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Race Quotas and Class Privilege at Harvard

Who gets in, and why?

Wesley Yang
August 01, 2018
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Rusty Clark/Flickr
Rusty Clark/Flickr
Rusty Clark/Flickr
Rusty Clark/Flickr

All Asian-American ethnicities academically outperform native-born American whites. This includes East Asians, Filipinos, South Asians, and Southeast Asians, despite the fact that Southeast Asians tend to come from poorer and less educated families. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the main factor explaining this rather large gap in achievement was the exertion by all Asian groups of “greater academic effort.” This means that Asians do better in school than whites because they work harder, a fact that enormous quantities of statistical data subjected to factor analysis allows us to say with scientific certitude is true. It is also a fact visible to the naked eye. “Swing by the library at 2 a.m.,” is advice that anyone who wishes to know by what means Asians outperform their white counterparts in all measurable indices of academic achievement should act on.

Hard work is presumably a value that Americans admire. But the amount of hard work that Asians take as a cultural baseline is fundamentally different than that of any other American subgroup. When I was in Seoul, I spoke with many Koreans who put themselves through the ordeal of preparing for the single national college entrance exam who repeated the same mantra: “If you get four hours of sleep a night you will get in to college. If you get five hours of sleep a night, you will not.” I also spoke to many who told me they decided to join the protests that eventually brought down South Korean President Park Geun-hye when it was revealed that she had used her influence to get the daughter of her spiritual adviser into one of Korea’s leading universities. This naive faith in the integrity of meritocracy will strike most Americans, who are all by now inured to the fact that slots at leading universities, not excluding Harvard, are all for sale to the highest bidder, as comic.

Schools in heavily Asian districts tend to become academic pressure cookers where the competition is too intense for most white kids. This has resulted in white flight from school districts in Cupertino, California, and in an open confrontation between the administration of a heavily Asian school district of West Windsor, New Jersey, and parents. The principal, citing a student survey indicating high levels of student stress, issued directives limiting homework and the number of AP classes. This event coincided with the announcement, to much fanfare in the press, by a consortium of educators led by the Harvard Graduate School of Education that there was a moral crisis afflicting young people induced by the academic rat race. The answer, of course was a plan to de-emphasize academic work in favor of intangible qualities such as “authenticity.” In retrospect, this new rubric was clearly a kind of insurance plan for where we may be headed: toward the end of affirmative action, which the Supreme Court may well rule to be unconstitutional in the next few years.

I write all this as a clear beneficiary of affirmative action and the non-merit-based system of divination of souls that it perpetuates. Although I graduated in the bottom half of my suburban New Jersey high school class, I managed to get into the University of Michigan, UCLA, Oberlin College, NYU, and Carnegie Mellon. My birth year was the nadir of the postwar American birthrate, so my cohort was nearly half the size of those that came before and after us. It was much easier to get into college than it has since become. (A New York Times story from 1995 chronicling the admissions journey of a female student ranking 32nd in her class with a 1490 SAT seems positively quaint.) I applied to a tier of colleges higher than the ones my guidance counselor urged out of sheer stubbornness, and got in nearly everywhere.

Why did this happen? In retrospect, I probably benefited from a kind of racial arbitrage. I was a person of Asian descent who only expressed interest in the humanities and who avowed an ambition to become a writer. I was bad at math. I was good at English. I didn’t play the violin. I played the electric guitar. I wasn’t on the science team. I made it to state-level competition in poetry recitation. My grades were crap. But I considered myself to be smarter and more interesting than lots of people who got better grades. Whether or not this was true, the admissions committees agreed with me.

Wesley Yang dives into the cultural and political battles of our times, in the cesspools of social media and the internet

I got into the most competitive of the schools to which I applied, Oberlin, by winning over the interviewer. My academic record surely placed me close to the bottom decile of all applicants to the school. But I was, in retrospect, exactly the sort of person they were looking for along a couple of key dimensions. In my youth, I had attended a local mainline Protestant church and absorbed through osmosis the distinctive ethos of that place modelled by a pastor and Sunday school teacher who had protested the Vietnam War in their youth before returning to the established Church, where they sought to infuse some of their countercultural energy into the bulwark of tradition. I no longer believed in a supernatural entity or attended that church by the time I interviewed for college, but I had already been inducted into a distinctive class.

All of which is to say that simply by being who I really was, I had both differentiated myself sufficiently to make for effective branding, and made a special appeal to a particular interest group that would want me within the university. I was serenely unconscious of all this throughout the process. But that’s the point: College admissions officers pride themselves on their ability to find candidates like me—ones who were likely to cut against the grain of stereotypes while being just like everyone else in the ways that mattered. To rake from the rubble a handful of diamonds hidden in the bottom decile is surely what an admissions officer lives to do.

For various reasons that I won’t get into here, I wasn’t able to avail myself of the class membership that those admissions officers extended to me. I didn’t go to any of those fancy colleges, mainly for want of the means to pay for them. But others were better prepared than me, and some of them were made privy to the principle of selection through which they were granted access to the inner sanctum. Harvard law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen, writing in The New Yorker, described a moment familiar to many who have received the summons:

When I won a scholarship that paid for part of my education, a selection panelist told me that I got it because I had moving qualities of heart and originality that Asian applicants generally lacked. Asian applicants were all so alike, and I stood out. In truth, I wasn’t much different from other Asians I knew. I was shy and reticent, played a musical instrument, spent summers drilling math, and had strict parents to whom I was dutiful. But I got the message: to be allowed through a narrow door, an Asian should cultivate not just a sense of individuality but also ways to project “Not like other Asians!”


It’s an ambivalent gift to owe one’s elevation into a system of privilege to the denigration of others like oneself. You’re not like the others, you’re different, is the overt message. You live here among us at our sufferance is the barely subliminal message, which is all the more crushing in its power for not being in any way ill-intended, and for being in some ways inarguably true. The message flatters the individual even as it denigrates the collective of which the individual is presumed to be part, making the individual thus flattered complicit in the act of subjugation—and all the more dependent on those who judged them to be worthy.

In the end, the ostensible exceptions to the rule remain fettered by the rule whose existence they affirm through their role as exceptions. I am “not like other Asians” if and only if “other Asians are like other Asians”—and if other Asians are in a deep sense deficient in the things that matter—in the “qualities of heart and originality that other Asians lacked,” as Suk put it. It is an offer of deliverance nested around a demand for deference.

There is a sense in which one could call this racist. There is another sense in which this is just the way institutions of privilege have always reproduced themselves and must by necessity do so in order to preserve a continuity of values and behavioral standards across time. You’re not like the others, you’re different, is what these schools whisper into the ears of everyone who makes it into them, regardless of their race or class. You’re like us, not like them. It’s that act of differentiation that constitutes the members as a distinct class pledged to the perpetuation of the talismanic power upon whose authority all its graduates rely through their lives.

It’s privileged class information—class information that newcomers to the country by definition do not have in their possession—to know that there are cheat codes for getting into the various elite colleges that don’t entail million-dollar gifts to the university. (Such grotesque expedients are required only of the truly subpar progeny of the garishly wealthy and crudely ambitious, such as Jared Kushner.) The well-informed know that colleges aren’t looking for the well-rounded candidate, per se, but rather the well-rounded class. It’s therefore better to become the country’s best squash player or bassoon player than to sustain a perfect GPA. They also know that there are dozens of excellent colleges in the United States that establish class bona fides and that you needn’t sacrifice your youth and mental health to the idolatry of a few brand-name institutions (even though those brand names count for more than ever).

I’ve interviewed many parents of third-generation Asian-Americans who have caught on to this game—by training their kids from an early age, for instance, to excel at fencing or squash. Such costly and exclusive sports indicate class membership and offer a back door into the Ivy Leagues through the strong athletic preferences that are a part of so-called holistic admissions that we all take for granted as a normal practice, but which is in fact one of many exceedingly strange things we do that makes us an anomaly among nations. An Asian applicant thus equipped instantly benefits from racial arbitrage in branding and is evaluated as part of an entirely distinct category from those who pitch themselves into the crab barrel where they must struggle against all the other violin-playing Asian pre-meds for what can only be a fixed number of spots within a class that is meant to be diverse along multiple dimensions.

I’ve also interviewed multiple people involved in the admissions process, some of them Asian themselves, who concede that, yes, you do see quite a few virtually indistinguishable applicants from Asian backgrounds. Why would it be otherwise? New immigrants lack understanding of America’s byzantine admissions process, which is unique in the world in its pretensions to divine the inner secrets of a student’s soul. They also bring their own cultural presuppositions to the raising of their children, some of which align very strongly with the way our colleges evaluate students, and some of which diverge just as strongly. They apply the formulas of their home countries, with mono-racial populations, where college admissions is controlled solely by a single entrance exam, where rote learning (or, as some would have it—mastering a body of knowledge) isn’t stigmatized as somehow destructive to creativity, and where the legitimacy of academic competition isn’t under constant siege.

A study of a group of white parents found that the same people who were initially supportive of test-based meritocracy became much less so when they were informed of the overwhelming extent to which Asians dominated testing. There are those who claim that a faction of Asians, in seeking to contest the affirmative action regime—a move that looks increasingly likely to be successful—have made themselves into the handmaidens of white supremacy.

Yet a plausible case can be made that something closer to the reverse is true: that blacks and Hispanics—by serving as a moral pretext for rejecting strict meritocracy and maintaining an opaque system of racial gerrymandering throughout U.S. colleges—provide cover for the suppression of yet another minority group in a manner that preserves a preponderance of white students. A study published by Princeton University scholar Thomas Espenshade found that an end to affirmative action would mean that 4 out of 5 affirmative action slots would go to Asian-Americans.

One way of looking at the white parents surveyed above is to call their variable commitment to meritocracy hypocritical and racist. You wouldn’t exactly be wrong. But another way to put it would be to recognize that what we’re seeing now is a clash of values between distinct cultures that live together within the same set of institutions. Mass immigration has changed the racial and cultural demographics of the country in ways that lead inexorably to a series of tense confrontations over every kind of value, such as the meaning of merit, how it is measured, and which qualities we select for in our educational institutions.


Private colleges in America were all founded to pursue a certain vision of the world. Even if many have fallen away from their original religious sectarian missions, they retain a certain coherence of purpose through their ability to mold their classes as they see fit. On its face, there is nothing wrong with maintaining admissions policies that favor certain kinds of people over others—provided of course that the preference doesn’t violate the law by discriminating against applicants on the basis of their race, gender or national origin. Some schools want to teach Catholics. Some want to teach Jews. Some want to train scientists. Others want to train investment bankers and politicians. Each of these schools will design admission policies accordingly.

There is also something intuitively true about the proposition that grades and test scores are imperfect proxies for genuine merit in whatever area or field. The Ivy Leagues have always refused to be the colleges of the “best students” and have instead sought to identify the “leaders of tomorrow.” It doesn’t take too much thinking to realize how little overlap there might be between these categories of person. In an amicus brief submitted on behalf of Harvard University in 1974, the Harvard law professor and former solicitor general of the United States, Archibald Cox, noted that Harvard College selected less than 15 percent of its entering class purely “on the basis of extraordinary intellectual potential,” going on to express the fear that “if promise of high scholarship were the sole or even predominant criterion, Harvard College would lose a great deal of its vitality and the quality of the educational experience offered to all students would suffer.”

Any system focused on the likely leaders of tomorrow must include the sons and daughters of privilege along with the brightest and most driven students, giving the former the access to the latter and vice versa. Such a class will by definition have a better understanding of the ways of the world and how to master it, which is in part why Harvard intervened in the first case to go before the Supreme Court challenging affirmative action. As Jerome Karabel, author of The Chosen: A History of Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, makes plain, Harvard’s interest in the case “went well beyond the issues of blacks and other minorities.”

As Karabel writes, the case “raised the specter of an encroachment on the institutional discretion that Harvard believed indispensable to the protection of vital institutional interests. In the worst case, a ruling for DeFunis [the student who was denied admission] might lead to the court imposing the model of pure academic meritocracy that [Dean W.J.] Bender and his successor at Harvard had so definitively rejected.”

Karabel’s book is an exhaustively detailed survey of the ways in which the Ivy Leagues battled through the decades to hold the threat of pure meritocracy at bay. At the start of the 20th century, the meritocratic danger was Jewish. In 1908, Harvard began to select its students on the basis of a set of admissions examinations. By the 1920s, as Karabel writes, “it had become clear that a system of selection focused solely on scholastic performance would lead to the admission of an increasing number of Jewish students, most of them of eastern European background.” The institutions sought, as Karabel put it, “the latitude to admit the dull sons of major donors and to exclude the brilliant but unpolished children of immigrants,” and therefore created a system relying on “discretion and opacity—discretion so that the gatekeepers would be free to do what they wished and opacity so that how they used their discretion would not be subject to public scrutiny.”

The system of holistic admissions that place a heavy stress of highly subjective qualities such as character, personality, and leadership that we all take for granted was invented during an era of radical immigration exclusion to supply the discretion and opacity that the institutions demanded in order to maintain the kind of student bodies that they thought suitable—namely white, Christian, and Anglo native-born. But while holistic admissions were born in racist exclusion, the affirmative action debate presented a golden opportunity for the institution to recast this discretion as something at once legally and morally unassailable—by cloaking the institutional interest in independence and discretion in terms of protecting and advancing the interests of racial minorities. This ingenious move, reconciling the claims of justice and self-interest in the manner habitual to a certain kind of liberal, secured the cartel power of the Ivy Leagues to mint a ruling elite for a generation.

No one should fault the keepers of the Ivy Leagues for seeking to hold in balance inherited privilege with meritocratic excellence. It was the smart play. No one can gainsay the results obtained by what history will regard as some of the greatest brand managers the world has ever seen. The election of Donald Trump in 2016 ended a string of 27 consecutive years in which the president of the United States held a degree from either Harvard or Yale University. Every member of the Supreme Court is a graduate of one of two law schools, Harvard or Yale. Harvard University has an endowment of $37 billion, which is a sum at least four times larger than that controlled by hedge-fund king George Soros.

Neither should we begrudge those invested in this system of mutual advantage their exasperation at Asian immigrants for unwittingly acting as spoilers. For that is what Asians have done: By arriving here in such large numbers, and importing their distinctive orientation toward education—by doing so well on grades and tests and being so assiduous in their pursuit of extracurricular activities—they’ve made it impossible for the brand managers of the Ivy Leagues to preserve the balance between merit and social justice and inherited privilege in a way that is remotely tenable. Something had to give, and it appears that soon enough, something will, with large consequences for the country.


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Wesley Yang is the author of The Souls of Yellow Folk.