Two weeks ago, Austin Jia, a rising sophomore at Duke, became a face for what’s become an increasingly high profile controversy over Asians and elite college admissions, when a New York Times article by Annemona Hartcollis and Stephanie Saul featured Mr. Jia as an Asian-American who had been affected negatively by a Harvard admissions process (there’s also a sister case against the University of North Carolina) that’s currently being challenged in court and–perhaps more significantly–is being scrutinized by President Trump’s Justice Department. Mr. Jia was quickly reminded that the issue has split the Asian community. After the article appeared, he received supportive e-mails from a number of his Chinese-immigrant parents’ friends and he also received a number of more skeptical messages from peers.
Here’s the problem in a nutshell: the 2010 census estimates that America is 5.6% Asian American (an ill-defined term that includes Indians, Pakistanis, Pacific Islanders, individuals with one “Asian”parent or grandparent, in addition to Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Koreans. Most of the Middle East and Russia are part of Asia too, yet the census treats them separately), yet the current freshman class at Harvard is 21% Asian.In that sense, Asian-Americans are drastically over-represented at elite schools. At the same time, some estimate that if elite admissions were completely color blind, schools like Yale and Stanford might be 30-40% Asian. After California (a state that’s 13% Asian-“American) banned the use of race, gender, and ethnicity as a basis for preferences in public university admissions, public employment, and the granting of state contracts, almost 40% of all undergraduates at University of California campuses are Asian with the heaviest concentrations being at its flagship Berkeley and UCLA campuses. This is definitely not the case in the non-university realms.
Seventy-four years ago, my Nisei stepfather spent his high school years in an internment camp, then came back to Freeport, California and got a draft notice — he served in Italy. One of the many ironies now woven into America’s relationship with its Asian-American citizens is that the first Americans to reach Dachau were a group of Japanese-American soldiers (the army was still racially segregated and Japanese-American soldiers served in separate battalions commanded primarily by white officers). They were not publicly credited with “liberating” the camp. Another poorly remembered and ironic fact is that the Chinese were at the forefront of the first civil rights era after the Civil War. Yick Wo vs. Hopkins was the first Supreme Court case to recognize “disparate impact” in applying the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause. Although there’s a public school named after Yick Wo in San Francisco, there’s almost nothing known about the laundry owner, Lee Yick. U.S. vs. Wong Kim Ark affirmed the right of birthright citizenship under the 14th amendment. Emblematic of the ironies in Asian civil rights history, Justice Harlan, the man who declared the Constitution “color blind” in his dissent in Plessy vs. Ferguson, the case that affirmed “separate but equal”is the same man who joined in a dissent in Wong Kim Ark by essentially claiming that the 14th amendment’s birthright citizenship should not apply to the Chinese because they were essentially an inferior and unassimilable race of people. It may not be an accident that “birthright” citizenship and “disparate impact” are being challenged today along with any vestiges of affirmative action.
Some Asians believe that the Harvard and University of North Carolina cases are about fundamental fairness for Asian students who have worked hard to succeed in a country that outwardly celebrates the virtue of being a country that is supposed to reward effort, talent, and character and not the resources or race of one’s parents. Some Asians fear that Fair Admissions (the advocacy group behind both cases and the Trump justice department are using Asians as a wedge against African-American, Latino, and even under-represented Asian sub-groups’ civil rights. We too easily forget that both of these propositions might be true. Austin Jia wants it known that he’s someone who both wants fairness and who supports diversity in college admissions.
To put it simply, It’s less a matter of other minorities possibly getting into elite schools with lower scores and grades, than it’s the fact that it’s harder for Asians to get into these schools than whites. We should be able to correct the latter without eliminating the former. When one looks through the lens of Asian admissions, whites are actually the beneficiaries of affirmative action and not its victims. It’s Asians who are being subjected to “negative action”: a Princeton study found that Asians generally needed to score 50 points higher on the SAT than whites and, as a group, were admitted at a 5% lower rate than whites, African-Americans, and Hispanics.
As our country has become increasingly polarized around race, we find ourselves having to reconcile uncomfortable truths. In Charlottesville, Thomas Jefferson, the founder of the University of Virginia, was both the author of the Declaration of Independence and a slaveholder –not just a slaveholder but the man who took one of his slaves, a fourteen-year-old, as his mistress and fathered children who lived as slaves. At the same time, there are Americans who believe that Robert E. Lee, a slaveholder who beat his slaves, broke up slave families, and who literally waged war against his own country, was a great American whose memory deserves to be venerated. When I grew up in California, I was actually taught that Robert E. Lee was personally opposed to slavery, but was torn between his sworn allegiance to the United States and his identity as a Virginian. We were also taught that John Brown was insane and General Lee was a noble individual who seemingly-accidentally wound up on the wrong side of the Civil War. Time has a way of chipping away at the truth. For whatever reason, history has chipped off our memories of who Lee Yick and Wong Kim Ark might have been as individuals. That said, if there’s such a thing as “moral” history, it must never lose sight of the fact that behind every event there are actual people who are frequently more complex and therefore interesting than whatever cause or event they come to represent.
In the meantime, Austin Jia or Mr. Jia, as the Times would call him, was kind enough to answer some of our questions and let us know that the Asian student featured in the Times article is more than an SAT score, a high school transcript, and a list of extra-curricular activities. More important, he’s not some angry Asian guy out to end diversity for other minority groups.
MF: Let’s get one thing out of the way. The Times mentions it, but I suspect many readers missed it: you’re not one of the plaintiffs in the Harvard suit or someone looking to transfer should they prevail.
AJ: The truth is that I’m very happy at Duke and while the article implies that Duke was some sort of backup school for me, it was either my second or third “reach” choice. It’s a great school and I’m looking forward to being here until I graduate. At the time I applied, my first choice was Princeton, but looking back I’m really glad that I wound up further away from home.
MF: So why did you agree to be interviewed by the Times?
AJ: It’s a matter of fairness. I simply don’t think Asian students should be penalized simply for being Asian. I believe that there has to be a way to do selective admissions, so that Asians are treated at least as fairly as whites. At one time, Asians like Jews had their numbers limited at elite colleges. There’s never been a time when less qualified Asians were getting into these schools over other groups.
MF: There’s a west coast admissions consultant who apparently encourages Asian applicants to purposely present themselves as “less Asian.” He tells his clients to play football or basketball instead of tennis (a la Jeremy Lin who went to Harvard then didn’t get drafted because too many scouts didn’t think Asians could be that athletic), to do drama instead of violin, start a hip hop group like Jabbawockeez instead of being on the debate team. It’s probably accurate, but it’s also troubling. (ed. note, I refer to this as “Chang-ing It” Mike Chang, played by Harry Shum, was an Asian character on the show Glee who played on the football team and was the best male dancer in the Glee club. In the show, his father wants him to go to Harvard, but he winds up at the Joffrey Ballet School in Chicago)
AJ: Exactly, why do we have to be less Asian to get into college? Instead of getting good grades and scores and doing the extracurriculars we choose, why are we supposed to act more like white students?
Isn’t the point of diversity to celebrate who you are? Why should my actual accomplishments work against me? It doesn’t happen to white applicants and it doesn’t happen to any other minority group.
MF: So, I take it that you’re not treating this as a zero-sum game.
AJ: I think it’s possible to find ways to be fair to Asian applicants while still promoting diversity in college admissions. People who only know me through the article seem to assume that I’m against a genuinely representative presence for African-American and Latino students. That’s the exact opposite of what I believe or want.
My personal stance on the Asian part of the admissions issue doesn’t preclude my having progressive views about the environment, social justice, and even greater diversity and sensitivity both at Duke and beyond. I’ve been active here with a student group that addresses the concerns of my generation: climate change, housing, student loans, etc.
MF: You mentioned possibly majoring in economics.
AJ: My father works as an accountant for a big firm and my mother is a professor of accounting, so I’ve had some exposure to finance, though my specific interest is in working on the economics of environmental preservation internationally.
MF: When did your parents come to America?
AJ: They came from Harbin, China and met there. One came to America as an undergraduate and the other came here for graduate school. I have a younger brother who will be starting his junior year of high school.
MF: What are some of the things you like best about Duke?
AJ: My high school in Millburn, New Jersey was extremely competitive. I had assumed that Duke would be an even more intense version of that. It’s competitive here, but in the best sense. A lot of my peers are creating things, already working on their own startups, and are really socially active. At the same time, there’s no sense that it someone does well or gets recognized for something, it has to be at your expense.
On top of that, I was sort of blown away by how accessible the professors can be and not just in class. They often want to get to know us, have lunch, etc.
MF: Does that include getting students into basketball games at Cameron?
AJ: Well, maybe not that.
MF: It must be a thrill to be going to school so close to the defending national champions?
AJ: No comment.
MF: More seriously, in the wake of the Times article, are you concerned about how you’ll be received back at school?
AJ: To be honest, a little.
MF: How did you wind up being featured for the Times article?
AJ: I’m not completely sure. Edward Blum, the director of the Project on Fair Representation and the founder of Students for Fair Admission, the plaintiff group in the Harvard and UNC cases, was presenting near my hometown when I was still in high school. I helped with setting up chairs and the like. I had a conversation with him about my own college admissions experience and we exchanged contact information. They may have recommended me to the reporters, but I don’t know that for sure.
(ed. note: an interview with one of the plaintiffs might have become evidence in the case. Blum’s group was behind the Fisher case? (Fisher, a white applicant in the top 15% of a high performing Houston high school, challenged the University of Texas’s policy of accepting any student who finished in the top 10% of his/her high school clas regardless of the school. The Supreme Court ruled against her in the summer of 2016. Fisher’s father and Blum, who is Jewish, happen to be old friends.)
MF: Are you interested in being a lawyer?
AJ: I actually spent this summer working for a law firm in New York to explore that. It’s a possibility, but far from a certainty. Whatever I do after graduation, I want to help make the world a better place.
MF: There are lawyers who do that and I guess there are some who don’t. I was wondering, “Are most of your friends Asian?”
AJ: I’d say the majority of my friends are Asian, but my friends include people of all ethnicities.
MF: In my day, there was sort of a divide between ABC students and foreign students from Asia. Is that the case any longer?
AJ: I’d say it’s still somewhat the case, sadly. Like with many of these things, it’s a matter of having things in common.
MF: Do you speak Chinese?
AJ: I went to Chinese school for many years and I got pretty fluent, but since I stopped it’s gotten a little rusty.
MF: Are there things you miss about New Jersey?
AJ: I’d love to find great Chinese food down here and decent bubble tea. I’m really into bubble tea.
MF: If you can get to Raleigh/Cary, you need to check out Grand Asia supermarket. Their bubble tea’s very good imo; it still tastes like tea instead of a smoothie with tapioca balls at the bottom.
Aside from being a bubble tea afficionado, are there other things that would surprise people about you?
AJ: I’m a fan of the Office, except that last season after Michael left. When I was younger, I was very hesitant to speak out on issues or to speak up about things.
MF: That doesn’t appear to be a problem now. Was there something that changed that for you?
AJ: My mother would take me to the library where they had speakers and she’d have me ask questions at the end of the presentation or in person with the speaker. I also did speech in high school and was active in in Asian group.
MF: That’s kind of a deeply Asian parent story.
AJ: I guess it is in a way.
MF: Have you had contact with many Asians in the Triangle beyond Duke?
AJ: Not a lot so far, but it’s something I’d like to do.
MF: I hope you’ll consider coming to the Dragon Boat Festival on September 23rd at Koka Booth Amphitheater in Cary. One of the missions of Asian Focus has been to both bring Asians in the Triangle together and to familiarize non-Asians with Asian culture. If you’re Asian, you get an opportunity to blend in instead of stick out.