Earlier in June, a lawsuit against Harvard University alleged that the university discriminates against Asian American applicants by ranking them lower on personality traits.
Personality is one of the four declared areas that Harvard’s holistic review examines in each applicant, making it a significant factor in admittance to the school. Court documents further revealed that Asian American bias was once investigated and discovered in 2013, but Harvard took no action on the findings.
Within college admissions, race especially has a complicated history with the implementation of affirmative action, an initiative taken to bolster diversity within universities by giving special consideration to underrepresented groups.
Underrepresented groups typically consist of racial minorities and those lower in socioeconomic status, yet despite being a racial minority, Asians are not considered underrepresented.
Data from the Pew Research Center reveals that while 28% of all U.S. adults have a college degree, 49% of Asian Americans have college degrees.
There exist endless explanations for why Asian Americans do not struggle with educational attainment, including parenting, the instilling of a superior work ethic, and the lesser degree of discrimination that Asian Americans face.
Though these potential reasons may contain kernels of truth, the ultimate issue is whether individuals from a racial group should be penalized by higher institutions for the success of their group.
This issue of representation is wildly controversial, given the perspectives that need to be considered, and there lies no easy or obvious moral solution. Yet the most unsettling aspect of this lawsuit against Harvard is not that discrimination exists. It is the way in which the university’s alleged discrimination manifests—in the personality element.
Within current society, discrimination undeniably exists, whether it is outright or discreet or systematic. However, we attempt to trust that a system as monumental and sacred as college admissions shields itself against common stereotypes, like the ones that deem Asians as competent but lacking in warmth and social skills.
A recent Asian American graduate from New York University, who declined to be named, described Harvard’s attempt to justify the consistently lower ratings as an attempt to
“underscore the semblance of Asian Americans as exceedingly studious and concomitantly lacking in any semblance of an interesting or unique personality.”
This supposed observation can be summarized by the term “standard strong,” most often applied to Asian American applicants, denoting an applicant’s lack of distinguishing features that warrant admission.
“My parents, along with numerous other Asian American families across America, recognized the need for their kids to be ‘different’ before their children were born,” Anonymous explained. He continued,
“And yet no matter how different my generation tried to be, no matter how much of a ‘personality’ we tried to cultivate, we somehow managed to only be ‘standard strong’ by the time we submitted our applications.”
Anonymous’ intention is not to say that racial diversity is not something to be upheld and valued, rather that “there is simply no need to pit minority group against minority group in the ever-upward struggle towards the ‘American Dream.’”
As discouraging as the reality that the lawsuit contends is, it is imperative to recognize the difficulty in reversing socialized tendencies like widely unchallenged racist stereotypes.
Harvard admissions officers must already understand the weight that comes with their decisions, in terms of others’ livelihoods and an immense reputation to be upheld. In all the murkiness though, Anonymous still said,
“But I’m confident that no matter what [the ruling is], we’re at least moving forward in the right direction.”