Jeffery C. J. Chen is a PhD student in history at Stanford University. He completed his first graduate degree, an MSt. in British and European History, at the University of Oxford. His research focuses on the commercial and cultural networks bridging Qing China and eighteenth-century Europe.
How, goes a common joke, is Harvard like a fifties diner? Asians need not apply.
Since mid-October, Harvard has been in the dock for charges of racial bias in its admissions policy. On trial is Harvard’s alleged use of “racial balancing” to reject Asian American applicants in favour of students from other racial groups. According to the plaintiff, Students for Fair Admissions, a non-profit led by the conservative legal strategist Edward Blum, Harvard subjects Asian Americans to a restrictive quota that holds them to a higher standard than applicants from other races. Underlying the many questions surrounding affirmative action and racial profiling is a larger problem endemic to all elite colleges: how to incorporate progressive ideas about inclusivity without tarnishing the allure of exclusivity. Battering down the gates to Harvard Yard is not the solution. Rather, this case should serve for all as a moment for self-reflection. To move forward, we need to interrogate the place of “elite” colleges in higher education and to understand the long genealogy of the racial prejudice that continues to haunt minority groups, including Asian-Americans.
Desire often follows exclusivity; and to have exclusivity, one must first exclude. This has always been central to the Harvard brand, whether it be based on class, religion, race or intellect. Although Harvard has taken strides to admit those of underprivileged backgrounds, this inclusive impulse must always be mediated by self-preservation – of finances, of the need for donor gifts; and of brand, of Harvard’s self-conception as a training ground for the world elite, which, owing to the economic and power structures of previous generations, inevitably privileges Euro-Americans over other races.
The current lawsuit, however, takes the wrong approach to the issue. In suing Harvard for denying access, Asian-Americans are only reifying the idea of Harvard as a unique gateway to success. This is the exact image Harvard and the rest of the Ivy League try to impress on prospective students, although this is not borne out by any statistical measure of educational experience. By desiring entry into socially exclusive colleges, we help strengthen their collective hold over our imagination.
Understandable though Harvard’s admissions policy may be given the nature of the institution, the plaintiffs in the lawsuit are right to highlight the continued racism faced by Asian Americans. In the Harvard admissions documents, Asian-Americans are consistently ranked lower than other racial groups on personal characteristics such as leadership, likeability and originality. The biases here show the continued shelf-life of old racial tropes.
There is little difference between the comments made by admissions officers and the rhetoric employed by previous generations of white Americans toward, to use a case study, the Chinese. Writing in the 1780s, Samuel Shaw, the American consul at Canton, said that “though the Chinese can imitate most of the fine arts, they do not possess any large portion of original genius.” Past Americans were also doubtful of Asians’ propensity for leadership. John Quincy Adams, the United States' sixth president, understood China as a “slave empire” bound to a rigid, paternalist hierarchy – the same Confucian social system Edgar Snow, a prominent American journalist, once described as encouraging “timidity and sterility.”
Today, schools with large Asian populations are given all variety of snide monikers: UCLA (University of California at Los Angeles) is the “University of Caucasians Lost Among Asians”; UBC (University of British Columbia) the “University of a Billion Chinese.” The implication is that these schools, in accepting a large number of Asian applicants, have somehow suffered in quality as a result. The adjectives “lost” and “billion” also conjure up past propaganda of Asiatic hordes overwhelming white America. The conflation of “Chinese-American” with “Asian-American,” as we’ve seen in media coverage of the trial, promotes the stereotype of an indistinguishable “Asian” mass that can be readily painted over with one racial brush, although the Taiwanese-American experience is hardly equivalent to those, say, of Bangladeshi-Americans.
A fruitful conclusion to the Harvard trial is certainly not to re-establish race-blind admissions, which can only have a damaging effect on marginalized groups. Instead, we should take this opportunity to question whether colleges whose brands are built on social exclusion are truly the markers of success they purport to be. The Ivy League, after all, is a sports association that has no real significance other than as a branding exercise, a deliberate evocation of a precolonial establishment that is fundamentally at odds with the aims of social justice. The Ivies lost their monopoly on American academic excellence decades ago to institutions such as Berkeley, the University of Chicago and MIT, among many others. The distinction of the Ivy label today is social rather than academic, an attribute prospective students should critically engage with before buying into the media hype surrounding the Ivy League. To move forward productively from this discrimination case, we must stop seeing colleges like Harvard as the end-all of higher education. We must also understand, if we hope to change them, that the racial prejudices aimed at Asian Americans today are not new, but repurposed iterations of long-held views.