Don't make us your models

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Several weeks ago, one of my colleagues penned a brilliant piece about the reaction to affirmative action that was springing up in Asian communities across the country. While I agree with the broad thesis they made, and assent that much of the fervor against affirmative action is not particularly helpful to anyone, I did wrestle with a few elements in that piece and want to dive a little deeper in.

Asian Americans did, at the end of the day, get the short end of the stick. We might be the model minority, the people who are used as the measuring stick, but that isn’t always a good thing. The jokes are made about us being good at math, making up most doctors, lawyers, and engineers. We are starting to be compared more to white people, and some question if we should be considered a “real minority" at all.

And that was no less obvious than in affirmative action. It was evident in the racial breakdown of applicants. At medical schools, Asian applicants had to have the highest GPAs to get in. There’s a lot of things that factor into why that’s the case, from the emphasis Asian families put on medical schools, to the high number of Asian applicants who are gunning for those schools, but that still betrays a fundamental flaw in the system.

My colleague pointed out that Asian Americans are victimizing themselves in the affirmative action debate. And honestly, I don’t disagree with that. Many of the biggest complaints come from people who are just annoyed that their lack of work didn’t get them into the colleges they wanted. Her data on who funds and supports many of these anti-affirmative-action groups is spot on, as is her analysis.

But on a large scale, it’s easy to forget the individual. Asian Americans are, on the whole, very wealthy. They’re one of the highest-earning demographics in the United States. Their overrepresentation among college students and admissions follows their economic status. A major but oft-forgotten part of these discussions is the fact that wealth correlates with education far more than almost any other factor. Think about yourself and your fellow students are Carnegie Mellon. How many people here came from upper-middle-class families? How many came from families earning above the average U.S. income?

But for all those wealthy people, there are no fewer brilliant poor people who don’t have the opportunity to pad their resumes with clubs and extracurricular activities and nonprofits. There are people who grow up trying to do what they can to excel at school with the opportunities they’re given, and are still woefully unprepared for the harsh realities of college admissions.

It’s hard being poor. It’s hard not knowing where or when your next meal will be, or if you’ll have a house in the future. It’s hard worrying about costs here and there. It’s hard to excel at classes and outside of classes, as so many colleges ask from us now, when you're more worried about keeping your hours at a job.

The affirmative action debate is used by white supremacist groups and racist groups to try to pick apart minorities and label Asian Americans as some sort of model minority. It’s used to discredit arguments in favor of proposals to heal the racial divide and give opportunities to underrepresented minorities. Much of it is just plain wrong, and it’s stuff that we shouldn’t even consider. Asians aren’t hurt by affirmative action because of “racial quotas” or “discrimination” or any other buzzword used to scare the American public.

For poor Asians, a group which gets overlooked, there is a failure to realize we’re not some sort of model to be compared to. We’re just trying to make do with what we have.

Isn’t that what we all do?