Asian Americans and the Affirmative Action Debate in the United States

  • Mitchell James ChangEmail author
Living reference work entry


The controversy over the discrimination of Asian American applicants in college admissions in the United States has returned with even higher stakes. Unlike the complaints filed in the 1980s, the current set also targets the elimination of race-conscious admissions practices that were implemented to increase enrollment of underrepresented students at elite institutions, including those from African American and Latino populations. The purpose of this chapter is to make sense of this recurring admissions controversy by applying a critical race analysis toward interpreting the sociohistorical roots that animate this controversy. The results of this analysis undermine the characterization of those institutions as color-blind engines of upward mobility and instead portray them as guardians of dispensing and protecting the privileges accompanying whiteness. Broader implications of those findings for achieving greater racial equity and justice are discussed.


Asian American Race conscious admissions Affirmative action White privilege Critical race Selective admissions White supremacy Elitism U.S. Office of Civil Rights 


In the United States, Asian Americans have “become the immigrant group that most embodies the American promise of success driven by will and resolve,” declared cultural critic Lee Siegel (2012) writing for The Wall Street Journal. (I intentionally use the label Asian Americans as opposed to other racial or ethnic labels because I believe that this one is still meaningful. It emerged in the late 1960s to signal a pan-Asian solidarity that rejected old labels and made assertive claims to American belonging. The goal to achieve a new humanity and new humanism through empowered identities in the 1960s is still incomplete, however, and this struggle remains relevant today.) He noted that Asian Americans are now the country’s best-educated, highest-earning, and fastest-growing racial group. With such “breathtaking success,” he considered it peculiar that “Americans” don’t share the fears once expressed by Tom Buchanan, the racist bully character in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, who worried that “the white race will be utterly submerged” if “we don’t look out.” Siegel speculated that perhaps “physiognomies” and “a deeply ingrained modesty” have “kept most Asian-American groups away from the public glare and thus out of the cross hairs of American bias and hatred.” He questioned, however, how long “they will be able to resist attracting the furies of fear and envy.”

If Siegel were a more astute observer of what he termed the “Rise of the Tiger Nation,” he would have noticed that Asian Americans have indeed been recurrent targets of racial panic and their pursuit of the “American Dream” has not been a magic carpet ride. Curiously, Siegel pointed to one example of this racial panic, noting that “threatened elites at Ivy League schools like Harvard and Yale … stand accused of discrimination against Asian-American students who, according to recent studies, must score higher than whites on standardized tests to win a golden ticket of admission.” However, Siegel brushed this issue aside as merely a minor impediment that has not stood in the way of what he described as Asian Americans’ “astounding success.”

If this admissions problem for Asian Americans were merely a trivial issue that is nothing more than an insignificant footnote in an otherwise compelling model minority success narrative, this admissions problem would have been settled in the 1980s. During the early part of that decade, Asian American activists initiated and advanced claims of discrimination in undergraduate admissions against U.C., Berkeley, Brown, Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and UCLA (Takagi 1992). Thirty years later, a similar set of complaints has been filed in a lawsuit but, this time, by a different set of even better organized coalitions who have added the elimination of race-conscious admissions to their agenda.

The purpose of this manuscript is to make sense of this persistent admissions controversy in the United States, which has pressed Asian Americans into the service of particular political agendas. To do this, I examine the link between race and political, economic, and social issues in contemporary United States to uncover deeper meaning underlying this admissions controversy. I first provide a brief backdrop of this controversy then draw from sociohistorical patterns of admissions and critical race theory to reinterpret the complex set of issues surrounding it, which serves to redefine the fundamental issues that contextualize this recurrent social problem.

Admissions Discrimination Charges

Asian American enrollment into those few select institutions of higher education that consistently rank on the very top of popular national rankings, or what I will generally refer to in this chapter as elite institutions (i.e., Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Michigan, etc.), grew at an extraordinary pace, nearly tripling their proportion of the undergraduate enrollment between 1976 and 1985 (Karabel 2005). By the early 1980s, however, another peculiar trend was spotted. Although the number of Asian Americans applying to elite institutions had been rising every year, their admission rate at those campuses was actually dropping. Accordingly, complaints were filed, which resulted in formal investigations conducted by the Office of Civil Rights of the Department of Education (OCR) beginning in 1988. Dana Takagi (1992), whose book The Retreat from Race examined this controversy, pointed to three basic complaints filed during the 1980s. One was that Asian American applicants had lower admission rates than their white counterparts. Another was that enrollments of Asian Americans at those elite institutions had not risen in proportion to increases in the number of Asian American applicants. Third, university officials used illegal quotas and ceilings to limit Asian American enrollment.

In the Fall of 1990, OCR cleared Harvard of discrimination. Although OCR noted that Asian American applicants had been admitted at a significantly lower rate between the years of 1979 and 1988 than similarly qualified white applicants, Takagi (1992) noted they did not attribute this disparity to discriminatory policies or procedures. Instead, OCR concluded that the lower admission rate for Asian applicants was due to plus factors (legacy and athletics) that tipped in favor of whites. According to Karabel (2005), OCR considered the preferences for children of alumni and recruited athletes to be “legitimate institutional goals” and, subsequently, protected university officials’ wide discretion with respect to the manner of selecting students. While OCR concluded that Harvard could justify those disparities, UCLA could not. According to Takagi, OCR ordered UCLA to make belated admissions offers to five Asian applicants who were rejected although their academic records were comparable to white students who had been admitted. The outcome of those investigations hardly settled the controversy, which has returned more recently with even higher stakes.

On May 23, 2016, the Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE) filed a complaint (AACE 2016) charging that Yale University, Brown University, and Dartmouth College engaged in unlawful discrimination against Asian American applicants in their undergraduate admissions process. The AACE, a coalition that was formed in 2015 to “achieve equal education rights for Asian Americans” (, noted that their complaint was joined by 130 other concerned Asian American organizations and “Asian Americans students who, because of their race, were unfairly rejected by these Institutions because of such unlawful use of race in the admissions process and/or who seek the opportunity to apply for admission to these Institutions without being discriminated against because of their race” (p. 2). They charged that:

The evidence is overwhelming that the Ivy League Colleges discriminate severely against Asian-American applicants, placing them at a disadvantage vis-a-vis individuals of all other races. The holistic approach to evaluating applicants utilized by these Institutions is implicated in the discrimination. There therefore must be an objective investigation into how the Ivy League Colleges use their holistic admissions procedures to discriminate, and into what safeguards should be put into place to ensure that this unlawful discrimination ends. (p. 19)

Those unfamiliar with this controversy might find it odd that two of the most selective Ivy League colleges, Harvard and Princeton, were not listed in the AACE complaint. Those two institutions, however, were among the first to receive formal complaints against them. Regarding complaints that Princeton discriminates against Asian American applicants, the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) in a letter (September 9, 2015) addressed to the institution’s President, Christopher Eisgruber, noted that after conducting a compliance review of the university’s consideration of race and national origin, which began in January 2008, “OCR determined that there was insufficient evidence to substantiate that the University violated Title VI or its implementing regulation with regard to the issue investigated” (p. 1). Earlier that year in July 2015, OCR dismissed parallel complaints that were filed in May 2015 against Harvard because a similar case is pending in federal courts (Lorin 2015).

That lawsuit, filed by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), seeks to more broadly prohibit Harvard from engaging in intentional discrimination on the basis of race and ethnicity (SFFA 2015). According to their website (, SFFA is a “membership group of more than 20,000 students, parents, and others who believe that racial classifications and preferences in college admissions are unfair, unnecessary, and unconstitutional.” Among their members is an Asian American student with a demonstrated extraordinary academic record and high school extracurricular activities but was denied admissions to Harvard in 2014. Apparently representing such members, SFFA charged in its brief that:

Harvard intentionally discriminates against Asian-American applicants. This discrimination is shown through both direct and circumstantial evidence, including statistical studies of Harvard’s admissions decisions. These studies confirm what Asian-American applicants and their parents already know: Harvard intentionally and artificially limits the number of Asian Americans to whom it will offer admission. (at 200)

While the recent complaints are basically the same as those filed decades earlier, one major difference stands out. Unlike previous complaints, the current set points more directly to race-conscious admissions practices and the interest in “racial balancing” as the main source of the problem and, subsequently, seeks to eliminate such practices. For example, SFFA (2014) claimed that Harvard’s violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 entitles the plaintiff to a permanent injunction prohibiting Harvard from using race as a factor in future undergraduate admissions decisions. Likewise, AACE (2016) maintained in its complaint that Asian Americans have:

been adversely and unlawfully affected by race-based affirmative action in college admissions, we do not support its continuation or application beyond the strict limits set by the United States Supreme Court. We believe economic-condition-based affirmative action in college admissions is a better alternative to the current race-based approach because it would be fair and would target individuals who are actually disadvantaged (rather than just members of a particular race). (p. 26)

The targeting of race-conscious admissions as the primary source of discrimination against Asian Americans is a continuation of an established political agenda. Takagi (1992) maintained that:

Between 1989 and 1990, various conservatives and neoconservatives argued that discrimination against Asians was the direct and inevitable result of racial preferences for blacks. In essence, neoconservatives forced Asian Americans and university officials into a reconstructed debate over affirmative action. (p. 139)

Takagi chronicled this deliberative apportionment of Asian American students as the new victims of affirmative action, which re-casted the admissions complaints as a continuation of reverse discrimination toward whites. Accordingly, Takagi maintained, “Asian Americans were pressed into the service of a broader critique of diversity” (p. 117). She added:

The emergence of a “good”—Asian—suffering discrimination as a result of preferences for “underrepresented minorities”—that is, blacks and Hispanics—offered liberals a difficult choice; scrap affirmative action or change it. (p. 176)

As Takagi warned, the controversy over Asian American admissions confronts liberalism with the difficult task of “reconciling equality of individual opportunity with equality of group opportunity in the zero-sum game of admissions” (p. 169). The inability to reconcile those principles has worked in favor of those calling to eliminate affirmative action. Yet, as this controversy evolved over time, it has also concealed more deeply rooted interests that serve to undermine racial progress for Asian Americans in the long run.

In the next sections, I examine past admissions practices at elite colleges and universities to uncover the sociohistorical roots that animate this controversy concerning Asian American admissions. I then apply a critical race framework to make sense of those sociohistorical patterns. Lastly, I discuss the implications from this analysis to illuminate the efforts that seek to press Asian Americans into the service of eliminating race-conscious admissions practices.

Guarding White Privilege

Elite institutions of higher education are widely regarded as occupying an extraordinarily special place in US society. In his study of privilege, Khan (2011) noted, “One of the best predictors of your earnings is your level of education; attending an elite educational institution increases your wages even further… elite schooling is central to becoming an elite …” (p. 7). To understand better the meaning of their elite status and contribution to elitism in US society, it is instructive to point to Jerome Karabel’s findings in his book The Chosen (2005). His study is perhaps the most rigorous sociohistorical examination of admissions ever undertaken of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. While the study is limited to the “Big Three” because they graduate a disproportionally high number of the “American elite” (p. 3), the findings are especially relevant given the recent lawsuit and complaints filed against Ivy League institutions.

While it is well known that the Big Three have a repugnant history of discrimination, Karabel’s account of their exclusionary practices is especially discerning because it connects those practices directly to each institution’s interest in guarding admissions for whites only. For example, he pointed to modifications in the admissions criteria made in the 1920s among the Big Three, which shifted away from admitting students entirely on the basis of scholastic performance. This shift was implemented to address stark increases in the enrollment of Jews or what was referred to as the “Jewish problem” and intended to restore the Big Three’s protection of privilege for White Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASPs), which defined whiteness. As expressed by W. F. Williams, a Harvard alumnus, in a letter he sent on December 17, 1925, to then President of Harvard, Lawrence Lowell, which Karabel quoted at length and is worth doing so as well here:

There were Jews to the right of me, Jews to the left of me, in fact they were so obviously everywhere that … left (me) with a feeling of utter disgust of the present and grave doubts about the future of my Alma Mater… I cannot but feel that your New England blood must run cold when you contemplate their ever-increasing numbers at Harvard but what I cannot fathom is why you and the other Overseers don’t have the backbone to put you (sic) foot down on this menace to the University. It is self-evident, therefore, that by raising the standard of marks he (Jews) can’t be eliminated from Harvard, whereas by the same process of raising the standard “White” boys ARE eliminated… Are the Overseers so lacking in genius that they can’t devise a way to bring Harvard back to the position it always held as a “white man’s” college? (p. 105)

Rather than be appalled by such a letter that unapologetically guards admissions for whites, Karabel wrote that Lowell told Williams that he was “glad to see from your letter, as I have from many other signs, that the alumni are beginning to appreciate that I was not wholly wrong three years ago in trying to limit the proportion of Jews” (p. 109).

By the Fall of 1926, a new admissions regime was set in place at Harvard, one that, according to Karabel, would emphasize “character” – “a quality thought to be in short supply among Jews but present in abundance among high-status Protestants” (p. 2) and was thought to be “in accordance with the probable value of a college education … to the university, and the community” (p. 108). Similar admissions practices that considered nonacademic factors were also adopted at Princeton and Yale. Remarkably, such “plus factors” are still being applied to admit students at all three institutions.

Karabel’s sociohistorical account shows that the three most elite institutions of higher education in the United States and arguably in the world have, at least in the past, excluded certain groups by approaching admissions in two distinct ways that bitterly guarded the privileges bestowed by those institutions to their graduates. First, those institutions intentionally altered their admissions practices to favor white applicants. In other words, they altered the rules to determine who was or was not “white enough” to enjoy those privileges accompanying whiteness. Second, they grudgingly guarded those privileges by applying nonacademic factors in judging applicants, which on the surface appeared to be race blind but was coded in whiteness. In other words, they employed plus factors that appeared on the surface to be race blind but actually tipped in favor of white applicants, concealing their interests in reproducing white privilege.

The practice of un-leveling the playing field in deceptive ways that further advantage and privilege whites is a well-documented and long-standing pattern in the United States. In Cheryl Harris’ groundbreaking article titled Whiteness as Property (1993), she argued that American law protects settled expectations based on white privilege, which forms the background against which legal disputes are framed, argued, and adjudicated. Through a rigorous historical and legal analysis, she traced, for example, how “slavery as a system of property facilitated the merger of white identity and property” (p. 1721). Those and similar laws set in place a legal recognition of property interest coded in whiteness, which subsequently reinforced white privilege and reproduced black subordination. According to Harris, the:

… relative economic, political, and social advantages dispensed to whites under systematic white supremacy in the United States were reinforced through patterns of oppression of Blacks and Native Americans. Materially, these advantages became institutionalized privileges, and ideologically, they became part of the settled expectations of whites …. (p. 1777)

Even today, Harris maintained, the courts regularly fail to “… expose the problem of substantive inequality in material terms produced by white domination and race segregation” (p. 1753).

Although Harris did not directly implicate elite colleges and universities, Karabel’s sociohistorical account clearly shows that those institutions have advanced what Harris called “the institutional protection of benefits for whites that have been based on white supremacy” (p. 1767). Institutions with the capacity to do this, Harris argued, are “bound up by those essential features that afford them great power (p. 1761),” which include the exclusive rights to exclude and determine rules in ways that reproduce white privilege. Harris explained that:

The possessors of whiteness were granted the legal right to exclude others from the privileges inhering in whiteness; whiteness became an exclusive club whose membership was closely and grudgingly guarded—determining who was or was not white enough to enjoy the privileges accompanying whiteness. (p. 1736)

Because elite colleges and universities operate within a system that is historically rooted in reproducing white privilege and are also highly selective and, by definition, exclusive, Harris’ critique ostensibly applies to those institutions as well. Thus, Harris’ framework challenges us to make new meaning of those elite institutions. They are more than simply engines for promoting upward social mobility, which is how they are often characterized, but also play a determining role in dispensing and protecting material advantages for whites. Since the latter characterization of elite institutions is quite provocative and those institutions have been transformed over the past century, the next section considers the extent to which they have abandoned their role in dispensing and protecting the privileges accompanying whiteness.

The Persistent Bond Between Whiteness and Privilege

Indeed, the Big Three have been transformed over the last century from what Karabel called “the enclaves of the Protestant upper class into institutions with a striking degree of racial, ethnic, and religious diversity” (p. 536). For example, Asian Americans are now overrepresented in the student body at those elite institutions relative to their proportion in the US population. Even Karabel acknowledged that in “virtually all the major institutions of American life, WASP men were now a small and beleaguered minority …” (p. 536).

Karabel claimed that the Big Three are “well aware that it is possible to overinvest in traditional elites, especially when they show signs of decline” (p. 545). Unless the Big Three can appear to make real the American Dream of upward mobility through education, Karabel maintained it would bring into question the legitimacy of those institutions:

… the legitimacy of the American social order depended in good part on the public’s confidence that the pathways to success provided by the nation’s leading universities were open to individuals from all walks of life. (p 543)

Thus, diversifying their student body enabled elite universities not only to remain legitimate but also to benefit from enrolling “rising social groups” such as Asian Americans who can add to the prominence of those institutions especially in emerging fields of science and technology (p. 545).

Although the Big Three provided the “appearance” of equal opportunity by making available scholarships and widely publicizing efforts to recruit a racial and ethnically diverse student body, Karabel argued that in truth, enrollment is “a realistic possibility only for those young men and women whose families endow them with the type of cultural capital implicitly required for admission,” which “is heavily concentrated among the scions of the privileged” (p. 549). Thus, he claimed that beneath this dramatic and highly visible change in the physiognomy of the student body was a surprising degree of stability in one crucial regard – the privileged class origins of students at the Big Three.

As Karabel argued, diversifying the student body does not necessarily mean that elite universities have forsaken their deeply rooted interest in protecting white privilege. To be sure, Karabel showed that even though the Big Three slowly transformed their admissions practices from emphasizing hereditary privilege into merit, “the qualities that came to define ‘merit’ tend to be attributes most abundantly possessed by dominant social groups” (p. 549). Not only was the standard for merit broadened to consider individual talent and accomplishments beyond scholastic achievements, including athletic talent in such sports as rowing, field hockey, sailing, golf, squash, fencing, and others that systematically favor the privileged, but also considered meritorious were connections to powerful external constituencies, including alumni. Karabel reported that “While the percentage of legacies in the entering class has gone down over the past decade, the relative admissions advantage for legacy applicants has actually increased” (p. 550). Given the history of systematic exclusion in the Big Three that shaped the composition of the alumni, this is a clear added advantage for a group that is predominantly wealthy and white. Thus, although those institutions may no longer be racially exclusive, they still excluded in ways that favor whiteness and thereby continued to guard the privileges accompanying whiteness.

This unchecked preference for white students is not simply a matter of past history. As part of the recent lawsuit discussed earlier filed against Harvard, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA 2015) pointed to “decisive statistical evidence that Harvard discriminates against Asian American applicants”:

… Asian Americans needed SAT scores that were about 140 points higher than white students, all other quantifiable variables being equal, to get into elite schools. Thus, if a white student needed a 1320 SAT score to be admitted to one of these schools, an Asian American needed a 1460 SAT score to be admitted. That is a massive penalty …. (at 208)

Moreover, SFFA allege that Asians would be 43% of the admitted class if Harvard considered academics alone, but instead, Harvard’s holistic approach using plus factors for nonacademic characteristic drops Asians all the way down to 19% (Richwine 2018). Similarly, the complaint filed by the Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE) in 2016 also pointed out that “Asian applicants have 67% lower odds of admission than white applicants with comparable test scores” (p. 13). Such charges about tipping admissions in favor of white applicants over Asian ones were also at the core of the OCR investigations conducted in the 1980s.

Those complaints pointing to white advantage are remarkably consistent with the admissions pattern documented by Karabel. According to him, the Big Three have always tilted in favor of the privileged. While they might slightly alter their admissions practices to remain socially relevant, they have a vested interest in maintaining the social order and their position in it, so there is little reason to believe that this preference will change anytime soon. Similarly, Harris also argued that US laws historically have cemented advantages for whites and those privileges were reproduced through institutional power to exercise exclusionary practices that limited access to those key institutions. Therefore, as long as the exclusionary practices of elite colleges and universities continue to be coded in favor of whiteness and those institutions retain exclusive rights to determine who is or is not white enough to enjoy the privileges accompanying whiteness, they will invariably reproduce the position of whites at the very top of the social order.

Indeed, a common practice that has largely defined the identity of institutions that are well positioned to dispense the privileges accompanying whiteness, according to Harris, is that they all grudgingly guard their exclusive rights both to exclude and establish rules to determine who was or was not white enough to enjoy those privileges (p. 1761). Fittingly, the Big Three have actively guarded those rights, especially when it comes to protecting the autonomy to set their own admissions standards. As an example of how they fiercely guard their rights so that they can continue to set the standards for exclusion, Karabel pointed to their defense of race-conscious admissions. According to him, their defense of race-conscious admissions “went well beyond the issues of blacks and other minorities; it raised the specter of an encroachment on the institutional discretion that Harvard believed indispensable to the protection of vital institutional interests” (p. 489). Harvard was involved in every single challenge to race-conscious admissions to reach the US Supreme Court, and at the heart of their defense of such practices, according to Karabel, was that to flourish, colleges and universities should be accorded freedom from external influence and intrusion (p. 492). The US Supreme Court agreed and allowed universities to retain their historic discretion and independence, upholding Harvard’s admission policy as a “model of how to consider race within the bounds of the law and the Constitution” (p 498).

That the racial representation of the student body and to a much lesser extent the faculty on elite institutions have changed, according to Harris, only indicates that not “all whites will win, but simply that they will not lose …” (p.1759). “Of course, there’s still diversity,” one Ivy alumnus was quoted as saying in a New York Times article (Yazigi 1999) concerning eating clubs at Princeton, “About 20 percent. They are there to make the other 80% show they are democratic and feel more superior.” Unless the rights of those elite institutions to practice exclusion with impunity is challenged, Harris maintained, they will continue to dispense privileges in ways that are coded in favor of whiteness, reproducing the social order.

Pursuing Whiteness

Harris and Karabel’s insights shed a new light on the discrimination complaints concerning Asian American admissions. By making clear the role of elite higher education in cementing the durable bond between whiteness and privilege, their insights raise serious questions about the meaning Asian Americans have generally attributed to those elite colleges and universities. Clearly, Asian Americans recognize the distinctive role of those institutions as a training ground for achieving the American Dream of upward mobility, as evidenced by their increasing application to and enrollment in elite colleges and universities. Their faith in and love affair with a very select group of institutions is illustrated well by Jeff Yang (2014), who confessed that:

… to my parents, it wasn’t enough for me to just go to college. There was only one school they saw as a fitting goal, and it was the reason they came to America, my mother said, hoping that one day they would have kids who would grow up to attend it. That was Harvard University, the only school whose brand name shone brightly enough to reach across the waters to Taiwan. Other schools might offer a more dynamic curriculum, better access to senior faculty, a greater amount of financial aid. None of that mattered. To them, it was Hafu Daxue or bust.

Likewise, Amy Chua (2011) quipped that the US-born children of Chinese immigrants followed a remarkably common pattern as they:

… will typically be high-achieving. They will usually play the piano and/or violin. They will attend an Ivy League or Top Ten university. They will tend to be professionals—lawyers, doctors, bankers, television anchors—and surpass their parents in income … If they are female, they will often marry a white person. (p. 29)

While both Yang and Chua’s remarks suggest that the pursuit of elite college admissions among Asian Americans as a pathway to success is racially coded, Harris’ framework adds even more meaning to this racial coding. She reminds us that success is primarily coded in whiteness because material privileges such as owning property and gaining membership into elite institutions have historically been reserved for only whites, and subsequently, “Becoming white meant gaining access to a whole set of public and private privileges that materially and permanently guaranteed basic subsistence needs and, therefore, survival” (p. 1713). Because elite institutions play a key role in dispensing the privileges accompanying whiteness and lean in favor of admitting those who are “white enough” as discussed earlier, this dogged pursuit of admissions among Asian Americans into elite institutions can be understood generally as a keen interest in obtaining the set of assumptions, privileges, and benefits that accompany the status of being white. In other words, obtaining credentials from those institutions can eventually provide one with a “pass” to enjoy the privileges accompanying whiteness. If so, Harris’ framework suggests that the zeal for attending elite educational institutions as a pathway for success among a disproportionally high number of Asian Americans is in many respects a pursuit of a pathway toward becoming white.

On the surface, pursuing this pathway to obtain the privileges accompanying whiteness seems completely sensible. After all, gaining membership into those elite institutions still pays high material dividends and enhances one’s social and economic status, which enables one to exercise more control over critical aspects of one’s life rather than remain the object of white domination. According to Khan (2011), modern-day elite education provides students with “carefully cultivated lives” that “solidify their position as masters of our economy and government” and “credentials, relationships, and culture, all of which ensured their future success” (p. 13). Those elite institutions accomplish this not so much by deeply engaging students with ideas and text, Khan argued, but by “… develop(ing) privilege: a sense of self and a mode of interaction that advantage them” (p. 14), which ensures the future protection of their position. In short, those who obtain membership into those elite institutions come to enjoy essential privileges accompanying whiteness. Although Harris also acknowledged that there is a certain economic logic to becoming white and accumulating the material privileges inhering in whiteness, she also warned that a blind pursuit of those advantages may strengthen rather than weaken the bond between whiteness and privilege, reinforcing racial inequality. I will point to two major issues associated with the blind pursuit of whiteness particularly for Asian Americans.

Firstly, educational success has not always translated into expected career success for Asian Americans. Wesley Yang (2011) discussed this paradox in his featured article in The New York Times Magazine. He pointed to the bamboo ceiling “an invisible barrier that maintains a pyramidal racial structure throughout corporate America, with lots of Asians at junior levels, quite a few in middle management, and virtually none in the higher reaches of leadership.” Yang argued that “… it is a part of the bitter undercurrent of Asian-American life that so many Asian graduates of elite universities find that meritocracy as they have understood it comes to an abrupt end after graduation.”

That even those who have gained membership into elite institutions still face racial discrimination suggests that the context of contemporary discrimination is in constant flux. According to Carbado et al. (2008), “Although access is important, the story of discrimination does not end at the moment of access. Inclusion in does not mean the absence of discrimination from” (p. 85). They maintained that exclusion does not exhaust how discrimination operates but in fact access often facilitates certain conditions of discrimination. These forms of discrimination by inclusion contain a range of evolving subtle institutional practices and interpersonal dynamics, which in turn transforms “the role of race in society and the nature and sources of racial inequality” (p. 98).

Thus, one’s vulnerability to discrimination cannot be eradicated merely by earning credentials from elite institutions. Just because one obtains a “pass” to access one setting does not necessarily mean that the pass will provide unrestricted access free of discrimination. A Chinese American scientist with multiple degrees from Harvard, for example, is still less likely than her white male colleague with a comparable set of degrees from elite institutions to be promoted into higher reaches of leadership. Similarly, the same Asian scientist is much more vulnerable of being persecuted for international espionage than her white colleague who works in the same high-tech company but attended an “insufficiently elite” college.

Secondly, Carbado and Gulati (2013) considered in another study whether African American employees at the bottom of the corporation would yield “trickle down” benefits from African Americans at the top. After closely examining this proposition, they remained “cynical that having more minorities at the top of the hierarchy will necessarily improve the conditions for those on the bottom” (p. 166). They reasoned that those who possess the skill set to race to the top of the hierarchy are also incentivized to “pull the ladder up behind them when they get there” (p. 165). Likewise, there is little reason to believe that those Asian Americans who over-attribute hard work and “individual merit” in gaining admissions to an elite college or university will necessarily “lift as they climb,” unless, perhaps, they have seriously considered the underlying sources that both shape and derail the pursuit of the American Dream.

Although arguably limited, the discussion above at least raises doubts that gaining membership into elite institutions that provide access to white privilege necessarily translates into transformative racial progress for a majority of Asian Americans. While those individuals who gain membership to elite institutions certainly benefit by improving their capacity to accumulate privileges accompanying whiteness, there is reason to suspect that the unbridled pursuit of this pathway to success would necessarily curb other forms of discrimination against Asian Americans or significantly lift a majority of them, especially those with limited access to opportunities. Thus, it is not altogether clear how efforts to increase only slightly the chances of admissions for a very select group of Asian Americans into a few elite colleges and universities that have only a very limited number of available spots would meaningfully weaken the durable bond between whiteness and privilege. (Let’s just look at Harvard admissions from a numerical standpoint, putting aside a more complex educational or social analysis for now. According to Jon Marcus, Asian Americans represent 17.8% or 383 of the students admitted to begin studies at Harvard in Fall 2011. Now imagine that activists wage an expensive legal battle and successfully double the representation of Asian Americans to a remarkable 40% for next year’s class. Let’s also assume in this scenario that Harvard receives 34,000 applications and that Asian Americans make up 20% of that pool (34,000 × 0.2 = 6800). If the overall admit rate remains at 6%, there would still only be 2040 total admitted (34,000 × 0.06). If 40% of the admitted students are Asian Americans under this scenario, 816 (2040 × 0.4) would be admitted. This still leaves 5984 Asian American applicants (6800–816) without a spot at Harvard. Try telling the rejected Asian American families that the Harvard admissions process is now fairer than before. By hypothetically doubling the proportion of Asian Americans in the admitted class from 20% (2040 × 0.2 = 408) to a ridiculous 40% (816), we have effectively only lowered the proportion of rejected Asian American applicants from 94% ([6800–408]/6800) to 88% (5984/6800), or a 6 percentage point change in the likelihood of being rejected. Unless Harvard doubles or triples the number of students admitted, the actual number of Asian American applicants who would gain admissions even under farfetched proportional increases is relatively small.)


The complaints filed by Students for Fair Admissions that Asian Americans are discriminated against in admissions by Harvard will eventually be decided in US courts. Those and other related complaints ostensibly extend a familiar historical pattern that has been well documented by Karabel’s exhaustive research into the history of admission at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Those complaints, however, fail to point to the fundamental source of racial discrimination and the role of affirmative action in addressing that source. As such, I applied Harris’ critical race framework to make meaning of this shameful pattern in college admissions. Her framework, based on a deep analysis of the historical and continuing pattern of white racial domination and economic exploitation in the United States, illuminated the underlying racial implications of this pattern of exclusion and the role of elite colleges and universities in reinforcing racial inequality. Although elite institutions regularly alter their admissions to remain socially relevant, they also continue to exclude in ways that favor attributes that are coded in whiteness. This critique undermines the characterization of those institutions as color-blind engines of upward mobility and instead portrays them as guardians of dispensing and protecting the privileges accompanying whiteness.

Overall, this provocative interpretation of elite colleges and universities raises serious questions about the current set of complaints regarding competitive college admission, which casts Asian Americans as victims of affirmative action unlike the original ones filed in the early 1980s. As expressed by Swann Lee who helped to organize the filing of the 2015 complaint against Harvard, “Asian-American applicants shouldn’t be racially profiled in college admissions … ” and “… should have the playing field leveled” (Carapezza 2015). While those complaints condemn racism, they fail to meaningfully critique the underlying conditions that contribute to discrimination and reproduce racial inequality.

By contrast, applying Harris’ framework to account for white supremacy and privilege makes more explicit the underlying interests and assumptions that animate admissions discrimination, which compels us to reconsider the conditions that contextualize that controversy. For Harris, the fundamental problem regarding the admissions controversy is not simply what is observed on the surface – racial profiling – but what animates that problem in the first place, the tyranny of whiteness. Thus, the overarching goal for Harris is to “dismantle the institutional protection of benefits for whites that have been based on white supremacy and maintained at the expense of Blacks” (p. 1767). Race-conscious policies such as affirmative action, according to Harris, advance that goal by exposing “… the illusion that the original or current distribution of power, property, and resources is the result of ‘right’ and ‘merit’ … It unmasks the limited character of rights granted by those who dominate. In a word, it is destabilizing” (p. 1778). By contrast, color-blind approaches tend to conceal the privileges accompanying whiteness, as documented, for example, by Karabel regarding certain “plus factors” that tipped admissions in favor of wealthy white applicants.

Applying an analysis that offers a serious critique of whiteness, either its role in discrimination or how it structures opportunity, redefines the problem and the target of the discrimination complaints in question. By placing the spotlight more squarely on the advantages that white applicants have over Asian ones, it serves to divorce race-conscious admissions practices from those complaints. These practices after all are applied to dismantle the institutional protection of benefits for whites by specifically increasing enrollment of those who have been historically excluded for not being white enough. At the very least, applying a critique of whiteness to those complaints raises serious doubts that removing an admissions practice that seeks to eradicate the settled advantages afforded to whites would actually curb the persistent advantages whites have over Asian Americans.

Moreover, focusing on eradicating white privilege problematizes efforts to place even more Asian Americans into elite institutions, raising issues about how such outcomes would actually serve the long-term collective interests of Asian Americans. Harris’ framework suggests that while those Asian Americans who “pass” into such institutions obtain advantages associated with institutionalized privileges, their race to the top of the economic and social food chain will not necessarily lift all Asian Americans nor enable them to escape other forms of discrimination. In short, there is little reason to believe that placing even more Asian Americans into elite institutions that have become part of the “settled expectations of whites” will necessarily lead to achieving the broader goal of dismantling a deeply rooted system that continues to structure opportunities in favor of whiteness. While there may well be individual gains accrued for those who get a “pass,” in the long run, protecting those policies that unmask white domination and dismantle a system that privileges whiteness would yield greater collective benefits for Asian Americans.


If the concerns raised about the discrimination of Asian Americans in college admissions are supposed to advance the collective interests of this population, then Asian Americans should rethink the meaning they attribute to those elite colleges and universities and better appreciate the role of those institutions in reinforcing white domination. As it stands, the current set of complaints tend to conceal the context of racial discrimination, failing to make clear the fundamental source of that problem. Without a better understanding about the fundamental problems that animate racial inequality, Asian Americans can be pressed into service of an agenda that stands to hurt more than help them in the long run. According to Park and Liu (2014), Asian Americans are regularly boxed into political discourses that constrain their actions such as in the case regarding race-conscious admissions whereby opponents of those practices frame the context for them as “having to relinquish their own self-interest in favor of ‘less qualified’ URMs [underrepresented racial minorities]” (p. 57). Park and Liu argue that the deployment of such misleading discourses conceals how Asian American interests diverge from the anti-affirmative action movement and distorts this population’s commitment to access and equity in higher education. Even if there were genuine discrimination claims against elite colleges and universities, my analysis suggests that those complaints should be decoupled from affirmative action and should not target race-conscious admissions practices.

Additionally, Asian Americans need to consider the bigger picture when it comes to eliminating racial discrimination and achieving full participation. To achieve those goals, Wesley Yang (2011) argued that it will probably have less to do with any form of behavior assimilation that reproduces white domination than with the emergence of risk-takers whose success obviates the need for Asians to meet someone else’s behavioral standard. According to him, Asian Americans will need more people to exercise proud defiance and “… to stop doggedly pursuing official paper emblems attesting to their worthiness, to stop thinking those scraps of paper will secure anyone’s happiness, and to dare to be interesting.” Likewise, Stephen Colbert host of The Late Show paid tribute to Muhammad Ali (aired on June 6 on CBS) who passed away on June 4, 2016, and quoted him as having said in 1970, “I am America. I am the part you won’t recognize. But get used to me. Black, confident, cocky; my name, not yours; my religion, not yours; my goals, my own; get used to me.” Colbert praised Ali for having helped “…create the America we live in today.”

Perhaps it takes the kind of audacious defiance as demonstrated by Ali’s statement and suggested by Yang to make a transformative and lasting imprint on American society. After all, blind faith and over-investment in pursuing those well-worn paths of achieving success, including what Yang called the dogged pursuit of “official paper emblems,” are more likely to steer Asian Americans toward accepting rather than challenging white privilege and domination as being the natural order of things that cannot be disturbed. Moreover, there is little reason to believe that the few who get a “pass” to enjoy privileges accompanying whiteness by gaining membership into elite institutions would necessarily “lift as they climb” to the top of the social and economic hierarchy. As it stands, Asian American enrollments at those institutions already far exceed their representation in the national population. (For example, according to Harvard’s Admissions and Financial Aid website (, Asians who presumably entered college in Fall 2017 make up 22.2% of their class of 2021. This compares to 5.6% Asians of the total US population in 2010, according to the US Census Bureau.)

By contrast, an audacious defiance that emphasizes active engagement in delegitimizing racial assumptions while simultaneously challenging over-investment in pursuing the privileges accompanying whiteness would ostensibly press Asian Americans toward the service of an alternative agenda. Pivoting more intentionally toward such an agenda that addresses the fundamental issues that animate those recurring admissions complaints can empower Asian Americans in ways that will actually resolve that problem for good. According to Takagi (1992), such pivots, even if only discursive, can facilitate “… a subtle but decisive shift in public and intellectual discourse about and at some universities, in practices of, affirmative action” (p. 10). Takagi argues that in the end, “… facts and statistics were less important than what people made of them … the core of the debate over admissions pivoted not on the facts per se but on interpretation of the facts …” (p. 11).

Whatever approach taken to interpret and address the facts, Asian Americans are at a crucial juncture when it comes to US racial politics. The admissions controversy returned with even higher stakes to include the elimination of practices that were designed to delegitimate structural advantages afforded to whites and address the illusion that there is a level playing field. Given the increasingly higher stakes, Asian Americans should ask tougher questions of those who are trying to press them into service of a particular racial or political agenda. The position that they stake out is indeed pivotal and can well determine whether Asian Americans remain the poster child for the mythical American Dream or participate more boldly in dismantling institutional structures that reproduce privileges accompanying whiteness.


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© The Author(s), under exclusive license to Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of California, Los AngelesLos AngelesUSA

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  • Radomir Compel

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