The voices of Urban Institute's researchers and staff
August 3, 2017

#NotYourModelMinority: Asian Americans in the affirmative action debate

August 3, 2017

On Tuesday, the New York Times reported on a document suggesting the Trump administration intends to investigate and possibly sue universities “over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants.” The next day, the US Department of Justice denied those claims and announced it will investigate a complaint that Harvard University’s admissions process discriminates against Asian Americans.

Affirmative action is a controversial topic not just for white communities, but for Asian Americans who worry that regardless of their merits, affirmative action enables universities to use implicit racial quotas and deny them admission.

Last year, the US Supreme Court ruled in Fisher v. University of Texas II to uphold affirmative action. This summer, Edward Blum, the president of the group suing the university, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), announced their newest lawsuit against the university with a video featuring Corey Liu, son of Chinese immigrants and volunteer executive director of SFFA. Liu said,

Speaking as an Asian American, I can tell you that we all know that when we apply to college that the deck is stacked against us because of our race. We know that the system is rigged against Asian Americans.

In these few sentences, Liu highlighted the anxieties of those feeling unfairly discriminated against in university admissions. But Asian American attitudes to affirmative action are not necessarily what the headlines and lawsuits make them out to be. Asian Americans should not allow the dominant narrative of their victimization to be used as a wedge to undermine support for policies like affirmative action. Doing so will only perpetuate structural racial disparities and constrain mobility for communities of color.

Here are some facts and historical context that can dispel the myths and elevate the debate around Asian American voices and affirmative action.

Myth #1. Asian Americans are apathetic, if not outright opposed, to affirmative action.

Although some Asian American groups strongly oppose affirmative action, they don’t reflect the majority opinion of Asian Americans. Data from the 2012 National Asian American Survey, the first nationally representative survey on Asian Americans, shows that 78 percent of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders favor affirmative action. A 2016 report by APIAVote, Asian Americans Advancing for Justice, and AAPIData demonstrates the same: 64 percent of Asian American voters said that they think programs designed to help blacks, women, and other minorities access higher education are a good thing.

Myth #2. Asian Americans have not benefited from affirmative action practices.

Asian Americans were some of affirmative action’s biggest beneficiaries in the 1970s. Affirmative action played a significant role in the rapid increase of Asian American enrollment at competitive institutions in the 1970s and 1980s, so much so that it partially contributed to their reputation as a “model minority.” Between 1976 and 1986, the percentage of Asian American first-year students grew from 4 to 13 percent at Harvard, from 6 to 15 percent at Stanford, and from 17 to 28 percent at the University of California, Berkeley.

When admissions offices saw the Asian population on their campuses rise to 10 to 15 percent, many stopped considering Asian Americans “underrepresented” and made them ineligible for affirmative action. But the Asian American community is not a monolith. Aggregate statistics make it seem like all Asians enjoy high educational and employment outcomes, but this is not the case. Breaking the data down by ethnic groups and immigrant waves shows that youth in several Southeast Asian communities are more likely to live in poverty in the United States and be disconnected from formal education and employment.

Myth #3. Affirmative action disproportionately hurts deserving Asian Americans despite their high educational achievement.

Opponents of affirmative action often cite a 2009 Princeton study by Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford claiming Asian American applicants have to score 140 points higher than their white peers on the SATs, 270 points higher than their Latinx peers, and 450 points higher than their black peers to have an equal chance of admission to competitive institutions. These differences are sometimes called the “Asian tax.” If this penalty were real, Asian American outrage at a rigged system would make more sense.

But Espenshade believes this to be a misinterpretation of the research. He noted in an interview with Inside Higher Education that their analysis did not include factors more difficult to quantify, such as letters of recommendation, personal statements, or lists of extracurricular activities other than athletics. Their findings are insufficient to support arguments of anti-Asian discrimination in affirmative action practices.

Elevating all voices

Concern about racial discrimination is understandable, but opposing race-conscious affirmative action overlooks past and present challenges that communities of color—including Asian Americans—face in higher education. It ignores the way Asian Americans benefited from affirmative action 50 years ago and how they continue to benefit from racial and ethnic diversity on campuses.

The US population is shifting to be more racially and ethnically diverse. A decline in white applicant admissions and an increase in students of color might be more of a demographic change than antiwhite discrimination.

Asian Americans should focus on elevating their voice to improve and shape education policy in a way that acknowledges and addresses systemic inequalities not just for themselves, but for all minorities.

Photo via Shutterstock

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