After the Affirmative Action Ruling, Asian Americans Ask What Happens Next

Kawsar Yasin, a Harvard sophomore of Uyghur descent, found the Supreme Court decision last week banning race-conscious college admissions gut-wrenching.

Jayson Lee, a high school sophomore of Taiwanese descent, hopes the court’s decision will open the door for him and others at competitive schools.

And Divya Tulsiani, the daughter of Indian immigrants, can’t help but think that the decision would not put an end to the poisonous side of college admissions.

Asian Americans were at the center of the Supreme Court decision against Harvard and the University of North Carolina. In both cases, the plaintiffs said that high-achieving Asian American applicants lost out to less academically qualified students. In Harvard’s case, Asian Americans were docked on a personal rating, according to the lawsuit, launching a painful conversation about racial stereotyping in admissions.

But in the days following the court’s ruling, interviews with some two dozen Asian American students revealed that for most of them — no matter their views on affirmative action — the decision was unlikely to assuage doubts about the fairness of college admissions.

“I don’t think this decision brought any kind of equalizing of a playing field,” Ms. Tulsiani said. “It kind of did the opposite.”

Lower courts found that Harvard and U.N.C. did not discriminate in admissions. But the Supreme Court ruled that, “however well intentioned and implemented in good faith,” the universities’ admission practices did not pass constitutional muster, and that race could no longer be considered in deciding which students to admit.

The court noted that the two universities’ main response to criticism of their admissions systems was, “essentially, ‘trust us.’”

The universities said they would comply with the ruling. Harvard added that it “must always be a place of opportunity, a place whose doors remain open to those to whom they had long been closed.”

Kawsar Yasin, a student at Harvard, wrote about her Uyghur background in her application essay.Credit…Go Nakamura for The New York Times

In a community as large and diverse as the Asian American community, opinions on affirmative action were wide ranging. A recent Pew Research Center poll conveyed the ambivalence of Asian Americans. Only about half of Asian Americans who had heard of affirmative action said it was a good thing; three-quarters of Asian respondents said that race or ethnicity should not be a factor in college admission decisions.

A few students found hope in the Supreme Court’s decision.

Mr. Lee, the Maryland sophomore, is interested in studying science and technology and supports standardized tests and other traditional measures of merit.

“Before the case, yes, I did have worries about my ethnicity being a factor in college admissions,” he said. “But if colleges implement the new court rulings to get rid of affirmative action, then I think that it will be better, and more even, for every ethnicity.”

Others had more mixed feelings. Jacqueline Kwun, a sophomore at a public high school in Marietta, Ga., whose parents emigrated from South Korea, said she has felt the sting of stereotyping, when people assumed she was “born smart.”

Even so, she said she believed the court’s ruling was wrong.

“Why would you shut the entire thing down?” she asked. “You should try to find a way to make yourself happy and make other people happy at the same time, so it’s a win-win situation, rather than a win-lose.”

In the majority opinion, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. wrote that colleges could consider mentions of race in the essays students submit with their applications if they could be tied to, for instance, overcoming discrimination through personal qualities like “courage and determination.” But many Asian American students had doubts about that prescription.

Students already feel pressure to write about hardship, said Rushil Umaretiya, who will go to the University of North Carolina in the fall. He wrote in his essay about how the women in his Indian immigrant family were the breadwinners and intellectuals, and how his grandmother rose through the white male-dominated ranks at the Roy Rogers restaurant chain to become a regional manager.

Even before the decision, he had seen anxious classmates at his selective high school, Thomas Jefferson High School, in Alexandria, Va., making up stories about facing racial injustice.

“I think college admissions has really dipped into this fad of trauma dumping,” he said.

Divya Tulsiani, outside her home in Rego Park, Queens.Credit…Maansi Srivastava/The New York Times

Ms. Tulsiani, who is studying for a master’s degree in sociology and law at New York University, is a veteran of the application process.

She wrote an application essay for Georgetown about her family — her father worked his way up from deli worker and taxi driver to owning restaurants — in response to a prompt about diversity.

“You accept that you have to sell some kind of story in order to appeal to this audience,” she said.

She was glad the court preserved the diversity essay option, but felt sympathy for the applicants having to spill their most intimate secrets and speak with moral force. “It’s a huge burden on a 17-year-old child,” she said.

She thinks the stigma of affirmative action will persist. “The narrative will be, instead of ‘you got in because of affirmative action’, ‘you must have gotten in because of your class,’” she said.

Some Asian American students believe, contrary to the dominant narrative in the court case, that they have benefited from affirmative action. Evidence introduced in court showed that Harvard sometimes favored certain Asian American applicants over others. For instance, applicants with families from Nepal, Tibet or Vietnam, among other nations, were described with words like “deserving” and “Tug for BG,” an abbreviation for background.

“I do believe I was a beneficiary,” said Hans Bach-Nguyen, a Harvard sophomore from Camarillo, in Southern California. He said he was not sure until he requested his admissions file and found that one of the two reader comments in it concerned his Vietnamese heritage.

He was happy, he said, to be recognized as a member of an underrepresented minority in higher education. But he wondered whether he was fully deserving. His parents came to the United States as refugees at around his age, and got college degrees at state universities.

“I think my guilt comes from that I did not grow up low-income,” he said.

Echoing a common criticism of the university, he noted that many Harvard students, “even if they are from minority backgrounds, are from financially stable or more affluent families.”

In California, affirmative action has been banned since 1996, but even so, a few Asian American students there seemed suspicious of what they thought of as a secretive admissions process.

Sunjay Muralitharan, a student at U.C. San Diego, opposes affirmative action and volunteered in the campaign against it in 2020.Credit…John Francis Peters for The New York Times

Sunjay Muralitharan, whose family is of Indian origin, was rejected or wait-listed by his top five college choices, a mix of public and private colleges in California. He believes his race was a factor. He ended up at the University of California San Diego, where he is a sophomore.

“I know people are saying, ‘Oh, it’s just going to be merit-based, merit-based, merit-based,” he said. “No, it’s not.”

Still, he said, he has gotten over his initial resentment. “I grew up middle-class, I never had to worry about where the next meal was coming from,” he said. “Like it or not, I was put into a bunch of tutoring programs. It’s understandable to give an opportunity to someone who didn’t have the same amount of opportunities when they were younger.”

Colbi Edmonds and Anna Betts contributed reporting.

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