Does Yale discriminate against Asian Americans and Whites? It’s the wrong question.

Jennifer Lee
August 21, 2020

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice alleged that Yale University discriminates against Asian American and White applicants in undergraduate admissions. Claiming that Yale violates Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the DOJ accused the university of using race-based preferences in deciding which applicants to admit as students, hurting Asian American and White applicants and favoring African Americans. The DOJ demanded that Yale stop considering race and national origin in admissions decisions, which would effectively eliminate affirmative action.

In this, the DOJ is following the logic used by Students for Fair Admissions in its lawsuit against Harvard University, in which a federal judge ruled for Harvard. However, treating two very different racial minority groups — Asian Americans and African Americans — similarly does not square with decades of social science research on Asian Americans’ history and racial mobility. Here’s what you need to know.

On average, today’s Asian Americans have an educational advantage


During the 19th century, Asian immigrants were treated and spoken of as savage and subhuman. But today, they’re often seen as America’s hard-working and morally deserving minority. That results from the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which changed U.S. immigration law to focus on bringing in highly skilled immigrants of any national origin. The post-1965 resulting immigrants from Asia are, on average, highly selected — they’re more likely to have graduated from college than others in their countries of origin. They’re also more likely to be college-educated than the U.S. mean. Sociologist Min Zhou and I call this double educational advantage “hyper-selectivity.”

Americans in the five largest Asian immigrant groups — Chinese, Indians, Filipinos, Vietnamese and Koreans — are all highly selected, and all but Vietnamese are hyper-selected. Chinese and Indian immigrants — the two largest Asian groups in the U.S. — are the most hyper-selected. For example, 55.1 percent of Chinese immigrants in the U.S. have graduated from college compared with only 3.6 percent of adults in China. That means that U.S. Chinese immigrants are more than 18 times as likely to have graduated from college as Chinese adults who did not immigrate. Indian immigrants are the most highly educated Asian group: 79.2 percent have a bachelor of arts or higher, yet only 8 percent of those in India do. Indian immigrants in the U.S. are 10 times more likely to have a B.A. compared with those who remain there.

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Asian immigrants’ high achievement leads to the “stereotype promise” for their children

The extraordinarily high educational backgrounds of the Asian first generation has resulted in exceptional academic outcomes in their children. Asian Americans attain higher grades and SAT scores, are more likely to graduate from high school and attend college, and are also more likely to attend the most elite colleges.

Even among Harvard applicants, Asian Americans exhibited the highest SAT scores. Analyses of Harvard’s admissions data from 2000 to 2017 show that Asian American high school students who applied to Harvard scored, on average, 767 out of a maximum 800 across all SAT sections, thereby outperforming Whites, Hispanics and African Americans whose average scores were 745, 718 and 704, respectively. Despite this, a greater percentage of African Americans who applied to Harvard were admitted than the percentage of Asian American applicants.

That’s how the DOJ and Students for Fair Admissions can conclude that Asian Americans are penalized for their race while African Americans are rewarded for theirs.

Here’s what’s missing in this logic: Social science has found that one consequence of hyper-selectivity is something called “stereotype promise.” Social psychologists have shown that because racial stereotypes about academic ability are pervasive, even high-achieving African American students can underperform on verbal tests because of “stereotype threat.” “Stereotype promise” is the flip side of this: Because Asian American students are widely expected to do very well, they often over-perform.

Because they’re stereotypically perceived as smart and high-achieving, even average Asian American students are often enrolled in high school honors classes. Anointed as gifted and exceptional, this research finds, these students took schoolwork more seriously, put more time and effort into homework, and began comparing themselves to high-achieving peers. Increased effort resulted in straight A’s and admission into highly competitive universities and programs. When outcomes match expectations, teachers and administrators who assume Asian Americans perform well fail to see that their expectations are what produce the results.

That can generate a self-fulfilling prophecy of academic exceptionalism for Asian American students.

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Asian Americans’ attitudes toward affirmative action

Political scientists Karthick Ramakrishnan and Janelle Wong found in 2018 that nearly two-thirds of Asian Americans support affirmative action in higher education and the workplace; 65 percent favored or strongly favored the policy; and only 25 percent were opposed or strongly opposed.

One group stands apart in their opposition: Chinese Americans. In fact, their support for affirmative action dropped noticeably between 2012 and 2016.

Further, U.S.-born Asians, and especially those whose parents and grandparents were born in the U.S., are significantly more likely to support affirmative action than Asian immigrants. Based on analyses of the 2016 National Asian American Survey, sociologist Van C. Tran and I find that later-generation Asians are three times as likely to support affirmative action than Asian immigrants.

The legacy effect

While the DOJ and the Students for Fair Admissions seek to eliminate race in university admissions, neither has sought to eliminate preferences for what higher education calls “legacies” — the children of alumni. At Harvard, legacies received a 40 percent boost in their chances of admission over all other applicants. Between 2010 and 2015, the admission rate for legacies was 34 percent, and less than 6 percent for non-legacies. In other words, legacies are nearly six times as likely to be admitted than non-legacies. Fully 43 percent of White students at Harvard are legacies, recruited athletes, or the children of faculty, staff or donors.

The bias for legacies and the DOJ’s decision not to focus on them points to an affirmative action paradox. While race-conscious affirmative action has been on trial time and again, de facto race preferences for legacies go unchallenged and unchecked.