Do elite universities discriminate against Asian-Americans?

“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

A Department of Justice investigation found that Yale University was illegally discriminating against Asian-American and white students in its admissions process, officials announced last week.

The case against Yale is the latest step in an ongoing effort from the Trump administration to turn back affirmative action policies that were intended to address racial disparities in education. The Supreme Court has ruled that colleges can give preference to underrepresented minority groups. But the court said race can’t be the “predominant factor” in admissions decisions and barred schools from setting quotas for the number of students it would admit from a particular race.

The DOJ accused Yale of violating those rules by using an admissions system that gives an unfair boost to Black and Latino students — and by extension puts Asian-American and white applicants at a disadvantage. The university called the claims “meritless” and said there are no plans to change its admissions policies at this time.

The case against Yale echoes a similar lawsuit brought against Harvard University that was decided last year. A group of Asian-American students who had been denied acceptance to Harvard sued the school, saying they were held to a higher standard than applicants of other races. In October, a federal judge ruled in Harvard’s favor, though she did acknowledge imbalances in admission rates for Asian applicants.

Why there’s debate

Affirmative action in college admissions has been the source of heated debate for decades. Until recently, however, legal fights had focused on white students who argued they were harmed by policies that gave preference to minority applicants.

The involvement of Asian-American students adds another layer of complexity to the conversation. Asian-Americans are, of course, a minority group and the coronavirus pandemic has provided a harsh reminder of the racism they have faced in the U.S. for generations. At the same time, some argue that Asian-Americans on average are less likely to experience the systemic impacts of racism that affirmative action is meant to address. They have the highest median household income of any racial group in the U.S., for example — higher than whites and more than double Black Americans.

There is a common belief among Asian-American college applicants that, rather than improve their chances, their racial background means they are held to an even higher standard, according to media reports. Harvard admissions data showed that Asian-Americans had a lower acceptance rate because they received lower scores on the “personality” ranking. To some, this provides evidence of the harm caused by the stereotype of the one-dimensional, grade-obsessed Asian-American student. California banned affirmative action in college admissions in 1996. Data suggest that Asian students may have been the biggest beneficiaries of the change. Nevertheless, Asian-Americans are largely supportive of affirmative action programs.

The issue of affirmative action can be complex for Asian-American students. Some Asian students at both Yale and Harvard say they benefited from being part of a diverse student body. Others say Asian-Americans are being pitted against other races and used as a cudgel by conservatives who want to find a legal avenue to tear down all affirmative action policies, but failed to do so while representing white plaintiffs. Some say if affirmative action were to disappear, coveted spots at elite schools would likely go to white students, not Asian-Americans.

What’s next

The ruling in the Harvard case has been appealed and may ultimately end up before the Supreme Court. That may change if Joe Biden wins the presidency and decides not to continue the case. A proposition that would repeal California’s ban on affirmative action will be on the statewide ballot in November.


It’s clear that elite schools discriminate against Asian-Americans

“The Justice Department made legally explicit what everyone has known for a long time: that Asian-Americans especially, but also whites, are discriminated against by the nation’s top universities.” — Gerard Baker, Wall Street Journal

Removing affirmative action wouldn’t help Asian students

“Removal of affirmative action would overwhelmingly benefit white applicants, rather than give Asian Americans a bump.” — Kimmy Yam, NBC News

Asian-Americans are put in a difficult position

“Hence the paradox of affirmative action: though intended to benefit racial minorities at the expense of traditionally privileged whites, the sheer number of academically excellent students of ‘Asian’ heritage means that the system needs some way to push down their numbers. Otherwise there simply won’t be enough spots for other groups.” — William Han, South China Morning Post

The court cases are aimed at dismantling all affirmative action, not helping Asian students

“Reading between the lines, it appears that the Justice Department might be going for a knock-out blow against affirmative action.” — Evan Gerstmann, Forbes

There is bias against Asian-Americans, but it’s not sourced in affirmative action

“It is not surprising that some Asians might think that affirmative action disadvantages them. ...

However, a closer look at the Harvard case shows that bias against Asians is an entirely separate matter.” — Eric J. Chang, San Francisco Chronicle

The focus on college admissions ignores the other ways Asians benefit from affirmative action

“By focusing solely on university admissions, Asian American opponents fail to consider how affirmative action in other domains, such as employment, is needed to break through blocked mobility and the career ceiling they face. College-educated, U.S.-born Asians fall behind their white counterparts in earnings, and also behind all groups in advancement beyond entry-level professional positions.” — Jennifer Lee, Los Angeles Times

The legal cases are mostly intended to appease white people

“It's like ‘Hey if you're stuck at a job or not moving up the economic ladder, your income hasn't increased for decades — you can blame people of color and elites for keeping you out of schools like Yale.’ That's just political messaging for November.” — Michael Li, senior counsel for the Brennan Center for Justice, to Business Insider

Many Asian-Americans benefit from affirmative action

“This is not just a court case about the use of race in college admissions. It is also about whether Asian Americans are a homogeneous, overachieving ‘model minority’ that experiences racism in the form of affirmative action or are a diverse group that experiences disadvantages and therefore needs the policy.” — Nadia Y. Kim, Chronicle of Higher Education

Bias against Asian applicants goes beyond a handful of elite universities

“There are a lot of schools that do what Yale does; namely, give strong and unjustifiable admission preferences to African Americans and Latinos over non-Hispanic whites and Asian Americans.” — Roger Clegg, National Review

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Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: Getty Images