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Should Colleges Have Quotas for Asian Americans?

By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 12, 2004; 3:47 PM

One of the best parts of writing an online column is the conversations that grow out of answering questions from readers. What are at first quick exchanges sometimes turn into long dialogues, from which I learn much from people that I will probably never meet in person.

One of the most interesting and persistent of my online interlocutors is Ed Chin, a physician who lives in northern New Jersey. Chin and I are about the same age, but have different backgrounds. He is the child of non-English-speaking Chinese immigrant parents and grew up in a low-income neighborhood of New York City. I was raised in a relatively prosperous suburb of San Francisco by parents who spoke only English, as have most of our ancestors going back several generations to Ireland and Scotland. Chin attended a very competitive New York City magnet school, while I went to an average suburban high school. We both went to Ivy League colleges, but he enrolled in medical school while I escaped to the newspaper business.

_____About the Author_____
Jay Mathews, a Washington Post education reporter, writes a weekly Class Struggle column exclusively for washingtonpost.com. He also covers school issues in a quarterly column for The Post Magazine. He can be reached via e-mail at mathewsj@washpost.com.
_____Also in Class Struggle_____
Six Ways to Be Happy With Your College Choice (washingtonpost.com, Oct 5, 2004)
The Back Fence Survey: Help Pick the Best High Schools (washingtonpost.com, Sep 28, 2004)
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Our Internet conversations have all been on one topic, how affirmation action in college admissions has hurt students of Asian descent. Chin has studied this subject with an energy and passion that is rare even among the many energetic and passionate people who write me. He has been asking me for years to address this topic. When my occasional swipes at it have not satisfied him, he has asked for more. He has suggested more than once that The Post and I are too politically correct and afraid of the heat that this issue generates.

Hoping to get him off my back, I told Chin I would broach the topic again only if he let me write about him and his views. I did not know of anyone else who argued the case as well as he did, I said, so he had to help me. He values his privacy, and resisted my offer for more than a year, but has now given me permission to publish the Chin doctrine. Here it is, as taken from his e-mails with his preferences on capitalization and punctuation preserved:

One of Chin's favorite examples of the Asian success at overcoming poverty is Princeton physicist Daniel C. Tsui, who won a Nobel Prize in 1998. He was born to a peasant family in a remote village in Henan province in central China, attended school in Hong Kong and then got a college scholarship to Augustana College in Rock Island, Ill., leading to his research at the University of Chicago, Bell Laboratories and Princeton.

There was no affirmative action admission for Tsui, Chin said. "He credits his accomplishments to his Chinese parents' value placed on education, despite the fact that they were illiterate Chinese peasants themselves. These values are stressed by the philosopher, Confucius, in his Analects. That's the main ingredient for his success and his endless striving for academic excellence and his love of knowledge."

Chin quotes with approval a book, "Beyond the Classroom," by Laurence Steinberg, B. Bradford Brown and Sanford M. Dornbusch, which says "of all the demographic factors we studied in relation to school performance, ethnicity was the most important. . . . In terms of school achievement, it is more advantageous to be Asian than to be wealthy, to have non-divorced parents, or to have a mother who is able to stay at home full time."

And yet the recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions on affirmative action preserved the system at most selective private schools in which Asian American students with very high tests scores are passed over in favor of African American and Hispanic students with lower scores because the schools want significant numbers of all ethnicities on campus. Supporters of such policies say a diverse student body helps everyone learn to live in the real world, and there are plenty of other fine colleges that take students, Asian American or otherwise, whom they reject.

Whenever I raised this point, Chin would accuse me, rightly, of shrugging off the American commitment to fair play for individuals. He cited comments made by Abigail Thernstrom, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a Massachusetts state school board member. "I think these racial preferences are very pernicious," she said in an interview on a PBS Web site after voters banned the use of affirmative action based on race in University of California admissions. "I don't think they do black students much good. I think they're poisonous in terms of race relations. And I do not think they are fair to the Asian student, for instance, who has worked very, very hard and is kept out of a Berkeley because a student with a slightly different skin color has gotten in as a consequence of racial identity."

Chin said "Chinese and ALL Asian Americans are PENALIZED for their values on academic excellence by being required to have a HIGHER level of achievement, academic and non-academic, than any other demographic group, especially Whites, in order to be admitted to Harvard, the Ivies and the other Elites in this zero-sum game called admissions based on racial preferences."

This may not be intended as a quota system, but Chin says it sure looks like one. He notes that in the 1980s some colleges, particularly Stanford and Brown, looked hard at their admissions decisions and discovered they were turning down many Asian American applicants while accepting white applicants with virtually the same characteristics. The Brown report admitted to "cultural bias and stereotypes," like the oft-heard canard that Asian American students have 1600 SAT scores and play the violin, but don't do sports.

Chin said if he had the power to change the admission policies of schools that discriminate in this way, he would let them continue to give preference to athletes, musicians, alumni children and any other groups the college wished to favor. And he would admit lower-scoring students whose parents, like his, did not have much money. But he would abolish all preferences based on race and ethnicity.

He noted the recent estimate by Harvard humanities professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. that two thirds of blacks at Harvard were not descendants of American slaves, but the middle class children of relatively recent immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa. "Why should they deserve admission with lowered standards (relatively speaking) based solely on the color of their skin over a high achieving Asian American living in a Chinatown ghetto or a Black ghetto (many Asians live in Black and Latino ghettos) or a poor white from the slums of NYC?" Chin said.

The solution to the problem of lower average achievement among African Americans and Hispanics is not "the Band-Aid approach of race-based affirmative action," Chin said. "It is solved by improving the K-12 schools for the lower economic classes which are disproportionately Black and Latino."

Chin always ends his e-mails to me with the words "comments please" or "any comments?" So I am obliged to respond.

I had the good fortune to live and work in China for four years, and have spent half of my life studying Chinese culture. I think it is one of the greatest accomplishments of the human race, with its emphasis on learning, family, creativity and hard work. It is a thrill for me to see what people raised in that culture have achieved in this country, free of the fear and oppression that China is still struggling to rid itself of.

I am convinced that one reason why Chin's well-reasoned complaints have not led to massive demonstrations and legislative reform is that the students of Asian descent who are rejected by the Ivies get educations just as good in other colleges. College admissions cannot be fair for anyone when, as happens at some schools, there are ten applicants for every place in the freshman class. The test score differences that Chin emphasizes are only one measure of quality, and although they predict college grades fairly well, they don't have that much to do with success in life.

But there is one part of his argument, a reference to a sad era in American history, that is hard to ignore. Many selective colleges before World War II had quotas on Jews. They turned down many brilliant applicants in favor of non-Jewish prep school students with lesser records. They didn't call this striving for diversity, but it was a perverse form of affirmative action, and it left a bitter taste for decades.

Chin calculates that with those quotas gone, about a third of Harvard undergraduates are Jews, who make up about 3 percent of the U.S. population. About 17 percent of Harvard undergraduates are Asians, who make up about 4 percent of the population. Since the percentage of Asian Americans at schools of comparable quality that do not practice affirmative action are much higher -- 40 percent at Berkeley, 50 percent at selective New York high schools such as Stuyvesant -- Chin says the Asian American percentage at Harvard and other Ivies would go up significantly if the rules were changed.

I am not so sure. All of us, including admissions committee members, are human. We have plenty of other ill-considered biases that have not been rooted out and could affect these numbers.

But however that works out, Chin feels it is only right and fair and better serves the cause of vibrant and interesting campuses if admissions officers stopped giving preferences based on race, and instead tried to admit more young people whose parents are not affluent and did not go to college, people less like me and more like Daniel C. Tsui.


© 2004 Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive


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