Mephistopheles knocks again. On Thursday, the United States Department of Justice accused my alma mater, Yale University, of discrimination against Asians and whites . It’s the latest salvo in the ongoing fight in the US over affirmative action: the practice of preferentially admitting under-represented and underprivileged racial groups for the sake of diversity, and a part of America’s tortuous reckoning with its racial demons . The US Supreme Court set up the framework in the landmark 1978 case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke – where it essentially ruled that it was illegal to set racial quotas, but found that it was legal to consider racial minority status as a factor in favour of admission. Legal niceties have since run up against two obstacles. The first is arithmetics: every spot that Yale gives to a student of one race is a spot that it cannot give to a student of another. The second is the general perceived tendency of Asians to study hard and do well on exams. As an Asian who studied hard and did well on exams, I must point out here that there is no such thing as an “Asian”. Half the world’s population comes from the vast land mass called Asia . There is the Indian and there is the Indonesian, there is the Korean and there is the Khmer: there is no Asian. Any similarities among them are purely in the eye of the (Western) beholder. The cliché of the straight-A Asian student therefore obscures a multitude of differences between different families of different backgrounds from different communities. The children of Silicon Valley engineers who immigrated to the US as doctoral students from Taiwan obviously enjoy different prospects than the children of Hmong refugees. But America’s totalising gaze sees us as all the same. In fact, it is precisely this tendency to see Asians as faceless uniformities that lies at the heart of the alleged discrimination against them. In his 2006 book, The Price of Admission , author Daniel Golden quoted a dean of admissions at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as describing an Asian-American student as “yet another textureless math grind”. Things have not changed much since then. In 2014, a group of Asian-American students sued Harvard for discrimination – a lawsuit the Trump administration opted to support in 2018. In the course of the proceedings, a review of some 160,000 student files revealed that Asians consistently outperformed other groups on academic metrics but consistently underperformed in one key attribute: personality. Low personality scores reduced their chances of gaining admission. Why Asian students dominate top schools – and it’s not tiger moms Can it be that all these Indians and Indonesians, Koreans and Khmers, all these people whom Americans choose to call “Asians”, just happen to have bad personalities? What does it even mean to have a bad personality? It’s not encouraging that this use of “personality” as an admissions factor traces back to the early 20th century. Back then, elite colleges used the same mechanism to keep out Jews, who outperformed their Christian peers. Hence the paradox of affirmative action: though intended to benefit racial minorities at the expense of traditionally privileged whites, the sheer number of academically excellent students of “Asian” heritage means that the system needs some way to push down their numbers. Otherwise there simply won’t be enough spots for other groups. We know what happens without affirmative action. In 1995, the University of California system stopped employing it. The proportion of Asians rose dramatically, while the proportion of black and Hispanic students fell. At UC Berkeley, only 2.8 per cent of the incoming freshmen in 2019 identified as black and 21.1 per cent identified as white, while 43.1 per cent – not counting international students and those who declined to say – were self-described Asians. But the Department of Justice’s move against Yale is not for the benefit of Asians. It is rather another instance of white American conservatives using the myth of the Asian “model minority” to attack the interests of other minorities. The argument boils down to this: if Asians can be successful in America, then there is no racism , and any minority who says otherwise is full of it. Thus the Trump administration, which never misses a chance to advance its white nationalist agenda, gets to use the debate over affirmative action to pretend that it’s fighting on behalf of Asians. For bright Asian high school students worried about their future, not to mention their “tiger” parents, the anti-affirmative action argument is a siren song. Even if it’s transparent that white conservatives are only using Asians as their stalking horse, the possibility of improving one’s chances, Berkeley-style, is terribly tempting. Anxious Asians are presented with a devil’s bargain: advance your own interests knowing that it harms other minorities or “take one for the team”, as it were. Yale discriminates against Asian and white applicants, US Justice Department says Before accepting this Faustian bargain, let’s remember that wealthy white Americans have always enjoyed their own kind of affirmative action. As last year’s college admission scandal underscored, entry into prestigious US institutions is a game rigged in favour of the scions of the rich and powerful. Additionally, all the prestigious colleges preferentially admit the children of alumni, so-called “legacies”. Because the student bodies of these universities were once almost exclusively white, legacies are far more likely to be white than not. But because legacy preference is not explicitly race-based, it’s not subject to legal challenge the way that affirmative action has been. In Harvard’s class of 2022, 36 per cent of the students are legacies. That’s a far greater proportion than that taken up by Asians. The Faustian bargain presented to striving Asian meritocrats would disappear if only legacy preference did as well. Barbara Bush, daughter of President George W. Bush, was in my class at Yale. George W. Bush was in the class of 1968. His father, President George H.W. Bush, graduated in 1948, and his father, Senator Prescott Bush, did so in 1917. Donald Trump allegedly paid someone to take his SAT for him, securing his admission to the University of Pennsylvania. Daniel Golden’s The Price of Admission features Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner as a case study of a rich family buying a spot at Harvard – in Jared’s case, for US$2.5 million. And Attorney General William Barr, whose department is pushing Yale to dismantle its affirmative action apparatus, went to Columbia. Guess where his daddy went? Columbia, of course. These are the people who, bearing gifts, have come knocking. I think I know my answer.