Sarah was at a college prep seminar when she was told she'd have to be better than everyone else.
Sarah was shown a prominent study that correlated race and SAT scores in college admissions, which found that Asian-Americans were at a stark statistical disadvantage, losing the equivalent of 50 points off their SATs by virtue of their race. Black and Latino applicants, in contrast, gained the equivalent of 230 and 150 points, respectively, the study claimed.
"I just thought it was really unfair," Sarah, a 15 year-old student at a public high school outside San Francisco, told BuzzFeed News. "And I thought it was a little bit racist, a little bit prejudiced." (Sarah asked that only her first name be used in order not to jeopardize her college applications.)
Above all, Sarah concluded that the unfair statistical disadvantage translated to more pressure and more work. Sarah, who immigrated to the U.S. from China with her parents when she was 5 years old, would have to spend the next three years trying even harder to distinguish herself in a highly competitive majority-Asian school. "I'm not even in my sophomore year, and it's already hitting me," she said.
Last month, a coalition of Asian-American groups filed a federal complaint alleging that Harvard University applied discriminatory quotas against Asians in its admissions process. In response, an even larger Asian-American coalition published an open letter rebuking the complaint and affirming its support for affirmative action policies that consider applicants' race. The reaction to the Harvard complaint revealed fault lines in the Asian-American community around the often highly sensitive and personal issues of college admissions and race.
The debate has also underscored differences of opinion between recent immigrants and American-born people of Asian descent, particularly among Chinese-Americans. While many of the former see affirmative action as part of a long legacy of anti-Asian discrimination in the United States, many of the latter accept affirmative action as a necessary corrective to America's history of racism, particularly against blacks.
"A lot of recent immigrants have the mentality that if you work hard enough, and prove yourself with high GPA and SAT scores, then that should be all you need" to get into a top college, said C.N. Le, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. Whereas Chinese-Americans who have assimilated over generations to life in the United States, Le said, are more likely to appreciate "the structural factors that led to the formation of affirmative action" in the first place.
Such is the case with David Fong, who has a 15-year-old son in public high school in Redondo Beach, California. "I don't agree with the people bringing the [complaint against Harvard], but I understand their thinking," Fong told BuzzFeed News. "I just think their thinking is wrong." Fong grew up in the tenements of New York City's Chinatown, the son of working-class Chinese immigrants. His mother worked in a garment sweatshop, and his father was a waiter at a Chinese restaurant, until he and a group of fellow waiters pooled enough money to buy the place.
From that point on, Fong's parents struggled to elevate the family to a solid middle-class existence. Fong was a latchkey kid who barely saw his constantly working mother and father. "The restaurant was open seven days a week," he said. "The only times it closed were Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving was a half day."
Fong's parents placed a huge premium on his education. Fong listened, eventually getting undergraduate and law degrees from NYU. But he also came to deeply value diversity. Growing up, Fong went outside the Chinese community to make friends of different races and backgrounds, trying to combat the "informal social segregation" that he saw among his peers. "I think the next generation, when we've been here longer and gotten the chance to interact with other people and immerse ourselves in American society, realize that we need to be more open-minded," Fong said.
Fong inculcated this perspective in his son, Jason Fong, a budding writer and committed wrestler who just finished his sophomore year at Redondo Union High School. Jason has seen the statistical evidence suggesting that he, as an Asian-American college applicant, may face higher hurdles than some of his peers. But if he were rejected from a school in favor of an underrepresented minority, he says, "I would accept that. It's for the greater good of the country, because the diversity level in America is what makes it different from anywhere else in the world."
Many recent Chinese immigrants think this mentality ignores the decades of very real discrimination that Chinese people have suffered in American history. American-born Chinese — or ABCs, as some immigrants call them — can lose sight of this discrimination, said Sean, the stepfather of Sarah, the high school student outside San Francisco. (Sean also asked to withhold his last name to protect Sarah's identity.) He sees the effects of affirmative action on Asians as part of a lineage that includes the Chinese Exclusion Act and laws preventing Chinese people from working in government or marrying Americans.
"People who move here, I think, are more aware of the discrimination, because we're sensitive," Sean told BuzzFeed News. "We came from another country, and we always look around to see, am I doing well? What else do I need to do? So we force ourselves, and also our children, to work harder just to get recognition."
When he looks ahead to Sarah's future navigating high school and the college application process, Sean worries mostly about the pressure that the system places on his stepdaughter — pressure to do everything possible to obtain higher test scores to overcome the bias against her. That pressure, he said, can be harmful to the well-being of a generation of young Asians striving to succeed academically while also cultivating meaningful social lives. "When you're 15 or 16, any pressure on you, when you feel it and assess it, it can be exaggerated fivefold," Sean said. "The pressure, in my opinion, is unfair pressure."
And it is a pressure that Sarah says she definitely feels. "Coming from a high school that has really high test scores and a really high population of Asians, everyone is fighting to be seen," she said. She plays volleyball and pursues extracurricular activities in an effort, she said, to "beat the stereotype" that Asians are narrowly test-focused and excessively studious. "But it's hard to maintain that when we also know that we're at a disadvantage, and we have to study even harder to get even better SAT scores," she said. "It's hard to balance that."
"Oftentimes I think it would be a lot easier if I wasn't Asian," Sarah added. "I think I could enjoy my high school experience more."