Opinion | Affirmative Action Is in Peril and ‘Model Minority’ Stories Don’t Help

Michael Wang was an ideal college applicant. He had a 4.67 G.P.A., a product of excelling in the more than a dozen A.P. classes that he’d taken. He was also on the debate team, played piano and sang in the choir for President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2008.

Yet even with all his accomplishments, he was rejected by six of the seven Ivy League colleges he applied to, as well as Stanford. He filed a complaint with the Department of Education accusing three of the schools of discrimination.

I remember reading about him as a young teenager already anxious about applying to college. I was indignant on his behalf. More than that, I was worried. He had done everything I was striving to do. And if he couldn’t go where he wanted to, what did that mean for me?

Mr. Wang’s story was the first of its kind that I remember, but it certainly wasn’t the last. Elite college admissions have gotten even more competitive since 2012, when Mr. Wang was applying, and every year, around the time that Ivy admissions decisions go out (this year, Thursday is “Ivy Day”) stories similar to Mr. Wang’s abound. The accounts always say the applicants did everything right, and often mention that they have Black or brown classmates with less impressive résumés who got better results.

Despite my fears that I would become another Asian American name to add to those who seemingly qualified but were rejected by elite colleges, when the time came, in 2017, I applied to 12 schools. While I wasn’t accepted by all of them, I did get into Yale, where I am now in my final year, majoring in American studies.

I think of stories about upwardly mobile second-generation Asian Americans differently now, as the Supreme Court seems poised to dismantle race-based admissions policies. Those stories may be emblematic of the type of country we like to believe ourselves to be — a place where anyone can work hard and succeed without the need to pull strings or call in favors. That is why it can seem so outrageous when the stories don’t have a fairy-tale ending.

But their appeal is based on a false premise: that if you reach certain achievements, you’re entitled to admission to the elite college of your choice. No one is, me included.

Focusing on the cherry-picked “perfect” students who didn’t get into a particular school distracts us from the bigger issues — namely, why these institutions still offer legacy admissions and give preferential treatment to the kids of major donors, why they get to act as gatekeepers for so many future opportunities, and how a history of systematic discrimination has hurt Black and brown people to the point that race-conscious admission policies ever became relevant. As Kevin Kumashiro, an educational policy expert and the former dean of the school of education at the University of San Francisco, has said, “Too often we’re debating over access to an unjust system, rather than trying to change that system.”

One of the first things my first-year suitemates and I bonded over was the list of colleges with higher acceptance rates than Yale that rejected all of us (I’m looking at you, Washington University in St. Louis). Elite colleges assemble their student bodies based on a wide range of priorities, and they turn away many students who are every bit as qualified as the ones they admit. Sometimes people are rejected from a school one year only to reapply and be admitted the next. The frustrating truth is there’s an element of randomness to it and there always will be.

We understand this in other areas of life. Just because you’re technically qualified for a job doesn’t mean a company is obligated to hire you. And to be clear, Mr. Wang did get into an Ivy League school, the University of Pennsylvania. He chose not to go. He had other elite college options, including Williams College and the University of California, Berkeley.

To some, that’s proof that the system works. To others, it’s proof that it’s hopelessly broken.

Increasingly, it seems that stories about Asian Americans who say they have been victimized by affirmative action are becoming popular for a different reason: They can provide a cover for white people who resent the push for diversity but don’t want to come off as racist.

Complaining because you feel that you are being left out can seem selfish; complaining because members of a racial minority feel they are being left out seems noble. But sometimes they amount to the same thing.

The two cases on affirmative action before the Supreme Court were brought by a group called Students for Fair Admissions, which was founded by Edward Blum, an activist behind more than two dozen suits against affirmative action and voting rights laws. Mr. Blum also orchestrated the last major challenge to race-based policy in college admissions, Fisher v. University of Texas (A lawsuit by the Department of Justice accusing Yale of race and national origin discrimination in 2020 was dropped). The plaintiff in the University of Texas case, Abigail Fisher, said the university had denied her admission because she is white. Hers was one of several lawsuits in which white women said they had been harmed by affirmative action, despite studies showing that they’ve actually benefited the most from such policies.

Mr. Blum and Ms. Fisher lost. Mr. Blum then shifted his focus largely onto Asian Americans. His group’s lawsuits accuse the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, of discriminating against white and Asian American applicants and Harvard of discriminating against Asian American applicants by using subjective measures to gauge personality traits that disfavor them and holding them to higher standards than other applicants.

The universities have denied these claims, insisting that they aim to build a diverse student community.

But these Supreme Court cases have reinforced Asian Americans’ fears of cultural bias. When I proofread essays for applicants to elite colleges, I encourage them to frame their experiences through the lens of individualism and leadership, rather than merely checking off the boxes of accomplishments and achievements.

While I would like our community to not be judged by harmful stereotypes, like a large number of Asian Americans, I don’t believe that we should do away with a system that benefits many, including Asian Americans, who are an overrepresented group at some colleges, even as they are underrepresented relative to their numbers in the applicant pool. As Dr. Kumashiro has said: “We need to address anti-Asian bias. But we need to be careful not to say that anti-Asian bias is a sign that affirmative action is anti-Asian. That’s actually a very different question, and I think it too often gets conflated.”

In any case, these “model minority” stories don’t help. They lump together the different Asian American cultures, ignoring their differences. They pit minority groups against one another, with Asian Americans typically portrayed as overachievers. And by creating unreasonable expectations, they also put undue pressure on Asian American students.

Besides, on Ivy Day, we should keep in mind that to a broader audience, such stories were never really about us after all.

Serena Puang is a senior at Yale and a freelance journalist who writes about accessibility, culture, language and education.

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