Why I didn't get into Harvard

At the time of writing, there are racial injustice protests. The discussion of systemic discrimination reminded me of how I only recently reversed my views on affirmative action due to a misconception. This is the story of how that happened and what I learned.

This is a story equal parts about Asian Americans, survey design, and systemic bias.

While affirmative action exists in different forms in different states/countries, this post only pertains to California, USA.

This is a tale of ignorance. The first time I heard “affirmative action” it was meant as a diss1. “Your parents only got their jobs because of affirmative action!” We were kids, so they were probably parroting something their parents said. Someone explained that it’s like a quota system: choose minorities over others until you hit a minimum. This didn’t sound fair to me, even though I was (and still am) a minority as an Asian American. A quota system implied that, even if I was by far the best candidate, if there was another candidate that matched a group whose quota needed to be filled, they would be required to choose that candidate. Two decades later, I learned that affirmative action was not a quota system in the US.

It wasn’t until I saw Hasan Minhaj’s Patriot Act episode on affirmative action that I learned affirmative action did indeed start out as a quota system, but had been ruled unconstitutional in 1978. Affirmative action is now just a policy/law that allows, not requires, race and gender to be considered as factors when hiring.

Asian American opposition(?)

I also learned an unexpected but unsurprising fact, Asian Americans are some of the most vocal opponents of affirmative action. If you are Asian American, you can probably guess why: Asian parents really want their kids to be successful. They believe that success equals academic success. And finally, they believe academic success equals getting into prestigious and highly competitive schools. Logically, they would oppose anything that tips the balance out of their favor.

Success == Academic success == Attend prestigious university

You might be thinking, “Don’t most parents want their kids to get into a good school?” Yes, but many Asian parents seem particularly invested2, and it shows. Asians make up ~20% of Ivy league students while being ~6% of the US population. This should also answer the next question, “wouldn’t affirmative action help minorities like Asians?” Affirmative action would effectively make prestigious schools where Asians are overrepresented even more difficult to get into.

Asian parents also believe the key to academic success is hard work. They believe in a meritocracy: If you work for it, you should get it (whatever it is). If this is generally true of Asians, then why, of all the Asian groups surveyed (Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, etc), only the Chinese were a majority opposed to affirmative action? This is confusing. Most Asian parents put incredible academic pressure on their kids to get into competitive schools. You would think all Asian American groups would oppose a law that made schools even more competitive for them, but only a majority of Chinese Americans do.

Survey says, words matter

Survey design, much like financial decisions, are influenced by cognitive bias via framing. Results vary greatly for the same question worded in differently.

I found two similar questions in the same affirmative action survey with significantly different results:

In general, do you think affirmative action programs designed to increase the number of black and minority students on college campuses are a good thing or a bad thing?

Chinese response:
63% bad thing
23% good thing
14% 🤷


Do you favor or oppose affirmative action programs designed to help blacks, women, and other minorities get better access to higher education?

Chinese response:
41% favor
45% oppose
14% 🤷

The only difference, other than framing, is the inclusion of women in the second question. I thought that was interesting, and luckily some professors thought so too. They examined the apparent Asian American opposition of affirmative action in surveys and found that framing greatly influenced the responses. Five different wordings of the same question resulted anywhere between 72% to 46% saying they are in favor of affirmative action, with four out of five wordings resulting in over 50% in favor.

A common misperception is that Asian Americans oppose the use of race or ethnicity in college admissions. The reality is more complex.
Asian Americans’ Attitudes toward Affirmative Action: Framing Matters

Then again…

Focusing on the top five Asian ethnic groups, the data in the figures below show that Chinese are much more opposed to affirmative action than other Asian groups. This is the case across surveys and regardless of question framing or other potential influences on reported rates of support. Among other Asian groups, opposition to the policy is much more muted.
Asian Americans’ Attitudes toward Affirmative Action: Framing Matters

The definitive reason for this discrepancy is still unknown, but maybe people are still misinformed, like I was.

[…] misinformation about affirmative action is common among both supporters and opponents of the policy. For example, both supporters and opponents of affirmative action incorrectly assume that it is legal for colleges and universities to employ racial quotas to meet diversity goals (quotas were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1978).

How can you tell what you deserve anyway?

A common argument against affirmative action is that it is “racist” towards those who don’t belong to an underrepresented group. This argument would only work if systemic discrimination did not exist. Working harder than someone else doesn’t necessarily mean you deserve something more than them, but for the sake of this discussion, let’s pretend that it does.

Like most Asian parents, I believe that you should be rewarded for hard work. Let’s say there are two candidates for a position that are equally qualified based on skills and culture fit: myself (an Asian American cis male) and Jacky (a black cis female). Who worked harder to get there?

Women and people of color face a ton of discrimination in software engineering. I am too lazy to lookup the best evidence for this because the volume of evidence is so vast. If Jacky has equal skills and accomplishments to me, she has almost undoubtedly worked harder and overcome more obstacles than I have. We tied in a race, except she was wearing a weighted vest. She deserves the position more than me. Without affirmative action, an employer would not be able to take gender or race and the obstacles that come with them into account. With or without affirmative action, implicit bias will continue to work against her3, yet another obstacle in the system.

What about the case where the minority candidate has less merit (skills, proven track record)? I’m not sure how that would be handled, it probably depends on the organization and situation. I’m also not sure if I have an opinion on how it should be handled, it seems like a complex and subtle problem with many variables. How do you quantify the effects of systemic bias, generations of oppression, and latent potential at the individual level? How do we even know we are looking at skills and accomplishments in an objective way?

For example, ten years ago it was commonly accepted that “masculine” skills and traits as more valuable. Today, we question why they are gendered skills in the first place. And of course, documentation and team coordination are both super valuable engineering skills, regardless of the gender of the person doing it4.

In short, we should operate on informed opinions and learn as much about our biases as we can. We are learning more all the time, but try to do the right thing with the information you have now rather than going with inertia. It’s more difficult, but it’s the best we can do.

Until systemic racism/sexism is no longer a major factor, affirmative action can serve as one tool to counterbalance the weight of implicit and systemic bias. If you also value hard work and grit, you should support affirmative action.

Close to home

Affirmative action was banned in California in 1993 and there is currently a measure in the California Legislature that proposes to reintroduce it at the state level. Once again, a few Chinese American Californians are opposing the measure. Vincent Pan, Director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, hypothesized the reason.

“We know that there is some intense mobilization in some parts of the Chinese community but we try hard to help explain that actually the Asian American community is quite diverse,” […]

He said that much of the opposition to Hernandez’s bill in 2013 came from relatively new immigrants, many of whom, he said, were misinformed about what the bill would actually do in a “cynical attempt by oftentimes white conservatives to exploit those concerns and direct them against race-conscious and gender-conscious policies.”

This sounds a lot like Ed Blum in the Patriot Act episode above, rallying Asian Americans in the fight against affirmative action at universities because we happen to be a minority that is doing well in the status quo. This puts us in an unusual position, we are a minority, but we are doing better than the white majority in a very prominent and prestigious setting.

Just as we call on white people to recognize their privilege and actively support minorities in an attempt to offset systemic biases, Asian Americans have come into academic privilege and should support affirmative action. I say this knowing that my hypothetical future children will probably apply to college one day, and affirmative action may hurt their chances. If we can help offset and erase some systemic bias in society by the time they grow up, it will have been worth it.

Oh, and I didn’t get into Harvard because my grades and test scores were not good enough. I also didn’t apply. I’m basically a dummy.

  1. Diss is slang from my childhood for "an insult." I only just learned a few years ago that it's short for "disrespect." Everything makes sense now.

  2. See also: 35 years of knowing other Asian Americans and our shared experience.

  3. This is actually kind of a weird example since most people assume I am female because of my name. I don't have any photos of myself online. I wonder how many recruiters or employers have passed on me based on this.

  4. I'm actually not sure why this was ever questioned.