The Reappearance of the Poster Child Challenging Affirmative Action
Do our readers remember Michael Wang, the student — now back in the news — who became the self-appointed proverbial poster child of Asian American discrimination in elite college admissions by filing a complaint with the United States Department of Education against Yale University, Princeton University, and Stanford University? As we have long argued on the pages of this college admissions blog and in the press, Asian American discrimination in elite college admissions is very real and very wrong. Yet Michael Wang was always the wrong poster child for the movement to end this discrimination.
And why was Wang the wrong poster child? As Aaron Mak wrote some years ago for Slate in a piece entitled “The Price of Admission,” “[Wang] scored a perfect 36 on the ACT entrance exam, placed third in a national piano contest and first in California for a math competition, competed in national debate tournaments as a finalist, graduated second in a class of more than 1,000 students, and sang in the choir at Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Yet out of the seven Ivy League schools to which he applied, only the University of Pennsylvania accepted him, which he holds as proof of rampant racism in the admissions process.”
Need we say more? You see, Michael Wang likely didn’t get rejected by most Ivy League schools on account of his race (side note: it’s interesting that it was previously stated in the press that he earned admission to only one Ivy but, more recently, the press is running with the fact that he got into two Ivies). Rather, he got rejected by most of the Ivy League schools likely on account of submitting a profile to these schools that is stereotypical and so often associated with his race. In short, Wang didn’t make himself interesting — and, in elite college admissions, that’s the whole ballgame.
Heck, even in a recent segment for CNBC, Wang is featured playing…you guessed it…the piano. Along with the violin, it’s one of the single most common activities on the applications of Asian American applicants. In a process in which differentiation is key, doing the same thing as so many others who happen to be of your same race is not the right move. But instead of realizing his error, Wang chose to seek revenge through his complaint against these revered institutions. To this day, he seeks to dismantle Affirmative Action — and with six conservative Supreme Court justices now in place, he may well get his way.
And that would not serve our nation’s young people because, as we have long expressed, offering preference in admission to underrepresented, historically oppressed groups like Black and Latino applicants does not come at the expense of Asian American applicants any more than does offering preference in admission to legacy applicants or development cases or recruited hockey, squash, and water polo players. To attack a practice designed in the spirit of equity while not attacking a practice that overwhelmingly favors wealthy, white applicants is deeply misguided in our humble view.
Edward Blum, the leader of Students for Fair Admissions, the group currently suing Harvard University in a case that will likely reach the Supreme Court, is a gentleman we’ve previously deemed the one-man band challenging Affirmative Action. He’s quoted in the CNBC piece, “Asian Americans have the highest grades, SATs, and the most fulsome extracurricular activities, but they are downgraded, they’re given demerits, on their personalities by Harvard’s admissions officers. They are deemed less likable, less courageous, less honest, have fewer leadership capabilities…” Fulsome? By what definition? Playing the piano may be “fulsome” to Edward Blum. But when admissions officers at elite universities see applicant after applicant who plays the piano, they yawn and likely reject the applicant. Does that make them racially biased? Maybe. It also makes them human.
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