October 12, 2020

When I read that the Justice Department had ruled against Yale and determined that it does indeed discriminate against Asian-American and white applicants, I shrugged my shoulders. I had the same response to the lawsuit against Harvard last year, in which a group called Students For Fair Admissions claimed that Harvard discriminated against Asian-American applicants.

This is not the reaction I would have had five years ago, when I was serving in the military. I would have believed that race-conscious policies were clearly wrong. Back then, I still held the middle-class belief that hard work and education were the most important factors for getting ahead. But since graduating from Yale, I have learned that there are subtler, rarely discussed, aspects of social class.

According to Paul Fussell, author of Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, people at the bottom think social class is defined by how much money you have. The middle class, though, believe it’s not just about money. Equally important is education. But for the upper class, money and education aren’t enough. Upper-class people assign great importance to tastes, values and opinions.

I have observed these benchmarks first-hand, as I moved along the class ladder, adding one ingredient after the other. My mother, an immigrant from South Korea, was unable to care for me. I grew up in foster homes and broken homes; my first job at 15 was working as a dishwasher. In this milieu, we all indeed thought that money was what defined class. If you had it, or appeared to have it, you were rich. If you didn’t, you were broke. And we were broke. It seemed like all conversations eventually became about money — or the lack of it.

But during this time, I was also watching a lot of TV. I may have watched more TV from birth to age 17 than most upper-class Americans watch in their entire lives. The characters in these stories were better off than me. Furthermore, they were absolutely obsessed with college. The stress of applications, getting into the right schools, the possibility of going away and breaking up with high school sweethearts. I had the impression, observing these fictional characters, that money wasn’t the whole story. College was important, too.

But for me, not important enough. My home life was a mess, and, as a consequence, I was a terrible student. After graduating from high school in the bottom third of my class, I joined the military. There, I learned from actual, rather than fictional, people from middle-class backgrounds about the importance of education. Near the end of my enlistment, I decided to apply, still believing that merit, hard work and excellence should be prized more than anything.

The military, a more meritocratic institution than most, did not take race into account for positions or promotions. Perhaps surprisingly, non-whites and women who serve in the military report higher levels of job satisfaction and quality of life compared with white males. Perhaps less surprisingly, many people, including me, join the military in pursuit of a middle-class life. After my discharge, I was finally ready for college.

When I arrived at Yale as an undergrad, I still had a middle-class mindset. Finally, I thought, I was going to be the first in my family to go to college. I’d walk around the idyllic campus thinking I had made it. But gradually, I learned that students were fluent in a language I could not speak. I felt like I was in another dimension. For example, I decided to join a writing team for an on-campus humour magazine. The theme for that month was “puberty”. In a brainstorming session for satirical headlines, I suggested: “Area male discovers porn goldmine in his front right pocket.”

The student editor raised an eyebrow. “Why does it have to be gendered?” he asked.

I was bewildered. What does “gendered” mean? No one in my hometown had ever used this word. No one in the military ever said it. I knew what “gender” was, of course, but why would anyone turn it into an adjective? I realised that there were aspects of social class that can’t be quantified or put on a resume. Throughout my college experience, I learned what some of these aspects were, such as which opinions were dominantly expressed on campus. First-generation students like me paid close attention to which views were met with praise and which were met with scorn. I learned the tastes and values of the group which I had not fully joined.

One such value was diversity. While money and education are tickets to the middle class, prizing diversity is a requirement to join the upper class. It’s part of what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu referred to as cultural capital — tastes, vocabulary, awareness and mannerisms which give social advantages to those higher in the social hierarchy. This is why there is a divide among Asian-Americans about affirmative action.

Asian immigrants are the least likely to support it — like many older Americans, they believe obtaining a good education is the path to upward mobility and think race-conscious policies are harmful. In contrast, younger, native-born Asian-Americans are three times more likely to support affirmative action. The sociologists Jennifer Lee and Van C. Tran have found in their research that “Asian immigrants are least likely to support affirmative action. By contrast, Asians born in the US with parents who were also born here — the so-called later generation — are most likely to do so.” These younger Americans have learned that social mobility involves an additional ingredient: adopting the social mores of the upper class.

Social mobility affects political orientation, too. In 1992, more than half of Asian-Americans voted for George H.W. Bush, but in 2012, only 26% voted for Mitt Romney, a similar number as voted for Donald Trump, suggesting that this is a generational change rather than related to the personality of the current president.

One characteristic of the older generation of Asian-Americans is their outsized role in owning and operating small businesses. For instance, in her book World On Fire, Yale Law professor Amy Chua notes that “In New York City, Koreans, less than 0.1% of the city’s population, owns 70% of the grocery stores, 85% of the produce stands, 80% of the nail salons, and 60% of the dry cleaners.”

Often, small business owners prefer low taxes; they tend to derive their social status from their effort and their earnings, and subsequently, they raise children who go on to college. This generation derives their social status through education and titles, and this upward social mobility of the younger generation also accounts in part for their recent political shift.

We have learned that it is not enough to have the same résumé as the group we aspire to join. We have to hold the same values as them — the same luxury beliefs, which are ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class while often inflicting costs on the lower classes. Asian-Americans are now adopting the luxury beliefs of upper-middle class white American culture, which is an indicator of assimilation. But supporting race-conscious policies in elite universities will also create problems for future generations of working-class Asian-Americans, who would also like to ascend the American status hierarchy. Assimilation recapitulates entrenched class divisions.

Ironically, in order to ascend in America, one must pledge fealty to beliefs that undermine the efforts of those they hope to leave behind. Indeed, Reihan Salam has observed that condemning the suspicious screening process of elite universities is viewed as déclassé. It marks one as an outsider. In contrast, vigorously agreeing with the race-conscious policies of Yale and Harvard indicates that one is an insider. It shows that one “gets it”— an indicator of cultural capital and one’s place in the social hierarchy. In other words, our reactions to the Justice Department’s decision reveals a lot about our social class. Or at least, the social class we aspire to join.

So I read these reports about possible discrimination against Asian-Americans at Yale and Harvard, and felt agnostic rather than irritated. I still think what they are doing is wrong — but now I am less sure. Still, I am unable to disentangle whether this uncertainty is because I have reasoned my way out of my previous belief, or because I have shifted my views in order to fit into this new social class I have long aspired to join. Did I truly change my mind, or am I simply conforming? Perhaps we would do well to ask ourselves this question more often.