For the purposes of this article, Alex Chen, an 18-year-old senior at the Bronx High School of Science in New York City, is the “typical Asian student.” Alex has a 98 percent average at one of the city’s elite public high schools, scored a 1,580 on the SAT and, as far as he knows, has earned the respect of his teachers. Alex is also the vice president of technology for the Bronx Science chapter of the National Honor Society, the director of graphics and marketing for TeenHacks L.I. (“the first hackathon for teens in Long Island”), a member of the cross-country team, the vice president of the school’s painting club, the president of the Get Your Life Together club (visitors from various businesses come talk to students) and the senator for his homeroom. In his free time, he plays Pokémon and goes on long jogs through Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx. His parents, Qiao and Su, emigrated from China in the ’90s and worked their way through commuter colleges in Queens. They live along with Alex’s little brother in a modest apartment in outer Queens. In the specific yet ultimately abstracted and perhaps inhuman calculations particular to selective college admissions, Alex is a first-generation (considered a plus), middle-class (minus) Chinese-American (minus, arguably) with two college-educated parents (minus) from a major American city (minus) with aspirations to study either computer science (minus, given all the Asians who want to go into STEM disciplines) or political science (plus).
When I first met him in early August 2018, we struggled to find a time to meet up to talk about his thoughts on affirmative action and its effect on Asian-American students. Deep into the summer vacation before his last year of high school, Alex had been interning in the office of Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou while also completing a study on congressional legislators with a professor at New York University. There just was no time.