I first heard about the “penalty” my junior year of high school. I was sitting in an SAT prep class because I had barely broken 1000 on my first practice SAT. During a snack break, another Asian kid in the class said to me, “You know we have to do better than even the white kids, right?”
I had never heard affirmative action framed that way — as a “bonus” for black and brown people and a “penalty” for white and especially Asian people.
At the time, I didn’t understand just how pernicious it was to think about affirmative action in those terms. Not only does that frame gloss over the reasons why race-conscious policies are necessary; it’s also the first step toward arguing that all race-conscious policies are unfair.
But I was fed a certain story about affirmative action, so when I saw this data a few years later, it only solidified this mental model:
The data is from an influential 2009 book in which two Princeton sociologists, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandra Radford, quantified how well you needed to score on your SATs to have an equal chance of admission as someone of another race. It implies that a black student who scores 1000 on her SATs would have an equal chance of admission as a white student who scores 1310 or an Asian-American student who scores 1450.
This study gave legs to a longstanding conservative argument that affirmative action is a misguided progressive policy to help black and Hispanic people while unfairly penalizing Asian and white people.
And the argument is resurfacing again.
When Trump first took office, the Justice Department dug up a two-year-old complaint against Harvard that alleges the school has quotas on how many Asian Americans it accepts. It opened an investigation into Harvard’s admissions practices, which many feared would create a chilling effect on other schools with affirmative action programs.
Then in October, a federal court heard arguments on a lawsuit that alleges the same thing. And in the lead-up to thetrial, the Trump administration wrote a statement of support for the plaintiffs, who echoed the exact argument conservatives have been making for decades:
...the record evidence demonstrates that Harvard’s race-based admissions process significantly disadvantages Asian-American applicants compared to applicants of other racial groups — including both white applicants and applicants from other racial minority groups.
In short, conservatives are taking another swing at dismantling affirmative action — hoping the case makes it to the Supreme Court, where a new conservative majority could rule broadly and outlaw affirmative action. And, yet again, they are centering the debate around Asian Americans.
This story, of racial bonuses and penalties due to affirmative action, has created an internal tension for Asian Americans: Many of us know race-conscious policies are necessary to remedy systemic racism. But we are also told that Asian Americans are penalized for those same policies.
It’s a tension white affirmative action opponents have exploited, time and again, to make their argument against race-conscious policies and to seek a broader coalition for their movement.
But if Asian Americans have long resisted being recruited to their cause, this latest campaign has a new wrinkle. “This time around, there is a wealthier, very small, and extremely vocal group of Asians who are on board — and very willing to play the part,” said Colorado State University education professor OiYan Poon, who has been studying this group.
The story on which this movement is built contains some fundamental misunderstandings. The idea that affirmative action doles out bonuses and penalties obscures the far more complicated reality of how the policy actually works. But of greater concern is that this story — of merit artificially tweaked to engineer a certain racial demographic — implies that there is an objective way to measure who is deserving and who isn’t. And it suggests that if we went purely by this idea of merit, it is white and Asian people who would be on top, and that that is the natural state of the world.
The “racial mascoting” of Asians
The use of Asian Americans as a political prop isn’t new.
In the mid-1980s, Asian-American groups started to uncover admissions practices that hurt Asian applicants. Eventually, top schools like Stanford and Brown conceded there was real bias against Asians in their admissions policies.
The Reagan administration saw an opportunity in these controversies.
William Bradford Reynolds, then the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and a longtime opponent of affirmative action, said in a 1988 speech that Asian Americans faced discrimination because of efforts to help other minority groups:
While university officials are understandably loath to admit that they are discriminating against qualified Asian-Americans, rejection of such applicants ironically appears to be driven by the universities’ “affirmative action” policies aimed at favoring other, preferred racial minorities.
But Asian-American leaders were horrified that their cause was being co-opted by conservatives to dismantle policies that helped other racial minorities — and they refused to play the part.
UC Berkeley professor L. Ling-Chi Wang wrote to Reynolds, “At no time has anyone in the Asian American community linked these concerns to the legitimate affirmative action program for the historically discriminated, underrepresented minorities.”
Law professor and activist Mari Matsuda argued Asians shouldn’t be used to “deny educational opportunities to the disadvantaged and to preserve success only for the privileged.”
DePaul professor Sumi Cho coined a term for this conservative tactic: “racial mascotting.”
This fight over admissions at highly selective private schools might seem inconsequential for most people. But as Harvard education professor Natasha Warikoo wrote in her recent book, The Diversity Bargain:
I see these elite universities as sites for symbolic meaning-making around merit and race. The universities hold symbolic value not only for their students, but also in the wider society. They are especially important for our understanding of meritocracy, because many see admissions to those universities as the ultimate demonstration of merit.
In short, these fights shape the ways we talk about who is worthy, who is not — and why.
And 30 years later, we’re back here again, having the same debate with affirmative action opponents, who are again using Asian Americans as mascots. And again, there’s a large group of Asian-American leaders rejecting this role in the debate.
But now another group of Asian Americans is making this debate more confusing.
“We contribute to society. Why are Asian Americans being punished?”
The latest challenge to affirmative action began with a lawsuit filed by Edward Blum, who also launched the previous attack on affirmative action. In that case, Blum recruited Abigail Fisher, a white student who claimed she was rejected by the University of Texas Austin because of her race. That case went to the Supreme Court, and many believed it would finally strike down affirmative action — but it didn’t.
For his next act, Blum took another swing at affirmative action — this time, using Asian Americans as the victims in a lawsuit against Harvard.
But shortly after Blum filed his lawsuit, something interesting happened: A coalition of more than 60 Asian-American groups filed a Justice Department complaint largely mimicking Blum’s lawsuit.
Leading that charge was a Chinese-American man named Yukong Zhao, a Florida businessman in his 50s.
Zhao is the president of the Asian American Coalition for Education, the collection of groups that filed the DOJ complaint. And he and his followers are ideal allies for white, anti-affirmative action conservatives. They not only claim that race-conscious policies are unfair but argue convincingly that they are victims.
What’s unique about Zhao is his large audience; he’s a star on the Chinese social media platform WeChat, which has turned into a kind of “virtual Chinatown,” as activist Steven Chen puts it. It’s an isolated place populated by mostly first-generation immigrants from mainland China, with high barriers to entry for everyone else. And it has become an echo chamber for stories of anti-Asian discrimination.
Zhao has been one of the loudest voices on this front. “In the future,” he told me, “our dream, just like Martin Luther King, is we want every child to be judged on their talent and content of their character, not by their skin color.”
But Poon, the education researcher, found that they’re actually much smaller and more homogenous than the coalition’s profile suggests.
She interviewed 36 Asian Americans last year who have advocated for or against affirmative action. And she found that those who have advocated against affirmative action are almost entirely recent immigrants from mainland China — the same group that spends time on WeChat. They tend to be affluent and educated, but also racially isolated. They work in places that are predominantly white, and occupy social spaces that are predominantly Chinese.
Poon also said most of them had stories about experiencing racial discrimination. If you combine that with Zhao’s rhetoric that affirmative action penalizes them in favor of black and Hispanic applicants, you can see how they might believe the US is anti-Asian:
Zhao says the way to address racial discrimination is to remove all race-based policies, echoing other affirmative action opponents. Otherwise, he says, Asian Americans become victims — perhaps like his son, who he says experienced racial discrimination from at least two Ivy League schools who rejected him, despite an application that was more than deserving.
”We’re hardworking, we never ask for any government favors,” he told me. “But you blame us as overrepresented. We contribute to society. ... Why are Asian Americans being punished?”
Then Zhao dials down the rhetoric and presents data that Asians are being hurt by affirmative action: the Espenshade data, which seems to prove affirmative action penalizes Asians while helping black and Hispanic people.
Once evidence of a “penalty” for Asian Americans is introduced in the conversation, it can be difficult to rebut.
Why the “penalty” and ”bonus” language is so pernicious
The myth of a racial bonus/penalty persists, especially in more isolated Asian-American communities, where anecdotes about anti-Asian discrimination inform a certain worldview.
And sometimes, those anecdotes prove true, like when a federal investigation unveiled documents that showed admissions officers at Princeton wrote disparagingly of Asian-American applicants, stereotyping them with labels like “standard premeds.” (They also wrote disparagingly of black and Hispanic applicants.)
But this simplistic framework doesn’t reflect the long, winding journey affirmative action has taken — and just how much it’s been stripped down along the way.
When the Supreme Court first ruled on affirmative action in 1978, it ruled that affirmative action could not specifically help black and Hispanic students at the expense of other students.
However, schools could consider race if the practice was “narrowly tailored” to serve a “compelling” interest. The Court ruled that the goal of remedying structural racism wasn’t narrow enough. So that left only a single path for affirmative action to walk: Race could only be considered to create diversity on campuses.
From there, affirmation action was further limited with each successive ruling.
In the 2003 decision Grutter v. Bollinger, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote in the majority opinion that race should be considered alongside “all factors that may contribute to student body diversity.”
This meant schools could only consider a student’s race as one factor among many others in a “holistic” review of an application. It essentially turned race into a peripheral characteristic, alongside things like whether you played sports.
Then in 2013, the Court laid out strict rules for when race can be used in a holistic review, further limiting affirmative action:
Most recently, in a 2016 decision, the Court further constrained the consideration of race.
Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote it can only be a “factor of a factor of a factor.”
Let’s say a school is looking for strong leadership qualities, and an applicant lists leadership experience that is grounded in their racial identity. Only then can a school consider their race.
Ultimately, this means that schools are severely limited in how they can think about race in admissions.
If we look more closely at the Espenshade data within this context, we begin to see why the chart of racial bonuses and penalties paints a misleading picture of affirmative action. For one, Espenshade and Radford used data from just a handful of schools in 1997, and it was data from before major court rulings changed how schools can consider race.
But more importantly, the Espenshade analysis paints a picture of an alternate reality in which we went down a caricatured version of the other path. It portrays a world where racial bonuses are awarded to disadvantaged groups and racial penalties are levied against Asian and white students.
The other attempts to portray Asian Americans as victims
That hasn’t stopped affirmative action opponents from using Espenshade — and from reaching for other arguments to make their case.
In 2012, Ron Unz, a former publisher of the American Conservative, argued that Ivy League schools have an Asian quota. His main piece of evidence was the lack of growth in the Asian-American population at Ivy League schools, despite the growing percentage of college-age Asians nationwide. As a counterexample, he compared Asian enrollment at these schools to Caltech, where they don’t have affirmative action:
There are several flaws with this analysis. It assumes the quality of the Asian applicant pool has stayed the same as the population grows, as Poon points out.
It also only looks at how many students enroll in the school, and not how many students are admitted to the school. Jenn Fang, who writes at Reappropriate.co, found that the limited growth in Asian-Americans students at Harvard wasn’t out of the ordinary:
Another popular argument is that after California passed Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action, Asian-American enrollment increased at the most competitive California schools, like UC Berkeley:
But, again, this just looks at enrollment numbers, not admission rates.
So when Poon looked into Asian admissions rates, she found that after affirmative action was banned, the schools admitted a smaller percentage of Asian applicants — even though more Asian students ended up enrolling at the selective schools:
None of this means that discrimination against Asian Americans doesn’t exist in admissions.
But the fact that we’re focused so much on this question — and will be focusing on it again with the Trump administration — shows just how successful conservatives have been in the affirmative action debate. They’ve managed to make the affirmative action debate about Asian Americans — and white people — being victims of a zero-sum game.
The ultimate stakes of how this story is told
If you ask Americans whether they favor affirmative action for racial minorities, most of them say they do.
But it’s easy to change those views.
That’s because the process of applying to elite schools is often framed like a game, where every attribute on your application is either a bonus or a penalty. So it’s easy to talk about racial identity as if it’s one of those scored attributes, in which schools are artificially awarding extra “points” to black and brown applicants while taking away “points” from Asian and white students.
When there’s even a hint that your race can help or hurt your chances of success, support for affirmative action plummets.
This latter frame — of people being hurt based on their race — is exactly how affirmative action opponents want to tell this story. And they’ve been wildly successful.
This version of the story may be a contributing factor in why most white Americans believe that discrimination against them is a major problem.
Underlying this thinking is the idea that there is some unadulterated metric that measures merit — one that often puts white people on top — but affirmative action takes away that advantage.
But it’s important to understand that our measures of merit are, themselves, flawed. As Jerome Karabel wrote in his 2005 book The Chosen:
... the definition of “merit” is fluid and tends to reflect the values and interests of those who have the power to impose their particular cultural ideals.
In other words, people who have economic and political clout — people who are predominantly white — decide what we measure and how we measure those things. That is how “merit” is engineered into the American education system, which in turn recreates wealth and power in America.
That’s why the stories we tell about affirmative action — especially the characters we cast and the roles we accept — are crucial.
One story is about how race-based disadvantages exist, and how we perpetuate them using the American education system.
Another story implies racial hierarchies are the natural state of the world, and that any race-based remedy is a form of charity — and even unjust. In this narrative, Asian people are the victims of any racial remedies. The long history of discrimination against Asians — and the real struggle Asians face in accruing cultural clout and ascending to the highest echelons of politics and business — are tied to the anchor of affirmative action.
That some Asian Americans are now more receptive to this story doesn’t make it any more true.
It’s a compelling story, though, and it may well be winning.