In 1929, a few years after Yale instituted a quota for Jews, admissions chairman Robert Corwin received a letter from a Yale trustee complaining about too many Jewish names on the admissions list. "The list as published reads like some of the ‘begat’ portions of the Old Testament and might easily be mistaken for a recent roll call at the Wailing Wall,” Corwin agreed in his response.
Nearly a century later, according to a lawsuit filed by a former New York City Department of Education official, another department official implied that the most selective high school was taking too many Asians. “I walked into Stuyvesant HS, and I thought I was in Chinatown!” then-Deputy Chancellor Milady Baez told a 2018 staff meeting, the lawsuit claims.
In other words, these students are different from us. They are too hard-working, too high-achieving, too successful. They make us uncomfortable. They do not belong here.
Ever since the murder of six Asians in Atlanta last month, we’ve seen a burst of long-overdue attention to anti-Asian hate crimes, including the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act the Senate is considering this month. But people decrying those attacks rarely question the assault on educational meritocracy, which threatens Asians in a different way.
The myth of meritocracy
Remember meritocracy? It has received some bad press recently, and for some very good reasons. By proclaiming their merit, people at the top get to pretend that they deserve their lofty status. They weren’t born into privilege, or so they like to think. They earned it.
That’s a huge problem for our society, and for our democracy. When you believe you deserve everything you have, you’ll be less likely to share it. And you'll disdain the people below you, who have to work twice as hard to move up. It's really, really hard to climb the ladder when you start on a low rung.
But many Asian-Americans do it, anyway.
Take Stuyvesant High School, where almost three-quarters of students are Asian. Half of Stuyvesant students qualify for reduced-price or free lunch, a standard measure of poverty. And of the students in that category, 90% are Asian.
So these aren't kids who were born on third base and think they hit a triple. Instead, they legged out hits through scrappy effort and skill — in short, via merit.
And we won’t forgive them for it. The Asian strivers are a standing rebuke to people who inherited their privilege. These kids really earned it, and we know it. So we dismiss them as dull grinds, just like Jews were derided in the 1920s.
To other minorities, meanwhile, Asian achievement rubs salt in the wounds of systematic racism. If Asians moved up, the argument goes, anybody can do it. Touting Asian success can seem like a slight against Black and Latinx people, who are hampered by different kinds of historical discrimination.
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And then Asians get blamed for that, too. Witness a set of 2016 tweets by San Francisco school board member Alison Collins, which came to light last month. Many Asian-Americans “believe they benefit from the ‘model minority’ BS” and “use white supremacist thinking to assimilate and ‘get ahead,’” wrote Collins, who was ousted as vice president of the board and is suing the school district for damages.
Let’s be clear: no single model can capture the diverse experiences of Asian-Americans. Nearly three-quarters of Indian Americans over 25 held a B.A. degree in 2015, whereas only 9% of Bhutanese Americans did. The income of Asians in the 90th percentile of earners nearly doubled from 1970 to 2016, while that of Asians in the 10th percentile increased only 11%. Indeed, income inequality is higher among Asian-Americans than it is within any other racial group.
Accept fewer wealthy applicants
But overall, Asian-Americans are nearly twice as likely as other American adults to have a college degree. And they receive higher grades and standardized test scores in high school, even when you compare them to students of other races with similar incomes. That’s not BS; it’s a fact.
And now there are too many of them at elite educational institutions, or so we're told. Until the 1960s, colleges used quotas to limit the number of Jewish students. To diversify selective high schools beyond their Asian American majorities, meanwhile, critics have called on the schools to give less weight to test scores and more to grades, application essays, and other factors.
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That's fine with me, if it means accepting fewer wealthy applicants — whatever their race — and more Black and Latinx students, who are woefully underrepresented at these schools. But if it means turning away an impoverished Asian American kid who has spent her youth in hard study so she can improve her circumstances, I’m not OK with it. Are you?
There are plenty of fake meritocrats out there, pretending that they earned their way to the top. So when we see the real deal, we should recognize and reward it. Anything less makes a mockery of merit itself. And it betrays a sickening bigotry against Asian-Americans, who are just too darned good for their own good.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author (with Signe Wilkinson) of “Free Speech and Why You Should Give a Damn,” which was released this month by City of Light Press.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Another attack on Asians: Penalties for hard work in school admissions