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Defenders of Affirmative Action at Harvard Need to Confront Anti-Asian Biases

I’m a strong supporter of affirmative action. It has helped generate student bodies that are vastly more diverse than the ones I encountered in college. My own students learn much more than I did about different ethnic and racial groups, and they’re also less likely to exhibit biases against people who don’t look like them.

But affirmative action has sometimes reflected and reinforced biases, too. And those of us who favor it need to be forthright about that instead of circling the wagons and pretending that nothing’s wrong.

Earlier this fall the Supreme Court heard lawsuits against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, alleging that their affirmative action policies discriminate against Asian Americans. According to documents filed in the case, Asian American applicants to Harvard received—on average—higher grades and test scores than members of other racial groups but were rated lower by Harvard admissions officers on measures of personality.

That’s what lawyers call a bad fact. It implies one of two things: Asian Americans really have worse personalities, or the university is biased against them.

Harvard says it evaluates personality based on qualities like “integrity, helpfulness, courage, kindness, fortitude, empathy, self-confidence, leadership ability, maturity, or grit.” What that seems to mean, at least in part, is that people who are confident and outgoing—in short, extroverts—get a higher rating than those who aren’t.

“He’s quiet and of course wants to be a doctor,” one Harvard admissions officer allegedly wrote about a candidate. According to a New York Times review of court filings, another applicant was described as a “hard worker,” but with a caveat: “Would she relax and have any fun?”

Both candidates were Asian American. As a wide body of scholarship has demonstrated, Asian cultures tend to emphasize humility over the assertiveness favored by many people in the West.

In that sense, it’s not surprising that Harvard awarded lower average personal scores to Asian Americans than to any other group. But it is certainly appalling. If you’re an Asian American student, and you want to get into Harvard, the formula is pretty clear: don’t seem too Asian.

Nobody knows that better than the students themselves. In a recent New York Times article, a college counselor is quoted saying she discourages Asian applicants from pursuing activities like violin or piano, lest they confirm stereotypes about their group. “It is a little sad now that I think about it,” said one student, describing how she downplayed her passion for chess. “I wasn’t really able to talk about the activities that meant the most to me.”

Read entire article at Inside Higher Ed