying for admission to highly selective colleges, is to deny being human.
But I’m not telling you something you don’t already know. Maybe you’ve even seen the data, data that demonstrates in unequivocal terms that Asian-American applicants have tougher odds in highly selective college admissions than do their non-Asian American peers. I’m not going to make the case for the extent of this discrimination because plenty of folks, plenty of organizations already are doing so. But I am going to address the strategy by which these folks, these organizations, are seemingly going about trying to end this discrimination. Because it’s the wrong strategy.
Asian-American organizations filing suit against various highly selective American universities is all the rage these days. Among these cases, an Asian-American student, Hubert Zhao, filed suit against Columbia University and Cornell University, universities he believes unfairly rejected him. But his argument that he was one of only two students from his high school class of 700 students to qualify as a National Merit Semifinalist coupled with his argument about his extracurricular credentials underscores only that the group filing this case doesn’t understand the holistic admissions process. Being one of only two National Merit Semifinalists means only that the high school Hubert attends isn’t particularly competitive. And a student’s PSAT score isn’t exactly a major factor in highly selective college admissions. Extracurricular credentials? He served as president of his school’s science and debate teams. He volunteered at a hospital. He went to the world championships in robotics.
To beat the system, you’ve got to understand the system. Hubert Zhao is the wrong plaintiff. He presents to us as a well-rounded applicant, precisely the type of applicant highly-selective colleges aren’t seeking. Another student who volunteers at hospitals? ZZZzzz. They want singularly talented students, students who excel in one particular area that can benefit the university offering them admission. Hubert Zhao, as his profile has been presented to us, appears to have no hook. And worse, he’s the son of the president of the organization filing the complaint, the Asian American Coalition for Education. Indeed the AACE even alleges he didn’t get in because of his father’s position — as retribution. It begs the question: Was Hubert Zhao truly the best plaintiff for this case? It appears doubtful. When litigators Ted Olsen and David Boies filed suit to make marriage equality the law of the land, you can bet they chose happy, law-abiding LGBT citizens as their plaintiffs. You can bet they ran background checks. You can bet they selected their plaintiffs wisely. The same cannot be said for the Asian American Coalition for Education.
But worse than choosing the wrong plaintiff, these groups hoping to end the discrimination Asian American applicants face in highly selective college admissions are choosing the wrong way of seeking change. You see, change is a protagonist in our nation’s story ever since we ragtag colonialists chose to rebel against the King of England. And just like in colonial times and as we are reminded throughout the arc of our history, change starts with the populace.
Selma. Seneca Falls. Stonewall.
These were the respective birthplaces of the civil rights, women’s rights, and gay rights movements in America. These movements began with the populace. Not in the courtroom. These movements achieved landmark successes in the courtroom that will echo through the ages. But they weren’t born there. The groups and individuals filing complaints against various highly selective universities alleging discrimination against Asian American applicants believe that the system is unfair. And I don’t disagree with them. But they’d be wise to study our American history if they really do wish to fix the system. I’ll be rooting for them.