Harvard’s Chinese Exclusion Act
An immigrant businessman explains his legal challenge to racial quotas that keep Asian-Americans out of elite colleges.
By Kate Bachelder in the Wall Street Journal
Getting into Harvard is tough enough: Every year come the stories about applicants who built toilets in developing countries, performed groundbreaking lunar research, or won national fencing competitions, whatever it takes to edge out the competition. So you can imagine that the 52-year-old Florida businessman and author Yukong Zhao is incensed that gaining admission may be even harder for his children—because of their race.
“It’s not a political issue,” he says. “It’s a civil-rights issue.”
Mr. Zhao helped organize 64 groups that last month asked the Education Department to investigate Harvard University for discriminating against Asian-Americans in admissions. The allegation is that Harvard is holding Asian-Americans to higher standards to keep them from growing as a percentage of the student body. The complaint, filed also with the Justice Department, follows a lawsuit against the university last fall by the nonprofit Students for Fair Admissions.
First, a few facts. Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population, and the share of college-age Asian-Americans climbed to 5.1% in 2011 from 3% in 1990. Yet according to independent research cited in the complaint, members of this 5% make up roughly 30% of National Merit semifinalists, a distinction earned by high-school students based on PSAT scores. Asian-American students seem to win a similar share of the Education Department’s Presidential Scholar awards, “one of the nation’s highest honors for high-school students,” as the website puts it. By any standard, Asian-Americans have made remarkable gains since 1950. They constituted 0.2% of the U.S. population then, due in part to the legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Harvard admissions do not reflect these changes or gains. The percentage of Asian-American students has held remarkably steady since the 1990s. This spring, 21% of the students admitted to Harvard were Asian-American; in 1993 it was about 20%. Harvard selects students based on criteria it calls “holistic,” taking into consideration subjective qualities such as, according to the university’s website, “interests,” “character” and “growth.”
Yet look how Harvard stacks up against schools that explicitly don’t consider ethnicity in admissions. At the California Institute of Technology, the share of Asian-American students hit 42.5% in 2013—double Harvard’s and a big jump from Caltech’s 26% in 1993. At the University of California-Berkeley it is more than 30%; the state’s voters banned the state schools from using racial preferences in a 1996 referendum. The trend is also observable at elite high schools with race-neutral admissions: New York City’s Hunter College High School was 49% Asian-American in 2013.
This disparity suggests “a de facto quota system” at Harvard, Mr. Zhao tells me over dinner at a restaurant near his home in Orlando, where he works for a large energy company. Racial quotas aren’t allowed thanks to a 1978 Supreme Court ruling, but in 2003 the court confirmed that colleges could use race as a “plus” factor.
If it were to look, the Education Department wouldn’t find a mass email to Harvard staff with a projected pie chart for admissions based on race. But the quota-like rigidity is hard to miss: On average, roughly 10% of admitted Harvard students are African-American, 12% Hispanic, 2% Native American and 19% Asian-American, numbers that have barely budged in nearly a decade.
Yet no other racial or ethnic group is as underrepresented relative to its application numbers as are Asian-Americans, the complaint says, citing research from UCLA law professor Richard Sander released last year. Mr. Zhao and the coalition filed the complaint against Harvard specifically after Students for Fair Admissions detailed discriminatory practices last fall in its lawsuit (which is still under way). Yet the story seems the same at other elite schools: 16% of Yale’s student body in 2013 was Asian-American, 17% at Princeton, 18% at Penn. Again, little variation from year-to-year.
How much harder is it for an Asian-American applicant? Mr. Zhao and the complaint cite 2009 research by Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade that found an Asian-American student must earn an SAT score 140 points higher than a white student, 270 points higher than a Hispanic and 450 points higher than an African-American, all else being equal. So if a white applicant scored 2160 on the SAT—lower than last year’s Harvard average—an Asian-American would need to hit 2300, well into the 99% percentile, to have an equal chance at getting in.
Harvard denies the allegations. The university’s general counsel, Robert Iuliano, said in a statement last month that the admissions policies comply with the law. “The college,” he said, “considers each applicant through an individualized, holistic review having the goal of creating a vibrant academic community that exposes students to a wide range of differences: background, ideas, experiences, talents and aspirations.”
High marks to Mr. Iuliano for working in so many diversity buzzwords, but Mr. Zhao has a rejoinder. “OK, if you don’t have any discrimination, please open your admission books,” he says. “Let us see them.”
The university has reason to feel confident: In 1988 the Education Department investigated Harvard for engaging in the same kind of discrimination against Asian-Americans. Two years later bureaucrats produced a report blaming preferences for the offspring of Harvard alumni, or “legacy” admissions. Such policies were used to discriminate against Jewish applicants in the early 20th century, but never mind—nothing to see here. The report was filed away.
Still, there is no doubt that Asian-Americans face disadvantages. The test-preparation company Princeton Review’s book “Cracking College Admissions” devotes a section to ethnic background. Here is some of the advice for Asian-Americans: “If you’re given an option, don’t attach a photograph to your application and don’t answer the optional question about your ethnic background.” The book offers tips for avoiding “being an Asian Joe Bloggs,” a stereotypical candidate with “a very high math SAT score, a low or mediocre verbal SAT score,” or, for instance, few extracurricular activities.
Mr. Zhao runs through other stereotypes that he says are used against Asian-Americans, such as their strength in science, technology, engineering or math. “Right now we have huge gaps in STEM education, and actually in this area a lot of Asian-American kids perform really well. But when they apply to elite colleges, their strength becomes a weakness.” He notes that Albert Einstein was a quiet, violin-playing math whiz: “Einstein would not be admitted to Harvard today.” Unless the violin added to his holistic appeal.
Another stereotype is that Asian-Americans aren’t risk-takers or leaders: “A Chinese restaurant run by Chinese-Americans, or a gas station run by Indian-Americans—all need leadership, all need risk-taking,” Mr. Zhao points out. “The great number we uncovered is that, between 2006 and 2012, 42% of technology startups were founded by Asian-Americans,” he says, citing a study by the nonprofit Kauffman Foundation.
One reason colleges can get away with blatant bias, Mr. Zhao says, is because Asian-Americans “are not politically active, in terms of voting, in speaking out.” When Mr. Zhao came to the U.S. from China in 1992, he needed an employer to sponsor his visa and didn’t have the right to vote, as he wasn’t a citizen. That, he says, is the story of many Asian-Americans. Only now are many becoming more involved, particularly as they sense that their children face racial barriers. Not coincidentally, Mr. Zhao’s two children are in high school.
“Our children have to study much harder,” Mr. Zhao said late last month at a news conference. For young Asian-Americans, the perception that they must strive more than others only intensifies the competition for college admission. Then come the complaints from colleges that Asian-Americans focus too much on academics, and the cycle goes on. Mr. Zhao thinks this punishes Asian-American cultures for emphasizing education in rearing children: “We never ask for ‘more’ than others. We just want fair treatment.”
Mr. Zhao also notes that this is the only process that allows such blatantly racial considerations. Imagine an employer looking to fill a position: “You are not supposed to consider their race—everything is based on how well they fit with the job.” Yet colleges ask applicants to list a race, attach a photo, give detailed family history, and often interview in person.
A charge leveled against dissenters like Mr. Zhao is that they don’t care about the disadvantaged, those who have to struggle to make it to campus. “We care deeply about the poor,” he replies, several times. This isn’t an abstraction for him: “My father was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution,” he says, when Mao Zedong ruled China. Food rationing in his childhood at times permitted him a pound of meat a month.
More broadly, Mr. Zhao says, it is time to change a college-admissions system that is too subjective. “I think the college’s number one job should be educating students to build this country. Then, secondly, to reach diversity, to whatever extent possible.” He adds: “College is not a theater,” not a place where students are being cast to fill a specific role.
Harvard’s understanding of diversity actually takes a narrow view of the concept: About 60% of the world’s population lives in Asia, and Mr. Zhao mentions that the complaint includes groups representing Pakistanis, Indians and other cultures, all of whom are unfairly lumped together as a “monolithic block.” These are people from richly diverse ethnic, religious, economic backgrounds. And even when applicants look similar on a college application: “People who have the same background can innovate on different things,” he argues. They shouldn’t be punished for having similar skills—for instance, science aptitude.
Will the Education and Justice departments intervene? Not clear. Justice seems more concerned with cracking down on international soccer lords and busting the movie-theater cartel than helping a group of minority students. “We’re going to keep putting pressure,” Mr. Zhao says, noting that the groups may lodge complaints against other Ivy League schools if no action is taken. His cause did get a political victory in California last year, when Asian-American lawmakers beat back an attempt to reinstate racial preferences within the state’s college system.
Mr. Zhao’s motivation is simple, and he says it is why he came to America: “If we lose the equal-opportunity principle, how can we continue to convince parents from all over the world to come to this country?”
Ms. Bachelder is an assistant editorial features editor at the Journal.