By Julie J. Park, Ph.D.
When I reviewed the Harvard lawsuit claiming discrimination against Asian Americans, I braced myself for the worst. What great injustices would they uncover?
Instead, I mainly saw statistics that were taken out of context. Over and over, the lawsuit cites the infamous study by Princeton professor Thomas Espenshade to claim that there is clear statistical evidence that Asian Americans are being discriminated against. However, Professor Espenshade himself recently told the Harvard Crimson: “I stop short of saying that Asian-American students are being discriminated against in the college application process because we don’t have sufficient empirical evidence to support that claim.” In 2009, referring to the same study he stated, “I understand the worry of Asian students, but do I have a smoking gun? No.”
Here in the United States, we want to open the door for those who have a strong chance at success when they demonstrate talent and achievement, even when their test scores are not at the absolute top. For example, former U.S. Secretary of State and Stanford University professor Condoleezza Rice was an outstanding high school student, but she did not score well on the PSAT. In her memoir she commented that “my own experience has led me to be rather suspicious of the predictive power of standardized tests.” She has stated on record,” I’ve been a supporter of affirmative action that is not quota based and that does not seek to make race the only factor, but that considers race as one of many factors.”
Affirmative action is not discriminating against Asian American through quotas or enrollment caps; it is opening the door to spot talent that does not always show up in test scores. It is recognizing that certain ethnic groups are more likely to have access to resources like SAT tutoring. For instance, over half of Korean American students take SAT tutoring, which far outpaces other groups. Affirmative action considers how both race and economic circumstances shape educational opportunity, and is a tool to help make sure that there are low-income and middle-income students of ALL races on campus.
There is widespread support for affirmative action among Asian Americans in the U.S.; national polling data points to 69% of Asian Americans supporting affirmative action. When there was a recent complaint filed against Harvard, over 135 leading Asian American community organizations signed a letter voicing their support for affirmative action.
Some believe that minority students at elite colleges are ill-equipped to handle the rigors of college work. However, the average SAT score for a African-American student at Harvard in 2013 was 1400 (on the 1600 scale), hardly a low score. I understand why some Asian Americans are shocked that anyone with near-perfect SAT scores and grades could be rejected by Harvard. But when Harvard rejects 95% of students, there are going to be very talented students of all races who are rejected.
There are Asian American students who have very strong test scores who will not get into Harvard, but will probably get into another great college (I know, I was one of them. I wonder if students who are upset about their rejections ever consider that there are also Asian Americans with lower SAT scores who do get admitted to Harvard, as alum Jeff Yang recalled in his story of how he got into Harvard. His experience shows how Harvard is somewhat mysterious in its search for the best and brightest: Its admissions committee knows that test scores and GPAs don’t tell the whole story of a student. I know that this may seem strange to the rest of the world, but I have no doubt that American society is better off for it.
Julie J. Park, Ph.D. is assistant professor of education at the University of Maryland, College Park. A widely published expert on affirmative action and race/ethnicity in higher education, she is the author of the book “When Diversity Drops: Race, Religion, and Affirmative Action in Higher Education.” More about Asian Americans and affirmative action is featured at http://www.asianamericancivilrights.org
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