October 4, 2021
Kenny Xu shares with us what his latest book is all about and the discrimination against Asian Americans in college admissions.
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We have Kenny Xu today, the president of a nonprofit organization called “Color Us United” which advocates for an America that is not divided by race, gender, or religion. His book titled “An Inconvenient Minority: The Attack on Asian American Excellence and the Fight for Meritocracy” discusses just that and we discuss this as well as his personal experience on the challenges of college and university admission that Asian Americans often face.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: Hi, I'm Dr. Chloe Carmichael, clinical psychologist, author of Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety. And of course, your host of the High Functioning Hotspot. Today's guest is Kenny Xu, who is the author of the book, An Inconvenient Minority: The Attack on Asian American Excellence and the Fight for Meritocracy.
It's a brand new book and it's doing very well. It's making a lot of press. Kenny has been on NPR, the New York Times magazine, and many other interesting places. He's a Think Tank Scholar, as well as I think a really sensitive and vulnerable writer. So his book shares a little bit about his own personal story, but it's mostly research, and some information about a court case where Kenny is actually also working and advocating. It's a court case you may have heard of where Asian American students,, I think it's called Students for Fair Admissions. Students for Fair Admissions are suing Harvard for discriminating against Asian American people in the admissions process. So I know it's a really sensitive topic and I kind of wanted it in part because it was a sensitive topic.
I think that Kenny talks about the topic with a lot of sensitivity. One of the things also in my article for The Huffington Post called "Political Polarization Is A Psychology Problem" is I talk about the fact that we do get so polarized and we don't listen and hear people that might have opinions that are different from ours.
So that's another reason I wanted to invite Kenny because I surveyed my list of listeners recently. And I noticed almost not surprisingly that my list is super left leaning, very liberal leaning in terms of politics. So one of the things I suggest in The Huffington Post article is to listen. You don't have to agree, but to just listen to some people that might have some differing viewpoints from time to time.
So without further ado, I want to bring you Kenny Xu, author of An Inconvenient Minority: The Attack on Asian American Excellence and the Fight for Meritocracy. Hi, good morning, Kenny.
Kenny Xu: Hi, Chloe. How are you?
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: Hi, I'm great. Thanks. How are you?
Kenny Xu: I'm good. I'm good. Thanks for letting me do a podcast.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: Oh, well, thank you so much for coming. I really appreciate it. It's been a real pleasure. I've really enjoyed reading your book and I made a lot of notes on it and I have a lot of questions for you. So thanks again for taking the time to share on the High Functioning Hotspot.
Kenny Xu: Yeah. I’m so excited!
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: So just to jump right in I wanted to start by asking you, maybe to tell a little bit about your book, obviously I've read it and I love it.
And I'm going to give a little bit of an intro and description about it, but just for people that may not really understand everything about it. And especially I saw it in some of your interviews that you shared, some of those really compelling statistics that like, I think Asian Americans had to have scores that were four times or four standard. If you could just talk a little bit about the book and what it means, cause I know you can describe it better than I can.
Kenny Xu: Sure. Yeah. So you have this narrative in the United States right now that if you're white you can succeed. but if you're a minority you're oppressed. It's a privilege and oppression narrative, but this narrative ignores the success of Asian Americans who are. despite being a minority, undoubtedly successful in this country to have higher educational rates, higher median incomes than White Americans so much so that they are put into the privileged category by those who believe this narrative. They call Asian Americans “White Adjacent”. And you have elite universities like Harvard and Princeton and Stanford that believe in, that buy into this ideology. Some call it Critical Race Ideology. And they assign a privilege rank onto Asian Americans, as such they make it harder for Asian Americans to get into their schools. Because if Asian Americans or they get into their schools on merit alone, Harvard would have something like 43% Asians, instead they have roughly about 18 to 20% Asians. And as a result, the Asian Americans score 440 points higher on the SAT to have the same chance of admission as a black person. So what happens is that
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: Wow. I’m just going to pause on that because that's a very powerful number. The Asian American student has to score 440 points higher than a student who is being categorized as black or who self identifies as black by Harvard. And that's on the SAT. And how many points, again, total is the SAT these days?
Kenny Xu: It's like 1,600 now, you speak 2,400.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: So that's really quite amazing. Right.
Kenny Xu: That was back on the 2,400 point test. That's still pretty amazing though.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: Yeah, I mean, Math has never been my strong suit, but that's like nearly 20% higher just to be considered on equal footing. And just to jump in and I do want to hear more of the things you were saying about that, but I just also want to chime in on the emotional level that you also described in your book, which I thought was so powerful, of what it's like for young Asian Americans students that have to just contort themselves into these almost like an academic Olympics situation. That if they want to have a chance of going to one of those types of schools. And I went to Columbia myself so I know what a wonderful place they can be and how many doors they can open and why a person would want to go there. I also know sometimes, frankly, those schools, I think, are losing their luster a little bit because of some of these types of dramas and other issues.
But you spoke very powerfully in your book. From firsthand experience, for anyone who's listening, Kenny actually also identifies as Asian American as well. Is that safe to say, Kenny?
Kenny Xu: Well, what happens is it creates a competition culture for Asian Americans, because they're held to a higher standard, you know, rapidly. And you know this as a clinical psychologist, you know about the stress and anxiety subculture that consumes the minds of so many young high-achieving Americans. Well, if you're Asian American, it amps up to 150% because everybody's trying to get into these good schools.
Everybody's trying to get up the rat race. I'm not saying it's right or wrong. I'm saying Asian Americans disproportionately as well as all Americans in that high-achieving stratosphere want to go to these prestigious universities and the fact that they make it so much harder for Asian Americans just incites a distrust between Asian Americans and each other.
Asian Americans begin comparing themselves to the next Asian American guy in their classroom because they know they're not going to be judged or the rest of the class, they are going to be judged with that other Asian kid.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: That is such an interesting point, I just have to say, on so many levels. First of all, even just alone the simple experience of having that extreme sense of a heightened competition, just against anybody of knowing that you have to go home and study, you don't have time for social stuff, you don't have time for recreation because you know as a young Asian American high school student, that if you want to go to one of the top schools the bar is going to be that much higher that you have to jump over.
But in your book as well, you talked about Henry. And Henry is, you know Kenny wrote this wonderful book, and Henry was the “other Asian”, one of the other Asian American students in the school who was achieving, maybe even on this higher level. And Kenny talks about this rivalry. And the way you describe it, Kenny, again, that sense of competition, intra group competition, and how that can hurt the sense of social support that Asian Americans could feel as well as this whole dynamic creating a sense of otherness and separatism that I don't think necessarily is healthy.
Kenny Xu: Yeah. Absolutely. You know, Henry was the guy in my book. And we were friends at first, then we became competitors. And this is, by the way, is how a lot of young Asian American people feel. Because it's always “Are you good as the other guy named Wong?” Or “Are you good as the other guy named Xu?” Now on one hand, this sort of helps them to become higher achievers, right? Cause you're really constantly pushing yourself and being pushed. But on the other hand, it instills a sense of unmerited inferiority where the locus of comparison is not even with the rest of the country. You feel alienated from that, and you sort of retreat into this tribal politics yourself.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: Yeah. Now I have to ask you also Kenny, because one of the things that I love about your book and about you is that you not only offer kind of an emotional, vulnerable person side, human side, but you're also just such an incredible scholar. And you think about issues from so many angles. And one of the snags for some people around this is to say, “Okay, well, everything Kenny is saying makes sense. However, if we drop or decrease some of the latitude that is applied to black students’ scores in order to try to create more opportunities for black students to come to school. If we drop or decrease those, then we're actually hurting black students”. Can you talk about that side of it, Kenny?
Kenny Xu: So my book is about the lasting consequences of affirmative action, right? And affirmative action, the point of affirmative action is to give people preferences that they otherwise would not merit. That's what affirmative action is. It's the only way you can describe it. That's why if you are black, you get a preference in admissions that is not based on your merit. That's the point of affirmative action. So you know, to say that it hurts black students, all you're doing is you're returning to meritocracy. That's what getting rid of affirmative action does. What we have now is a deviation from meritocracy that benefits Black Americans in an unmerited way that I argue, and what you're doing is you are returning back to meritocracy. And I think that that's fair because meritocracy is fair. You should be treating a person solely on the basis of what they can offer in their character rather than their race.
Now we also have research that shows that when a Black American is admitted into these elite colleges, particularly Math and Law, which were the two fields of study based on affirmative action where they weren't qualified for, they tend to perform poorly in these classes. A black student who gets into a tier one law school who is only a tier two level student tends to graduate the bottom 25% of his class. And that impacts everything, from career earnings to initial starting salary, to rates of depression.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: That was a very interesting point in your book, Kenny. I just want to quickly summarize that for listeners that didn't read that. I thought that was so interesting.
One of the things that Kenny pointed out is that being in the top quartile, say of your law school graduating class, really impacts your career because the law firms are often recruiting to get the top 25th quartile of a class. And so Kenny's point is that, apparently the research in his book shows and he does provide a lot of references, that black students who are admitted to the tier one schools because of affirmative action, students whose outsets, et cetera, would have otherwise not placed them there, but that they were selected in part because of affirmative action, that those students end up not in the top quartile of their tier one school, therefore not being recruited.
And Kenny is pointing out that if they had gone to a tier two school where they could have been admitted without affirmative action, that they do tend to perform in the top 25th quartile of that class. And then they actually tend to have better career trajectories in life.
Kenny Xu: Right. Right. Exactly. I mean, if you actually match the student with the level of school that you should go to, you tend to encourage him. He tends to do better in that class. So affirmative action doesn't help anybody. It just really doesn't. And of course it increases bitterness and envy and unmerited, unfairness, and unfair treatment to Asian Americans too. So we have to talk about that as well.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: Yeah, I would love to talk about that.
There is one thing I do want to kind of follow up on though, as well, from what you just said when you were talking about fairness and meritocracy. So, one of the, kind of, counterpoints to what you said that I've heard often. And I'm not saying this to start a personal debate with you, but I just kind of want to sketch out some of the points and counterpoints. Because I know our high functioning listeners, they have active minds. So they're thinking about some of these things. So when you talk about fairness and meritocracy, I think one of the common responses to that is, “Okay, well, how can we really talk about fairness? Like suppose we have a race and there's a starting line. But people who have had less privileged backgrounds, they don't get to start at the actual starting line. They have to take two steps back for the burdens of oppression or socioeconomic status that they have carried in life. And so it's not really a ‘fair race’ unless you take those things into account”.
And again, Kenny, I thought you made some amazing points about how many Asian American students have parents that didn't even speak English. And so that there are many burdens of privilege. But if you don't mind speaking to that side of it, I would love to just hear you articulate that.
Kenny Xu: Yeah, well, first of all, it's not like Asian Americans don't come here privileged. They really don't. They actually come here with no generational wealth, no social connections. The only thing they have are their talents. And so it is meritorious that they advance in society because they're not coming from privilege so to speak largely.
And second of all, I love the analogy of the race that you use. Is any race ever run, is any actual race ever run the way that you just said? No. Every race is run where everybody starts on the same starting line and nobody really cares. Or maybe people care for story purposes, but nobody's going to move a starting line back or forward in an actual race because one person came from one background or from another background, you have the same standard for everybody. That's what we call a fair. That is fair.
And what universities do and trying to account for every nickel and nuance of oppression and privilege that a person has in his life is that they're actually stepping out of their purpose. They're stepping out of their function. Their function is not to correct for every injustice in society. That is impossible. You cannot do that. Their function is to provide the best academic education, to admit the best kids and produce the best graduates. And to the extent that they can do that, that's what it's fair. But there's an elite arrogance here where elite universities are attempting to position themselves as the arbiter of all that is good and evil.
And that is a very dangerous precedent to set.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: And you also had some interesting statistics in your book about how many of the black students at some of these schools actually had a great deal of social privilege or of wealth around them. Does any of that come to mind that you can share?
Kenny Xu: Sure. 71% of all black students who made it to Harvard come from upper middle or upper class backgrounds. These are kids that 50% of them go to private schools. Greater than almost 50% of them. In fact, one, some could already be greater than 50% of them are actually black immigrants. So this is not even like you're admitting the kid from the south side of Chicago now. You're admitting a kid who by all means, is a very privileged person, and you're treating him as an oppressed group. And that is an exploitation of the system. That is something that we can’t allow to happen.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: Yeah, that's so interesting, Kenny, and I feel like it takes a lot of courage to talk about that, because I think that we all want to protect and help the vulnerable. And sometimes being labeled as vulnerable and as a need of protection, can almost in a certain way then become something that people want to compete for because it can connote certain advantages. So when you do what you're doing and start challenging those advantages and challenging affirmative action. I imagine that you've been called a bigot, a racist. I imagine you've been called a lot of things. Can you talk about how you respond to that or even just how you handle it on a personal level?
Kenny Xu: Wow, right. First of all, your point about the encouragement of victimhood, that's definitely happening. I call it an economy of victimhood. There's a new sub economy right now. Normally the economy moves according to meritocracy, but now we're creating an alternative economy where people are being promoted and hired via diversity and inclusion based on the biggest victim story that they can give.
So we're creating an alternative economy, now in terms of my personal experience, right. I could give you the most victimized story of myself. A lot of it is based on the fact that I'm a minority, my parents did not come here with any money, social privilege, that kind of thing. I've faced discrimination clearly, obviously from Ivy League universities. Maybe I can point to one or two isolated racist incidents that I've faced in my life. But that's not the narrative that I choose to give about myself because I love this country. And because this country has been great to me and it's been great to a lot of people. This is why this is a country that accepts a million new immigrants a year which is the most in the entire world by a very wide margin.
And what we should be doing is we should be celebrating the success of minorities in this country, rather than trying to denigrate them through a privilege and oppression narrative. And that's how I choose to live my life. And I think that that's a much better way of living your life than focusing on self victimhood.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: Definitely. I would absolutely agree with you. So I'm just curious then, have you also yourself been ever charged as being a racist? Kenny is actually involved in the lawsuit which is against Harvard for basically discriminating against Asian American people. Correct me if I'm wrong, and I believe that's currently in the process of appeals and maybe heard by the Supreme court, is that right?
Kenny Xu: Yeah, it's at the foot of the Supreme Court right now.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: It's in, I'm sorry?
Kenny Xu: It's at the foot of the Supreme court right now, to be taken as early as October.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: Wow. That's exciting. That's really exciting.
With that though, I'm just curious if you've ever faced charges either from the Black Community or from the elites who like to maybe think of themselves as the mouthpiece of the Black Community that may be charging you with some kind of a label of being racist or hurting black people. How do you respond to that?
Kenny Xu: So ordinary Black Americans I talked to support me. In fact, if you go on my website or you go on my Twitter page: @kennymxu, I have a video where I'm doing the man on the street interview, where I'm talking with actual black students at Harvard. And I asked them, “Do you support this policy where Asians are required or have a 440 point SAT penalty?” And they say, “No, we don't. We don't support that. We don't support that policy. I get it. There's racism and oppression, but we shouldn't try to arbitrate between that.” So ordinary black people that I talk to usually support me on this. Elites think that I'm being racist, which is of course very silly because I'm fighting racism and fighting Harvard’s racism.
Everybody really should get on board and support this kind of policy, because what we really should return to as a country is a colorblind meritocracy. That is the ideal of what America has always been about. It has always been about doesn't matter what background you have. It doesn't matter where you come from. If you come here and you work hard, you can succeed in this country and you'll be treated on the basis that work, not on the basis of your identity.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: Yes. I mean, but it's so interesting, Kenny, because as you know, it's now become controversial to say that I want to live in a colorblind society or I want to not see race.
I think a lot of the listeners of this show certainly like to think of themselves as thoughtful, intelligent, sensitive people. And if they're being told that the newest research shows that advocating for a colorblind perspective is actually harmful to people of color, I think that they might almost feel caught in the middle when they hear what you're saying. So I know that you move in a lot of different circles and I'm just curious if you have any message for people that are hearing what you're saying and thinking to themselves, “Well, what Kenny is saying makes sense, but I've also heard that this type of thinking is actually very hurtful and I should be careful of it”.
Kenny Xu: Well, let me ask those listeners a question then. When you approach somebody in a conversation and you talk to somebody, do you want that person to assume things about you based solely on what you look like? And I think the majority of people would say no. I wouldn't want somebody to come up to me and assume that I'm oppressed because I'm Asian. Or I think the majority, by the way, the majority of Black Americans do not want somebody to come out to them at a party and say, “Wow, I feel so sorry for you. You must be so oppressed”. That pretty much starts the conversation off on that note. When we say colorblind, what we really mean is we don't want to assume anything about a person based on race.
And I think that that's a very fair point to make. I think that's a very fair way to view the society. And the reason why people are attacking colorblind is because there's a huge race industry right now that profits off of dividing and categorizing people into race. The Head of Diversity and Inclusion at Berkeley makes $450,000 a year. You have Ethnic Studies consultancies in California. By the way, Ethnic Studies is about to be a mandate in California that charges $1,500 an hour.
I know. You wish, right? I wish! Would I sell out for that? I don't know. I wouldn't, but some people would. So that's why people attack colorblindness because it threatens their industry. It threatens their narrative that keeps their lifestyle alive.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: That's interesting. That's really interesting. Now I do want to return to what you mentioned earlier, and I said, I do want to get to it and I do
So I'm going to get to it now, which is that you talked about that there's this resentment and animosity that can actually then be increased around Asian American students because of some of these policies. Do you want to get back to that? Cause you were saying it was an interesting conversation about actual prejudice and bias against Asian and Asian American people.
Kenny Xu: Sure. Yeah. I'll tell you why Harvard does this policy to Asian Americans, why they treat Asian Americans like this. They're not radicals. Some people like to paint their admissions officers as a bunch of leftist radicals. They're not radicals. They're just people who are concerned about the image of their university. And when they talk to their donors and when they talk to themselves, they wonder whether a college of 43% Asians, that's 43% Asians, whether people would like that, and they question that.
It's a mentality that bakes into racial stereotyping. They think that if there are too many Asians at this campus, they'll just bring that sort of test-taking robot with no personality, emotions there. As a result, that's why they grade Asian Americans lowest on personality. Harvard grades people on three things: academics, extracurriculars, and personality. Asian Americans are highest in academics, highest in extra extracurriculars, lowest in personality. Why? It's not because they're objectively lowest. Although it's really hard to measure personality. But because Asian Americans actually score very high on alumni interviews, they scored very high on teacher recommendations. And there's no reason for this, except that Harvard's admissions officers simply do not want too many Asians at this college.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: Yeah. That's really powerful, Kenny. And I wanted to also just ask you on a personal level, how you came to this? I know you share some of it in your book that you went through this process yourself of applying to schools and having all of the most amazing credentials and then suddenly finding that you were not getting in.
Then you went to Davidson, which is great. And then that's where you encountered the Young America Foundation. I'm just curious what the process was like when you went to Davidson, had you heard of the idea that there was a conservative movement that was looking at these issues or was it new information for you?
Kenny Xu: So at that time there wasn't even a conservative movement that was looking at these issues. At the time it was only Asian Americans really speaking up because it was such an open secret. There are a couple of isolated conservatives speaking out about this. But the movement speaking out about this is only covered from the past couple of years, and it is in large part due to Students for Fair Admissions, the group suing Harvard, their activism, my activism, the book.
And so we've been able to get a lot of mainstream attention on this news. But it's true it was always an open secret that the Ivy Leagues are going to discriminate against us. This was one reason why I never applied to Harvard because I just couldn't on principle.
But I did apply to a few Ivy Leagues and didn't get in. And I was appropriately bitter about that. There's some people who are a lot more better than me. But when I went to Davidson I realized that this ideology is spreading. It's not just in the Ivy Leagues anymore. It's in all of the gifted and talented programs who are trying to put anti-racist ideology into their top Math and Science high schools. Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax, Virginia just passed a new policy. Went from 73% Asian Americans in that school because of merit-based admissions to 35 - 40% in one year, because they could not stand the thought of too many Asians, such a privileged group taking over all of the spots. So all this ideology is spreading and I realized that because this ideology is spreading, I can't stand silent anymore. I have to write a book about it.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: Yeah. And it's a very bold book. Do you mind sharing how your family has reacted to you writing this book?
Kenny Xu: They love it! They love it. They're so supportive of me and I'm really grateful. It is true that Asian Americans tend to choose more stable professions at times, Finance, consulting, that kind of thing. And I think that's totally fine. Being a doctor is great, you're doing such a great service to the country. But once in a while, if an author comes and shakes things up, I don't think it's such a bad thing.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: No, no, I think it's amazing! I wanted to also share with you, I left that you even applied some of these thoughts as well to prioritizing women's admissions in school and in the workplace. I just want you to know, I actually can really identify with that and I can really understand that. For myself as a business owner also because my revenue is a million plus per year, I get certain kinds of recognition and it's always a conversation like, “Oh, well, and Chloe's a woman”.
And so for a woman in business, to make this revenue or whatever, it's kind of always such a weird thing. Now as well, that I think women are actually graduating college at higher rates than men, I personally would have no problem at all with schools and everywhere else just saying like, “Okay, we’re no longer going to be specifically prioritizing women's applications”.
So Students for Fair Admission, will definitely drop a link to that in the show notes. And we'll definitely drop a link, of course, to your Twitter. And of course, to your book. Also I guess, through Students for Fair Admission is where people can click to get updates on that Supreme Court Case. Is there anything else Kenny that I haven't asked you about that you think people should know?
Kenny Xu: You should know that I'm President of Color Us United, ColorUsUnited.org. We advocate for a race-blind America. I know we talked a little bit about that. I know that term, people have different ideas about what that means. But I want to tell you guys, if we have to fight, we want to fight a truly racist ideology, which is an ideology that fixates on race. You can call it Anti-racism. You can call it Critical Race Theory. You can call it Diversity and Inclusion. You can call it whatever. You have to have a principle that supports what you do. And there's no better word to say it than colorblindness, because it says exactly what we need to say. We need to be a country that does not assume people on the basis of the color of their skin.
So we're going out there at ColorUsunited.org. Even if you're just interested, you should take a look and then you should sign our petition.
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: That's awesome, Kenny. Thank you so much. I really appreciate you joining on the High Functioning Hotspot. We'll make sure we provide links to all of those in the show notes. Thanks again.
Kenny Xu: Yeah, it’s great! Thank you!
Dr. Chloe Carmichael: Well, I hope that you enjoyed listening to that conversation with Kenny Xu. There is one thing I forgot to ask him about, which is that he's done all kinds of talks and addressed all kinds of groups, including apparently the, it says here in his bio I'm reading, including the All Black Connecticut Parents Union, that he was apparently invited to speak there.
I would have actually loved to have asked Kenny what that conversation was like and how that went for him. I'm certainly going to be curious to follow the Supreme Court Case, where Kenny is active. And we did put all of those links as well that he mentioned into the show notes.
So thank you so much for listening to the High Functioning Hotspot with me, Dr. Chloe Carmichael, and I'll see you next time.
- The High Functioning Podcast Homepage - www.TheHighFunctioningHotspot.com
- Dr. Chloe’s Homepage - http://drchloe.com/
- Kenny Xu’s Websites - https://www.kennethxu.com/ & http://inconvenientminority.com/
- Kenny Xu’s Facebook - https://www.facebook.com/kennymxu
- Kenny Xu’s Instagram - https://www.instagram.com/kennymxu/
- Kenny Xu’s Twitter - https://twitter.com/kennymxu
- Kenny Xu’s LinkedIn - https://www.linkedin.com/in/kenneth-m-xu/
- An Inconvenient Minority: The Attack on Asian American Excellence and the Fight for Meritocracy Amazon - https://www.amazon.com/Inconvenient-Minority-Admissions-American-Excellence/dp/1635767563
- Color Us United Website - https://colorusunited.org/
- Students for Fair Admissions - https://studentsforfairadmissions.org/