Her fingers flitted across the paper seal, trembling around the hallowed crest. She stuck her finger in and tore. Hard. The consequence of this letter would be the culmination of 18 years of hard work; academic achievement, extracurricular leadership, and careful self-reflection. Here lies the initial gatekeeper- admission to a “top” school in America.
But who is she? Her identity, her story, and her family circumstances determine the path of this narrative.
College admissions. For some, this is a moment of fear, nervousness, indeed of competition: a desire to boast of their accomplishments, and a means of increasing their personal brand. For others, these papers quite literally would serve as the step stools to a future in a world where the barrier to educational entry is as high as the ivory tower itself. Who is she? An Indian-American teenager who grew up in an affluent suburb in the Silicon Valley with a contrived desire to prove something to her community? Or a diligent Latina young woman, who is relying on this admission to open the gateway for her to support her financially struggling family?
The recent movement against affirmative action by a coalition of Asian American students has taken the news by storm. Students for Fair Admissions, a conglomerate of several anonymous Asian-American students rejected by Harvard, claim that they are being discriminated against on the basis of race. They cite evidence that Asian American students face penalties solely because of their race, and that candidates with near perfect profiles are rejected in favor of less accomplished peers from other racial groups. They find in an analysis of over 150,000 student documents that Asian-American students are rated lower in terms of personality qualities like leadership, courage, and kindness. This racial stereotyping and dialogue surrounding Asian-Americans and their work ethic is considered dangerous, even by affirmative action supporters.
However, scholars say much of this fanfare is unfounded. The population of Asian-American students is significantly higher in elite colleges when you compare their overall national population. Schools like UCLA and UC Berkeley, which have done away with race-based affirmative action, have skyrocketing numbers of Asian students at the expense of Black and Latin-X ones. Critics argue that SFFA chair Richard Blum, a conservative strategist, is using Asian-Americans as his project to achieve ulterior motives. By pitting racial minorities against each other, there is a vested attempt to topple all race-based admissions.
Doing away with race as a factor in college admissions scares me. Higher education is the gatekeeper of a path towards racial equity, for many historically and systematically oppressed groups. While I can’t speak to the backgrounds of each of the students filing the case, I can say that growing up in the Silicon Valley painted a narrative of college admissions to me, similar to the plaintiffs in the case. Dinner party conversation would center around children’s educational ambitions, talk would quickly turn to how these hidden “quota systems” discriminated against us. Indian-American families living in posh neighborhoods with the money to hire private essay editors discussed these issues, quick to self-victimize.
It would be disingenuous for me to tout my “wokeness” without acknowledging that I, too, bought into the narrative that the cards were stacked against me. As an Indian-American woman from California, I thought the model minority myth would override my personal story. I readily argued that I had to try harder solely because of my race. Reflecting back on my views then, I am appalled and disgusted by my thoughts, actions, and discourse.
Affirmative action serves a role in our society to empower the disempowered. These laws are gatekeepers that serve to attempt to rectify the state of racial affairs in our country. Co-opting the narrative and failing to acknowledge the institutionalized discrimination that manifests through the exploitation of minorities, stagnant economic mobility, and opportunity barriers is the most insidious and horrifying part of this debate. Minority students, by large, suffer from educational inequality, with two-thirds of minority Americans attending high schools that are predominantly minority. These schools face a significant lack of funding, teacher shortages, and lower-quality curricula. How can students from these school-districts compete with wealthy students? They don’t have the funding to do cancer research, they can’t volunteer at a Congressman’s office if it’s two hours away, they can’t win speech and debate championships without the funding for a coach. We have to understand that the competiveness of college applications ultimately comes down to a question of access. Race is largely determinative of the access and privilege one has.
And Asian-Americans are by no means excluded from a dialogue about racial discrimination. The danger of this argument is the idea that all Asian-Americans come from culturally privileged backgrounds. While Asian-Americans are the wealthiest ethnic minority, they also have the highest rising level of income inequality. These low income Asian- American students are impacted by the affirmative action conversation, and they are the least likely to get into universities like Harvard of any other low-income racial minority. However, the narrative spun by students who are party to this lawsuit is one of embittered, wealthy Asian-Americans. Studies show that getting rid of affirmative action wouldn’t actually help Asian students in the admissions process and would hurt other minorities at large. We must recognize who has access and who needs a platform, even within racial minority groups. Affirmative action, while not perfect, is important to recognize the unique challenges that students face on account of their identity.
I am not a victim. I cannot speak for the rest of my race, my ethnic group, or my gender. But I, growing up with abundant educational opportunities, would have been successful regardless of the college I went to. My privilege afforded me that. Let’s talk about the real issues, not just college admissions, but the institutional barriers underneath that. And let’s use this time of conversation to create a platform for those who really do need it.
Swathi Ramprasad is a sophomore at Duke University studying Public Policy and Computer Science. She hopes to continue to learn through the lens of her Indian-American heritage.