Asian Americans And Redefining Meritocracy

By Lexington S.

“The reason why ya’ll do so well,” my non-Asian friend once said, “is because ya’ll work insanely hard.” But what if all that hard work has a dark underbelly? What if society rewarded Asian Americans by setting a higher bar for success? Asians applying to college have long known about the heightened standards for admission. There are just too many of us who work insanely hard to achieve high grades and SAT scores.

The supposed heightened standard has received substantial press in the past few years, and most recently in this USA Today article from two weeks ago, “Some Asians’ College Strategy: Don’t Check ‘Asian.'” The article explains how many Asian American applicants are leaving the race box blank because they worry about the heightened academic standards for Asians. Some believe that top schools have an Asian quota and because the pool of qualified Asians is so large, schools cherry-pick the applicants with the best numbers. As a result, the process pushes the minimum SAT and grade requirements for Asians higher than those for everyone else. What happened to meritocracy?

But racism is an easy scapegoat. What if there’s something more nuanced going on here? What if the top schools like Harvard aren’t looking to maximize their incoming class’ academic qualifications? It’s not that credentials don’t matter in the college admissions game, by the way. We all know that the better your academic qualifications are, the better your college options will be. It’s just that at some point, it makes little sense for an elite school to pick a student by splitting hairs on grades or SAT scores. Harvard is looking for those with the greatest merit, but their definition of merit encompasses more than mere academic numbers. They’re looking to populate the socioeconomic and political elite. Or try this as a thought experiment: of all the people you know, who would you trust the most to lead your organization? Is it the person with the best grades and test scores?

That isn’t to diminish the importance of hard work. To gain access to the same opportunities as the native-born, our immigrant forebears had to be twice as good. Working insanely hard was a proven recipe for upward mobility. But it’s an outdated strategy for later generations. Asian Americans must adapt and change so that we may prepare ourselves for the next level. We must avoid focusing too much on academic merit at the expense of everything else. Achievement, whether it’s becoming a CEO, leading your community, or gaining admission to Harvard, requires a more nuanced view of merit.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lexington is a lawyer who lives in Chicago. He blogs about law, his childhood, and his observations about people at
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