Asian Americans need to reconsider anti-affirmative action stances
May 26, 2023
Challenges to affirmative action
With the end of the school year also comes the end of college admissions seasons. Dozens of college essays are in the seniors’ rearview mirror; the stress from waiting for acceptances is an afterthought.
The end of one college admissions cycle, however, is the catalyst for the beginning of a new one. As a rising senior, naturally, I have been receiving a great deal of advice over college applications from the Class of ‘23. Much of it is to be expected: write the Common App essay over the summer, go on as many college visits as humanly possible, or know all of your application deadlines.
Like I said, this is all very expected. None of it warranted a second thought for me. However, there is one piece of advice that always sticks with me for a bit: do not seem too Asian in your application. I get told that because of affirmative action, policies that aim to overcome barriers to equal opportunity in higher institutions, Asian American students such as myself have to work twice as hard as Black or Latino students to be valued the same to college admissions officers.
Beliefs like these are the driving force behind two current Supreme Court Cases that have the ability to alter the college admissions landscape. The central question surrounding both cases is if any consideration of race in college admissions violates the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. With the plaintiff for both cases being Students for Fair Admissions (SFAA), the cases before the Supreme Court accuse Harvard University and University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (UNC) of discriminating against Asian American students for the following reasons.
Firstly, according to the complaints posted on the SFAA website, Harvard is participating in the unconstitutional act of racial balancing because despite the Asian American applicant pool increasing, the admission figures for Asian Americans do not change, which SFAA believe signals the use of “soft racial quotas.” Secondly, Harvard fails to use race merely as a “plus factor” and instead penalizes Asian American applicants for their ethnicity. Consequently, race becomes a defining characteristic, and not just a part of a holistic review, as colleges claim to review applications in court. Thirdly, statistical evidence shows that Asian Americans, on average, need higher test scores and GPAs compared to students of other racial groups in order to be accepted. Additionally, SFAA found that they were consistently penalized by Harvard admissions officers on subjective measures, like personality, compared to their Black and Latino counterparts. Finally, SFAA argues Harvard is using race in admissions decisions when race-neutral alternatives can also achieve diversity, which contradicts rulings set in the famous Fisher v. University of Texas case. I will break down each of these arguments further, later in the article.
While the latest cases against affirmative actions do not present notably different arguments from the previous ones, there is an important contrast that could affect the outcomes: the Supreme Court is now the most conservative it has been since the 1930s, with a 6-3 majority. Consequently, it is widely assumed that the court will likely end race-conscious admissions or at least further limit them as a result of these new cases. Having already heard oral arguments last October, an ultimate decision on this issue is expected this upcoming month, June 2023. A broad ruling could have expansive impacts, such as prohibiting consideration of race not only in higher institutions’ admissions policies, but in other areas such as housing, government contracting and employment, according to Donald P. Harris, associate dean for academic affairs at Beasley School of Law.
Yet, despite all the “evidence” SFAA has put forth against affirmative action being discriminatory, I find myself, an Asian American student, firm in my stance as an avid supporter of these policies. While I will not deny that there are signs of anti-Asian American bias in college admissions, I also believe blaming these actions on affirmative action is misguided. Furthermore, despite claims of such bias, I implore fellow Asian American students to delve a little deeper than the surface level of this issue. With this article, I hope to provide at least a little insight into this issue, and why affirmative action is an integral piece of our country’s structures that should be preserved.
What is Affirmative Action
Nowadays, I often hear affirmative action being paired with sentiments that imply Black and Latino students are only accepted to high ranking institutions because of their race. This showcases a common misinterpretation many have regarding what affirmative action truly is. In order to understand the scope of this issue, it’s important to define affirmative action in the context of college admissions amidst the constant misinformation surrounding it.
It is likely this misconception is based on the knowledge that there was a point in time when affirmative action did often result in college acceptances solely based on the race of the applicant, through the practice of racial quotas. However, this is not the case today, as the use of racial quotas, in which colleges reserve a designated number of spots for students based on their race and admit them exclusively on that basis, was ruled unconstitutional in the 1978 Supreme Court case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. In Bakke, the court also ruled the use of affirmative action policies to remedy the effects of racial discrimination unconstitutional. However, this was not the end of affirmative action. The court acknowledged a “compelling interest” in the educational benefits of having a diverse student body, which allowed them to consider race in admissions, so long as it was part of a holistic review rather than a racial quota.
This set a precedent for the next decades, until the sister cases of Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger were brought to court in 2003. With Gratz, the Supreme Court deemed University of Michigan’s law school point-based admissions system unconstitutional. Previously, the University of Michigan granted admission to any applicant who scored more than 100 points on a 150-point scale. Members of underrepresented minorities were each granted 20 points right off the bat, and as a result, “virtually every” qualified applicant from these minority groups was admitted. The court found that the points system was unconstitutional because race had not been considered on an individualized basis, but rather on a larger level, similar to the use of racial quotas. With its sister case, Grutter v. Bollinger, however, affirmative action was further upheld on the basis that, in the case of Grutter v. Bollinger, race was considered on an individualized basis.
Then, the final affirmative action court case of note is Fisher v. University of Texas, in which a white woman named Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas over its race-conscious admissions policy in an attempt to overturn affirmative action. Although her efforts failed, and affirmative action was reaffirmed yet again, a ruling was made that limited affirmative action so it could only be used when race-neutral alternatives did not suffice.
If these Supreme Court rulings tell us anything, it is that affirmative action does not allow any candidate to receive acceptances on the basis of their race. Rather, race can only be considered among a myriad of factors and has to be applied in a non-universal manner, and only when race-neutral measures don’t suffice.
Breaking down anti-affirmative arguments
Now that I have established a general understanding on what affirmative action is today, let us go back to SFAA’s arguments in the Harvard and UNC cases.
1. Number of Asian Americans admitted has plateaued at Harvard, despite a greater applicant pool, showing signs of “soft racial quotas.”
This claim is quick to dispel. The admitted class of 2016 was 20.7% Asian American, and ten years later, the percentage of Asian Americans in the admitted class of 2026 climbed up to 27.9%. While I could not obtain data regarding the demographics of the applicant pool, any claims about admission figures for Asian Americans being unvaried can be disproved by this noticeable rise of Asian American acceptances in the last ten years. This statistic is especially interesting when noting that Asian Americans only make up 5.9% of the American population, but over a quarter at premier institutions, such as Harvard.
2. Race-neutral policies can harbor diversity in campuses.
On August 1, 2022, before the oral arguments were made on either of the prominent cases against affirmative action mentioned in the introduction, the UC president and its ten chancellors filed an amicus brief in favor of Harvard and UNC. An amicus brief is a legal document submitted by a person or group that is not a part of the legal case, but is allowed to help a court by providing information or expertise that is deemed to have important bearings on a case.
Passed in 1996, Proposal 209 mandated that colleges of the UC system, and other state entities, could not use any affirmative action policies in their admissions practices. While diversity in classes did rise, with the UC system as a whole having its most diverse class in 2021, the brief states that there are two concerns that overshadow this achievement. Firstly, diversity gains were not shared among all campuses—and that it is diversity on the campus that is most relevant to students as it is where student interaction occurs. Lastly, the UC student population differs vastly from the California high school graduate population, warning that UC is not sufficiently enrolling students with diverse perspectives.
This is especially concerning because of the valuable impacts diversity can have on an individual. According to Elizabeth A. Segal, a social policy analyst and professor in the School of Social Work at Arizona State University, “when we meet and live and work with people who are different, we are more likely to be exposed to new ideas and new ways of thinking. Mixing with people of different backgrounds and life experiences brings us to question why we are doing things the way we do. It forces a questioning of values and beliefs.”
It is for these reasons that affirmative action was protected for the purposes of ensuring diversity in college student bodies in the Bekke case.
3. Asian Americans and white Americans are penalized for their race.
Despite the rulings of the cases examined above, I cannot confirm or disprove the validity of SFAA’s claim that Asian American and white applicants are penalized for their race. I have never been, nor will ever be, in the room where Harvard evaluates its application, and I have no way of knowing how the inner-workings of the Harvard admissions process. However, I can confirm that one fact has been conveniently left out of many attacks against affirmative action policies. Data and studies suggest that women, white women in particular, have benefited disproportionately from such policies.
Furthermore, if unfair college admissions practices are truly the heart of the war, as Blum claims they are, then how come legacy admissions isn’t being challenged? In 1995, of all living Ivy League alumni, 96% were white. This racial imbalance within alumni means that the favoring of legacies will inevitably disproportionately favor white applicants, as they primarily compromise the population of legacy students. As a result, legacy admissions reinforce a cycle of disparity, favoring white Americans over minorities.
4. There is anti-Asian American bias in the admissions process.
Despite me arguing against every claim SFAA has put forth, there is one that seems to hold true. SFAA’s last argument, in a more direct manner, argues that there is anti-Asian American bias in higher education, specifically in subjective areas. In its review of Harvard’s admissions process, SFAA found that Harvard admissions officers gave its Asian American applicants the lowest personality ratings, despite their alumni interviewers—who actually meet the students—rating them much higher.
“He’s quiet and of course wants to be a doctor,” one Harvard admissions officer allegedly wrote about a candidate. Another applicant was described as a “hard worker,” but with a caveat: “Would she relax and have any fun?”
With this evidence brought to the table, I can see why so much bitterness exists over affirmative action (I find myself frustrated too), but is affirmative action really the cause of this anti-Asian American bias? No, it isn’t. While I can acknowledge and be deeply frustrated that there is apparent anti-Asian American bias in higher education, I also believe that affirmative action is not the problem in this scenario.
A grass-root movement should not be centered around banning affirmative action; it should be around dismantling the implicit biases against Asian Americans that are so ingrained into American society.
“If you’re worried about the ‘personal rating,’ ending the consideration of race for these other groups isn’t going to change those biases,” Natasha Warikoo, sociology professor at Tufts University, said, referring to the qualitative portion of Harvard’s admissions process. “Even if there is discrimination happening, how is removing affirmative action going to solve it?”
A lot of these stereotypes created against Asian Americans that we are seeing in the admissions room are largely a consequence of the model minority myth: a set of stereotypes that portrays Asian Americans as a polite, law-abiding group who have achieved a higher level of success than the general population through some combination of innate talent and pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps thinking.
None of this means that Harvard actively discriminates against Asian American candidates, as it did against Jews in the early 20th century when universities established quotas on Jewish students. Whereas the biases against Jews were out in the open, the ones against Asian Americans are typically implicit: we’re not always conscious of them, but they still affect our perception and behavior. Banning affirmative action isn’t going to make those biases magically disappear. Asians will still be viewed as they already are, except this time affirmative action can’t be blamed as the culprit.
Asian Americans in anti-affirmative action fight
Another notable point I believe needs to be made is that the motivations of the plaintiffs of the two current cases are not as noble as they are said to be. As a result, Asian Americans are being used as tools to obtain a goal not in their best interests.
Before I had even read through the complaints SFAA had placed against Harvard and UNC, I had already noticed a red flag with the group filing both lawsuits. The plaintiff of both cases, SFAA, is led by Edward Blum, a man who has been behind dozens of lawsuits challenging affirmative action practices and voting rights laws across the country. He has orchestrated two of the biggest such cases to reach the Supreme Court. One being the Fisher case, and the other, Shelby County v. Holder, successfully contesting parts of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, one of our country’s most important pieces of civil rights legislation.
While he failed in banning affirmative action with the Fisher case, Blum finds himself back on the court floor this year. However, the face of victimhood isn’t coming from white Americans this time, but from Asian Americans. Many experts in the field say this change is purposeful and calculated.
“It was a very explicit strategy that Blum had to try and change the narrative on affirmative action by putting Asian Americans front and center,” Warikoo told a journalist at FiveThirtyEight, a website focusing on American politics. “He found Asian Americans who were willing to play that role and bought his argument.”
It is for these reasons that I am skeptical about SFAA’s motives; are Asian American interests truly at the forefront of these Supreme Court cases? When I know Blum has been anti-affirmative action for a long time, but had not shown any interest in Asian American perspectives, and then hear him blatantly commenting that he “needed Asian plaintiffs,” after losing with a white plaintiff, the efforts come across as disingenuous. It begins to feel as if Asian Americans are being manipulated as pawn pieces in a game.
This is nothing new. Historically, Asian Americans have often been weaponized against other racial minority groups. Asian Americans are in an interesting position because despite facing violence and discrimination in the same ways other minority groups do, we also surpass other racial groups, including white Americans, in terms of socioeconomic success. We are made as examples of self-made success, as the “model minority.” This pits us against other minority groups, such as those who are Black or Latino, and blames their general lack of social mobility against laziness, rather than a product of institutionalized barriers. This anti-Black/anti-Hispanic/anti-Native American rhetoric formed predominantly in the 1960s, but we still see it happening today, such as in the SFAA affirmative action cases.
Furthermore, the model minority myth allows Asian Americans to be portrayed as a monolith, denying the visibility of the dozens upon dozens of subgroups that comprise it. The idea that SFAA pushes is that success is a universal quality amongst Asian Americans, and that as such, we are punished for it. While some Asian American subgroups, such as Chinese American and Indian Asian Americans do see success at higher rates than other ethnic groups, some of their counterparts are on the opposite side of the spectrum. According to the 2016 Post-Election National Asian American Survey, 57% of Cambodian Americans and 53% of Hmong Americans say that there is a “very serious” problem with the quality of their children’s schools. Due to shifting U.S. immigration patterns and policies, the income gaps among Asian American ethnic communities are the largest among all racial groups. Southeast Asian Americans, for example, experience poverty at rates higher than the 11% national average for all Americans. With its ability to provide for equal opportunity for all minority groups, taking away affirmative action would ultimately hurt these groups.
Asian American interests are not being taken to heart in this scenario. Rather, we are being used as pawns in a bigger game that aims to dismantle the systems that ensure diversity and equal opportunity for all minority groups. Blum knows that banning affirmative action policies will benefit one racial group: white Americans.
When I first sat down to write this opinion piece, my goal had been to write an article that provided commentary solely on the need for the Supreme Court reaffirming current precedents over affirmative action. As I delved deeper and deeper into the research, the more I discovered that the current Supreme Court case is about much more than simply whether or not race should be considered in college admissions. It’s about the repetitive efforts to pit minority groups against one another; it’s about the erasure of various Asian American subgroup experiences; it’s about a discussion regarding how we view meritocracy and opportunity in this country. Affirmative action’s reach is expansive in American society.
I ask everyone, but especially Asian Americans, to research this topic on their own, ask questions when there is confusion, and always be willing to keep an open mind. Affirmative action is on the brink of death, and our community might just be the one to kill it.