Chinese Parents Are Obsessed with Harvard and Yale, But What Do Elite Universities Really Represent?

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This article was published on WeChat in collaboration with Chinese for Affirmative Action, which also assisted with its translation from English to Chinese.


Written by Dihua


On June 14, 2021, the Supreme Court invited the Department of Justice to offer its views on the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard affirmative action case. The case was first filed in 2014 and was last heard before a Boston district court in 2018, which ruled in favor of Harvard. The Supreme Court’s invitation to the DOJ effectively postpones its decision on whether or not to hear an appeal. If the Court decides to accept Students for Fair Admissions’ petition, its ruling could have broad implications for the use of race-conscious affirmative action policies in college admissions.


A group of lawyers carrying a placard that reads "I am Asian American, I have a dream too."(Source: Harvard Crimson, Amy Y. Li)


Among Chinese Americans, the debate over whether race-conscious admissions policies are good or bad never seems to go away. Whether you support affirmative action or believe it hurts Asian Americans, you have, in all likelihood, already heard all of the main arguments. They’re hashed out, debated, and recirculated every time the issue flares back up in the public consciousness: that affirmative action helps plenty of non-Chinese Asian Americans; that a race-based system fails to account for differences of class; that a true meritocracy would admit students by scores or even by lottery, not by essays; that students thrive best when their classes are diverse.


I graduated from an Ivy League university in 2019. I’ve heard these arguments all my life; in my hometown, students’ identities revolved around the rankings of the colleges to which they received admittance, and parents and teachers alike gossiped about who was going where. I am not interested, however, in rehashing them here. Having spent four years at a so-called vaunted institution, I can safely say that everybody who debates affirmative action along the lines of discrimination by top-tier universities is missing the point. Many Chinese parents want their kids to attend Harvard or Yale but fail to understand what Harvard and Yale really stand for. They may think that these universities offer the best education or the best career preparation because they are the most prestigious. It’s true that they are prestigious, but in the US no university has a monopoly on quality of education or career outcomes, and hundreds and thousands of students from so-called “lesser” universities land positions every year in top graduate programs and corporate jobs. (In fact, being exposed to other interests at an Ivy changed my mind about pursuing medicine. My parents would have been much happier with my career trajectory had I attended a state school and graduated with a degree in biology.)


No, whether Chinese parents realize it or not, whether they want their children to pursue it purposefully or not, elite institutions safeguard and consolidate one thing and one thing only: whiteness. Petitioning for admission to an elite university is really about petitioning for admission to the American ruling class, and it is one offered to non-white people by courtesy, not by design. Though it may not be apparent to those who condemned the Department of Justice’s decision to drop its suit against Yale, or last fall voted against California’s Prop 16 or submitted testimonials to the Students for Fair Admissions website before their case against Harvard went to trial in 2018, this is the reason it is so difficult for Asian American and other non-white applicants to gain admittance to Harvard et al., as well as the reason why eliminating affirmative action will only seal the door more tightly against Asian American applicants in the future. But I would like to go further than advocating for affirmative action in this essay. Instead, I hope to challenge readers—pro– and anti-affirmative action alike—to reconsider why they think so highly of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and so on, and, more importantly, what they’re really fighting for when they argue their children deserve to be part of America’s elite.


In this essay, I take Students for Fair Admissions’ suit against Harvard as a case study to make the following claim: Chinese American parents’ obsession with the ranking of their children’s colleges (and consequent antagonism towards affirmative action) is not only misguided but entirely fails to apprehend the nature of prestige in the US. As a result, they make decisions that have systemic consequences for their own, their children’s, and their grandchildren’s futures. I focus on this particular suit not because Students for Fair Admissions’ case is unique, but because the plaintiff’s arguments against affirmative action are emblematic of Chinese American backlash against the policy.


In section 1, “Power,” I argue that Harvard’s elite status derives from its association with whiteness, and that attempting admission to Harvard is akin to attempting admission to the US’s white ruling class. In section 2, “Individualism,” I argue that Harvard’s prestige depends on the maintenance of whiteness as a governing social structure, which makes racial categorization inescapable in the admissions process—a fact to which anti-affirmative action activists’ misplaced faith in individualism blinds them. In other words, while a “meritocratic” admissions system might get more Asian Americans into Harvard, a higher proportion of Asian Americans at Harvard would make the institution less prestigious and less desirable, thus defeating the point of trying to get students into Harvard in the first place. In section 3, “Justice,” I argue that the end of affirmative action will only restrict Asian Americans’ opportunities to ascend to elite status even further. I conclude by exploring why true justice depends not on directing ire at the Black and brown people affirmative action is meant to help, but on uniting with them to break down the dominance of whiteness and the scaffolds of prestige.


Power


What is whiteness, and what does Harvard have to do with it? In her seminal article “Whiteness as Property” (1993), law professor Cheryl I. Harris argues that whiteness in the US is a racial concept legislated as a property right. Thanks to European colonizers’ subjugation of Black people via slavery and of Native people via land dispossession, ethnic difference gave way to racial difference, and the hierarchy of authority operating in colonial America became defined not by what country you were from but by the color of your skin. “‘Black’ racial identity marked who was subject to enslavement; ‘white’ racial identity marked who was ‘free’ or, at minimum, not a slave,” Harris writes. “The ideological and rhetorical move from ‘slave’ and ‘free’ to ‘Black’ and ‘white’ as polar constructs marked an important step in the social construction of race.”


The development of whiteness as race, in other words, arose in tandem with the development of whiteness as power, a power that manifested itself through property ownership. Whiteness, in turn, became a kind of property right in and of itself—the right to possess and to dictate the terms of possession. Like a piece of property, whiteness has value (that is, privilege), defines and reflects social relations, and most significant of all, is malleably exclusive: by changing the law, white institutions can prevent others from attaining whiteness and its attendant advantages. Withholding rights—through immigration quotas or obstacles to naturalization, for instance—thus becomes a way to conserve and consolidate white supremacy.


Building on Harris’s argument, the academic Susan Koshy observes in a 2001 essay that this paradigm of whiteness operates within the boundaries and valuations of capitalism. The “mythology of the American dream” suggests that anyone can attain success and, yes, power in the United States merely by striving for class ascendance. The privileges of whiteness are thus mapped—deceptively—onto material accumulation. America offers non-white people, particularly non-white newcomers, a kind of false hope. This, they’re told, is the land of opportunity, where anyone can accomplish anything, even effective whiteness, as long as they work for it.


Meanwhile, efforts to use successful ascendance as evidence of whiteness failed to pass muster in the courtroom. Koshy notes that although Black people had been granted citizenship in 1870, the Asian plaintiffs in fifty-one of fifty-two naturalization trials between 1878 and 1952 tried to claim their rights by classifying themselves as white, not Black, even when it might have been easier to prove the alternative. “Ironically, when these same petitioners were rejected, they would stand condemned by their own words, consigned to the lower ranks of a racial hierarchy in which, as they had themselves attested, nonwhiteness represented moral and cultural degradation,” Koshy writes. “To add to the irony, the presiding judge frequently reproved the despondent petitioners for taking the law to imply that only the superior races were eligible for citizenship. After all, Negroes were eligible for citizenship, and how many could say that Asians were inferior to Negroes?” In the courtroom, the fantasy that whiteness is buttressed by nothing more than economic dominance dissolves. Its illusory accessibility by way of capitalism yields to the whims of white institutions, which move the goalposts at will as they exercise their “legal right to exclude others from the privileges inhering in whiteness.”


Harris’s and Koshy’s work provides a useful way to rethink the role of the “elite university.” Though they’re hardly immigration officials, Harvard’s admissions officers nevertheless serve as gatekeepers of an elite body, a body vested with enormous, and enormously tangible, power: consistently ranked among the nation’s top three universities and among the world’s top ten, Harvard boasts forty-eight Pulitzer Prize winners, forty-nine Nobel laureates, and thirty-two heads of state, including eight US presidents. But these statistics are merely accessories to Harvard’s reputation. Whether the university is designated the official number one, produces the most Rhodes scholars, or receives the highest number of MacArthur grants no longer matters. The idea of Harvard has already been woven into the fabric of American culture—and, to some extent, into international culture—as a paragon of excellence.


Its excellence deeply imbricated with whiteness. Founded in 1636 as a clerical training ground, the university remained fully white for over two centuries. Its first Black student, Beverly Garrett Williams, was admitted in 1847 but died before the academic year began; twenty-two years would pass before Harvard would admit another, Richard Theodore Greener, who graduated in 1870. (Greener transferred from Oberlin College in 1869 and eventually became the dean of the Howard University School of Law). The class of 2020 was the first in the College’s history to be majority non-white, a majority captured by just a hair: 51.4 percent of incoming freshmen identified as minorities. Similar patterns can be observed at other prestigious American institutions. Yale, which was founded in 1701, graduated its first Black student, Richard Henry Green, in 1857 (though its first non-white graduate would be Yung Wing, a Chinese man who received a bachelor’s degree in 1854). Princeton, founded in 1746, graduated its first Black student from its master’s program in 1891.


Petitioning for admission to Harvard and its siblings in the Ivy League, then, is not the same as petitioning for admission just anywhere. Harvard’s cultural footprint marks its graduates as members of an elite class constituted by and of white supremacy. The desire to attend Harvard is thus not just the desire to get a stellar education—which, as many articles have pointed out, is available at any number of other institutions—but to receive the stamp of acceptance into that elite class.

Individualism


What might Harvard have to gain or lose by admitting more Asian American students? There are many ways to answer this question. We might observe, as some have, that the lack of diversity will hurt all of Harvard’s students by limiting the perspectives available to them in the classroom and failing to reflect the “real world.” We might argue Asian American students who study hard but “have no personalities” aren’t capable of becoming the kind of world leader Harvard professes to manufacture.


But the easiest solution might be to simply imagine the supposed alternative: a Harvard with a 40- or 50-percent Asian American student body, much like the UCs after Proposition 209, or Stuyvesant and other selective New York high schools. We might think of some of the jokes the UCs have been subjected to (when I told a friend I was working on this essay, for instance, she immediately said, “Oh, like how UCLA is ‘you see a lot of Asians’?”). We might think about the appearance of power, the ways in which living in a US still largely dominated and governed by whiteness has taught us to imagine what power should look like.


In today’s America, does a school with a 40- or 50-percent Asian American population still look desirable? Or does it just look like an Asian American enclave? As Hua Hsu notes in “School Colors,” “It seemed evident that, if this [a 50-percent Asian American Harvard] ever happened, the prestige, the aura of selective élitism, wouldn’t accrue to such a student body—Harvard would no longer be Harvard.”

We might take this further and consider what this says about Harvard’s perception of its applicants. Students for Fair Admissions believes that the university caps the percentages of Asian Americans admitted each year with internal racial quotas. To do so would be illegal. But regardless of whether or not quotas are used, Harvard’s admissions process involves the classification of students into groups: legacy, first-generation, athlete; STEM, humanities, arts; Asian American, Latinx, Black. Such classification is obligatory considering the sheer volume of applications the university receives and its mission—however that may be configured—to build a diverse incoming class. It’s also obligatory as long as there is a norm, a baseline, from which students can deviate. We might think of that norm as white, non-legacy, non-athlete, non-first generation, non-low income. (Cheryl Harris again: whiteness is defined through exclusion.) Classification doesn’t mean that stereotyping is unavoidable; it just means that applicants are necessarily seen in the context of the groups they embody: they are considered representatives as much as they are considered individuals. Under such a system an Asian American student can never shed their Asian American-ness. They can only try to prove they are unconventionally Asian American.


What about the other side? Some proponents have argued that Asian Americans have little incentive or will themselves to stand against affirmative action. Instead, they say, Asian Americans have been instrumentalized by white conservatives like Edward Blum, the president of Students for Fair Admissions, to drive a wedge between minority groups and overturn a policy that primarily hurts white people. Citing the fact that 64 percent of Asian Americans still support affirmative action (despite a large drop in support by Chinese Americans since the suit was filed in 2014), they draw a parallel between the lawsuit and the development of the model minority stereotype following World War II. The stereotype, which characterizes Asian Americans as exemplary citizens who have climbed the class ladder to achieve success and prosperity in the States (in other words, who have triumphed under capitalism), arose as a means to further denigrate Black people and other minorities. With the “model minority” as a basis of comparison, the failure of other minorities to attain similar success could be attributed to their inherent inferiority rather than to systemic racism.


Since the Harvard lawsuit in 2014, the support rate of affirmative action among Chinese Americans has fallen sharply. (Source: aapidata.com)


Despite its apparent historical and multiracial sweep, this argument elides the agency of the Asian Americans involved in the lawsuit and absolves them of any responsibility in their efforts to undermine affirmative action. Presenting Asian Americans as a wedge allows us to think of them as nothing more than tools taken up to materialize Blum’s objectives. But as the sociologist Jared Sexton has contended, such models paint a false portrait of Asian American victimization. Writing on the role of Korean Americans in the 1992 Los Angeles Riots, Sexton explains, “[Such arguments] suggest that, because they [Korean Americans] are neither white nor ruling class, they bear no responsibility toward their current context. [These arguments] suggest, more locally, that [Korean Americans] bear no responsibility to resist and undermine an interaction structured strictly by market relations and ‘to place first priority… on the needs and well-being of the disenfranchised’ (Kim 1997: 206) rather than the needs and well-being of the racially privileged and upwardly mobile.” In other words, just because Asian Americans are subject to exploitation doesn’t mean they can’t be culpable for exploiting others.


Plus, if it’s so obvious, why haven’t Asian Americans recognized their subjugated position and developed alliances with other people of color? Though the wedge argument does identify the systems of power structuring the debate, it fails to account for the fact that Asian Americans against affirmative action don’t see themselves as members of a group implicated in systemic white supremacy. They see themselves as individual mobile agents capable of transcending any extant hierarchy. We might observe this distinction in their calls for meritocratic college admissions. Hsu describes these demands:


[Alex] Chen and [Timothy] He [two leaders of the Silicon Valley Chinese Association] had fully embraced the notions of tough love, hard work, and self-determination, and they were glad that Chinese-Americans had become central to the affirmative action debate, which they interpreted as race-based quotas. He felt that these policies encouraged their beneficiaries to “be lazy.” “I don’t need to work hard,” Chen said, paraphrasing what he believed to be the prevailing attitude among such people. “I don’t need to study hard, I still can get into a top school.”


He said that it wasn’t the percentage of Asians at Harvard that he focused on. “I care about the spirit. Everybody will be working hard.”


[…] It’s possible that immigrants are the only ones who speak about meritocracy and fairness without a trace of irony. (After all, an H1B visa literally attests to one’s merit.) Yukong Zhao, the Florida activist, kept mentioning the American Dream as though it were a contractual arrangement: “The American Dream says that each U.S. citizen should have equal opportunity to pursue prosperity and success through hard work, determination, and initiative.”


Belief in meritocracy is predicated on the belief in individual merit, the belief that non-white people are seen first and foremost on their own terms, rather than sorted into their non-normative categories before they even open their mouths. His explicit claim that “it wasn’t the percentage of Asians at Harvard” he was worried about makes it clear that these activists understand the struggle as one composed of individuals—individual Asian American students striving for admission, competing not only against white people and other minorities but against each other, on a level playing field—rather than of groups jockeying for a place in the elite class. Though the anti-quota anxiety is, at its core, a recognition of the existence of a classification system, these activists fail to see that the fact they can even be considered as members of groups reveals the existence of a superstructure of racism extending beyond the process of college admissions. Blinded by the promise of equivalence between ascendance in class status and ascendance in the racial hierarchy—the promise of the American Dream to provide “each U.S. citizen” with “equal opportunity to pursue prosperity and success through hard work, determination, and initiative”—they work selfishly toward admission to Harvard, thinking that to do so is to ensure fairness under capitalism, a system that, as the political scientist Cedric Robinson has argued, is only a mask for white supremacy, a system under which there is no such thing as racial justice.


These activists’ myopic drive to eradicate affirmative action is convenient for Students for Fair Admissions president Edward Blum, whom they see merely as a useful ally in the journey to realize what they think is a shared goal, a goal developed on the foundation of a fundamental misunderstanding of American power. “They’re very conscious of what they’re doing,” Hsu said in an NPR interview. “A lot of them were involved in these fights far before linking up with Edward Blum. So, you know, they have a lot of autonomy there. They’re really doing what they wanted to do all along.”

Justice


Here’s a popular way articles describing the affirmative action debate like to begin: So-and-so was a student at X high school. They had these grades and these scores on standardized tests. They did this many extracurriculars. They applied to these schools and were rejected from all of them. Then they noticed that their non–Asian American classmates with worse scores still got in. “That’s not fair,” they tell the reporter. “Based on my scores, I deserved that spot more than they did.” The obvious conclusion: they were discriminated against because of their race.


Often these students aren’t unconscious that the odds are stacked against them. Companies like Ivy Coach, which offers consulting services to help high school students get into college, emphasize the need for Asian Americans to stand out in the anonymous yellow mob. An Ivy Coach blog post titled “Why Our Asian and Asian American Students So Often Earn Admission” declares, “[While] some might be offended, it doesn’t mean it isn’t true that when many Asian and Asian American applicants come to us, seeking our help, they showcase activities and extracurricular involvements to us that the vast majority of Asian and Asian American applicants choose to present when they apply to college…. The game is about differentiation.”


The game, in other words, is about being Asian American without being Asian American. You might even say it’s about betrayal: of self, of culture, of authenticity. What about students who truly want to become doctors and lawyers, who genuinely enjoy math and science, who happily devote their free time to tennis and piano, and violin? In their efforts to gain admission, Asian American applicants find themselves asked to discard any and all stereotypical characteristics—even those that might be accurate to their experience—in favor of an image that defies every facet of normative classification. And even then, some find it’s not enough.


The pain of rejection, these articles seem to say, is the genesis of the suit. But we might also notice some resonance between the logic these students (and reporters) employ and the logic of material success described by Susan Koshy. In both cases, Asian Americans seek admittance to a system whose rules they believe they have learned and executed. In both cases, they are disappointed when adhering to those rules doesn’t get them the result they’d been promised. They had tried to distinguish themselves from others of their group; they had tried to be exceptional. Too late, they discover that they had been blind to the slippery character of the group they sought to join, its penchant to redefine itself to deny outsiders access no matter how qualified those outsiders have tried to make themselves.


Summarized this way, the situation certainly seems unjust. But which part of the situation is in fact the injustice? Students for Fair Admissions’ argument is based on the idea that Harvard’s admissions have demonstrated to them that playing by the rules is not enough, that even understanding the stereotype of the Asian American student and working against it is not enough. Students for Fair Admissions do not see themselves as operatives working to undermine the system of power—white supremacy—metonymized by Harvard University by taking over its student body. Instead, they see themselves as individuals seeking acceptance by that system of power, even if that acceptance can be attained only by transcending the status of their supposedly inferior racial group (that is, stereotypical Asian Americans) and maligning other minorities. Much like those Asian Americans who achieved material success under capitalism before going to court to request naturalization as white people, students who have done everything right expect to be rewarded with acceptance into Harvard’s ranks as members of an elite whose prestige comes from its association with whiteness.


Their proposed solution—the destruction of affirmative action—would only exacerbate this problem. Asian Americans who advocate for meritocracy operate under the misguided belief that by upholding white supremacy they could one day become members of the ruling class, but abolishing affirmative action will not make that class suddenly accept Asian Americans as their own. As virtually every scholar of Asian American studies has noted, Asian Americans exist in a state of perpetual foreignness. No matter how hard they strive for whiteness, systemic white supremacy ensures that they will only ever approach it asymptotically. The end of affirmative action will not create more opportunities for Asian Americans. It will only make the elite class whiter. It will return that class to the days before diversity initiatives, before any minority student—Asian Americans included—had a seat at the table. Funnily enough, such a result aligns quite neatly with Edward Blum’s vision of an America without civil rights, an America whose greatest privileges are granted to white people and white people only: an America we have struggled for decades to reform.

So perhaps the anger of Students for Fair Admissions and other anti-affirmative action activists is, in fact, misdirected. Perhaps the problem isn’t with the gatekeepers of the institution of elite whiteness, but with the institution of whiteness itself. Perhaps we might first interrogate how, under a white supremacy masked and marked by capitalist ethos, an institution like Harvard has accrued such power and prestige. Why minorities need to attain acceptance by such institutions in order to ensure security and what Jared Sexton calls the “misstated” concept of “survival”? Why such acceptance and security must be fought for against one another?

Those challenges, however, are ones that can be taken up only if Asian Americans ally themselves with other minority groups likewise threatened by white supremacy. And as long as Asian Americans fail to understand that under such a framework they will never be seen as individuals, they will continue to work as willful pawns of the very system against which they should rebel.