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Affirmative Action

One of the most controversial issues in the discussion of race relations in the U.S. is that of affirmative action. Not only are different racial/ethnic groups arguing with each other over this topic but many times, members of the same racial/ethnic group can't agree with each other over it. Even after the recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court that race can be considered as a factor in admissions (although not through a quota system), the question still remains becomes, how does affirmative action affect Asian Americans?

What Exactly Is Affirmative Action?

Affirmative action was first developed in the early 1960s under President Kennedy, who said that government should take "affirmative action" to address the inequality and discrimination that Blacks still experience. President Johnson strongly supported this policy and expanded it. Johnson gave a very famous speech about it in 1965:

You do not take a person who has been hobbled by chains, liberate him, bring him up to the starting line, and then tell him that he's free to race against all the others and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.
Later, President Nixon was the first to set up specific federal guidelines to implement affirmative action policies.

We should understand that there are several different forms of affirmative action, practiced by different types of organizations (i.e., public versus private sector, large versus small company, etc.). When affirmative action was first implemented, one type that was often used was setting up a quota -- designating a specific number of hiring decisions, admission positions, or contractor awards to racial/ethnic minorities or women.

From the beginning, quotas were very controversial in nature and generated much resentment from Whites who felt that they were arbitrarily and unfairly being denied access to such opportunities. These sentiments gave rise to the argument that affirmative action was simply reverse discrimination against Whites.

Through the years, various court cases challenged the legality and constitutionality of affirmative action programs. One of the first significant Supreme Court cases was Bakke v. University of California, in which Allan Bakke (a White male) sued the University of California after twice being denied admission to the UC Davis medical school. The U.S. Supreme Court finally ruled that the quota system used by the University of California was unconstitutional, but that affirmative action programs in general are legal and constitutional.

More important, using the Bakke case, the Supreme Court also concluded that a person's "race" could be used as one factor in admissions decisions, if it is used to increase "diversity" at that particular school. This principle has guided virtually all affirmative action programs since the late 1970s. Further, these days, quotas have almost universally been eliminated from affirmative action programs. Instead, affirmative action programs now generally rely on giving preferences (preferential consideration) to particular underrepresented groups in their decisions.

Continuing Controversies and Arguments

Of course, switching from quotas to preferences has not lessened the controversy and disagreements over affirmative action. The points of disagreement generally revolve around these basic arguments:

Nothing wrong with diversity  Steve Chenn/Corbis

Affirmative Action Means Rewarding Lazy and Unmotivated People
The criticism is that affirmative action automatically rewards people who do not deserve such opportunities and who only rely on their "minority" status to get ahead in life. In response, supporters of affirmative action note that affirmative action only provides equal access and opportunity, not equal outcome. In other words, such programs only give underrepresented groups the fair chance work toward achieving success. Once they are given that chance, affirmative action cannot guarantee that they will succeed, only that they are given the same chance that Whites have. This criticism is very similar to the next one presented below.

Affirmative Action Means Hiring/Admitting Under-Qualified Candidates
Critics argue that in order to eliminate racial discrimination, people should be judged solely by their individual merits and qualifications, not by their race or ethnicity. Therefore, those who have the highest or best qualifications, whether that is measured by GPA, SAT and other test scores, or years of experience at a job, should get admitted or be awarded the job. Otherwise, awarding it to someone else with lower qualifications is immoral and unfair.

Supporters of affirmative action counter argue that in theory, and if America were a pure meritocracy, yes people would be judged solely by their individual qualifications. But because of the history and legacy of systematic discrimination against Blacks and other groups of color, they have been put in positions that have not allowed them to maximize their full potential and therefore, have not been able to score as high on test scores, etc. as White students.

Further, they argue that there are many ways to think of what it means to be "qualified." Supporters argue that of course, there should be a minimum set of standards that applicants need to achieve, whether that applies to college admissions or hiring. Their line of reasoning is that, is an applicant with an SAT score of 2200 (out of a possible 2400) that much more qualified, or likely to succeed in college, compared to an applicant with a score of 2000? Or is a job applicant with 12 years of experience at a particular job that much more qualified than an applicant with 10 years of experience?

In other words, supporters of affirmative action argue that once minimum standards are met, a school or company should be allowed to choose any qualified candidate they want, based on their institutional goals (such as increasing diversity, which as mentioned above, the Supreme Court has consistently ruled is legal to do).

To bolster their argument, supporters of affirmative action cite research that shows standardized tests, such as the SAT, last, GRE, MCAT, etc., cannot accurately measure an applicant's level of qualification. In other words, studies consistently show that such tests cannot predict how well a student will do in school, how likely s/he is to graduate, nor how intelligent s/he is. All they measure is how well a particular student can take that particular test at that particular time.

In fact, companies such as The College Board (who administers the SAT) have acknowledged the inherent limitations of such tests. Further, many colleges and universities, including the entire University of California system, are moving away from requiring or even considering SAT tests in their admissions decisions. In response to this, in 2005, The College Board revamped the SAT to try to make improve its reliability and applicability to "real world" academic skills.

Whites Today Should Not Be Punished For What Happened Hundreds of Years Ago
A third common complaint is related to the argument about reverse discrimination -- that Whites today have never owned slaves, nor did any of their ancestors. Further, the vast, overwhelming majority of Whites do not have racist feelings towards people of color and have never discriminated against them. Therefore, it is unfair to punish them for the sins of a relatively few Whites that occurred more than 150 years ago, by denying them admissions or a job based only on the fact that they are White.

Supporters of affirmative action contend that although all Whites today and virtually all of their ancestors never owned slaves, they nonetheless directly and indirectly benefited from slavery by having less competition for school admissions, jobs, and government programs. It was these types of opportunities that helped propel many Whites and their descendents into the middle and upper classes, while slaves and their descendents were systematically left behind and denied these same opportunities.

In other words, supporters contend that for several hundreds years because racism denied minorities basic educational, economic, and other opportunities, we basically had a system of affirmative action for White males. Ultimately, slavery and other forms of systematic racial discrimination created such a wide gap between Whites and many non-Whites, that unfortunately, it will take time to adequately close that gap so that eventually, all candidates and applicants can be judged solely on their individual merits.

Too Much of a Good Thing?

When affirmative action was first implemented in the early 1970s, Asian Americans benefited from it in large numbers, as did Blacks, Hispanics/Latinos, American Indians and the group that has benefited the most, White women. Since that time, Asian Americans have achieved notable successes in educational attainment, employment, and income -- so much so that Asians are frequently called the "model minority."

Students studying together  Corbis

In fact, on many university campuses around the country, Asian Americans soon became disproportionately represented. That is, it was common for 10%, 15%, or more of a university's student population to be of Asian ancestry at a time when Asians were only about 3% of the general population. This was also because the Asian American population is relatively young, so many more Asians were applying to college than before as well.

Nonetheless, many universities became alarmed at the growing Asian American student population on their campuses. So much so that once the Asian proportion of their student population reached 10%-15%, they began to reject Asian students who were clearly qualified. Soon, Asian Americans were accusing universities such as U.C. Berkeley, UCLA, Stanford, Harvard, Princeton, and Brown of imposing a quota or upper limit on their admission numbers. After several protests and investigations, these universities admitted that there were problems with these admission policies but never admitted any deliberate wrongdoing.

Soon thereafter, many conservatives and opponents of affirmative action began to argue that these Asian American students were "victims" of affirmative action, just like Whites. In other words, these Asian American students were being denied admission when other "less qualified" ethnic groups (implying Blacks, Latinos, and American Indians) were being admitted.

As many Asian American scholars note, at first this argument may sound plausible. But after careful investigation, the real issue is not that Asian students are "competing" with other racial/ethnic minority groups. Rather, the real cause of this controversy is the widespread use of admissions factors that always seem to favor Whites.

For example, many private universities use "legacy clauses" in which the children of their alumni have a big advantage in admissions, even though many of whom would not have been admitted otherwise. The problem is that legacy clauses almost always favor Whites because a generation ago, there were very few racial/ethnic minorities attending these elite schools. As research showed, the widespread use of these legacy admissions is what's responsible for the artificially low admission rates for Asian Americans. Also, in contrast to perceptions that minority students receive a disproportionate amount of financial awards from affirmative action programs, recent data show that in fact, the vast majority of merit-based and private scholarships still go to White students.

Other factors that lowered the admissions rates for Asian students included persistent stereotypes that Asian students were not "well-rounded" candidates and rarely participate in extracurricular activities. Again, national research showed that in terms of participating in sports, performing arts, academic and social clubs, and community activities, the rates for Asian students were almost identical to that of White students. The point is that in this case, Asian Americans were still the targets of discrimination and that in many cases, the real beneficiaries of this were not other racial/ethnic minorities, but the children of alumni at elite universities.

Asians and Affirmative Action Today

These days, there are still many differing opinions on affirmative action among Asian Americans. While public opinion surveys generally show that a majority of Asian Americans support affirmative action, many in our communities believe that American society is indeed a meritocracy and that everyone should be judged purely on his/her abilities, rather than ethnic identity. As Asian-Nation discusses in many articles, there is a lot of diversity in the Asian American community, and that includes views about affirmative action.

Since affirmative action programs were first implemented, many Asian Americans have achieved remarkably high levels of education, economic, and occupational attainment. This socioeconomic success has led many colleges and companies to no longer consider Asian Americans as an "underrepresented" minority group and therefore, are no longer eligible to be included in such affirmative action guidelines and programs.

Unfortunately, in doing so, many colleges and companies demonstrate that they have not learned the fundamental lesson that not all Asian Americans are the same, and that not all are successful. Specifically, many Pacific Islanders and some Southeast Asian groups (i.e., Laotian, Cambodian, Hmong, etc.) are still struggling socioeconomically, are still "underrepresented" in such institutions, and therefore should still be included in such affirmative action programs.

A recent National Merit Scholarship winner  Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis

The question still remains, do Asian Americans still benefit from affirmative action or are they being hurt by it? Again, it all depends on the specific program and set of guidelines in question and whether or not they include Asian Americans (or which specific APA groups) as an underrepresented group. For example, recent data has shown that after residents voted to end affirmative action programs in California, Florida, and Texas, enrollments of Asian Americans in the top public universities in these states increased while conversely, the numbers of Black, Latino, and even (ironically) White students have declined, along with a decline in the number of male students.

Data like this suggests that Asian Americans benefit the most when affirmative action programs are eliminated. On the other hand, other studies show that Asian American enrollments actually declined in law schools in California, Texas, and Washington after affirmative action was ended in these states and that the real reason for instances of increasing enrollments is not the elimination of affirmative action per se, but instead, is based on eliminating simple discrimination and judging Asian American applicants equally with other applicants.

Is There A Middle Ground?

In short, the data seems to be inconclusive regarding affirmative action's current effect on Asian Americans. For now, again reflecting the wide diversity that exists within the Asian American community, the simple answer seems to be that some affirmative action programs hurt some Asian Americans, while other programs help other Asian Americans.

Whatever the assessment, we need to remember that as a result of the 2003 Supreme Court cases involving the University of Michigan's affirmative action programs, race can be used as a legitimate factor in admissions decisions, but that there are "right" and "wrong" ways to do so. The National APA Legal Consortium presents a very clear and concise look at the University of Michigan case and why considering race is just as fair as any other consideration in admissions decisions.

On the political front, through the efforts of affirmative action critics such as Ward Connelly, residents in many states continue to vote on ballot initiatives that would ban affirmative action in their states, just as it has been done in California and other states.

Within this turbulent debate, is there a possibility of a middle ground? Perhaps so. Many colleges have begun adopting "holistic admissions" guidelines that factor in "objective" measures such as test scores and GPA, but also includes "non-cognitive" characteristics (such as hard work, reward determination, leadership, etc.) that are designed to reward students who bring special experiences to the university, but do so in a way that doesn't favor one particular group more than others or that encourage students to pad their "laundry list" list of extracurricular activities.

Using such a holistic approach, these colleges minimize the need to consider an applicant's race/ethnicity, but still achieve the goal of increasing diversity on their campus without sacrificing academic quality, since the data show that students admitting using holistic guidelines perform equally with more "conventional" admitteess.

In the end, the debate surrounding affirmative action is not likely to end any time soon. However, that does not mean that we should be locked into an "all-or-nothing," "us-versus-them" kind of mentality. In other words, I believe that American society does not have to be a zero sum proposition -- that is, one person's gain is not always another person's loss. Instead, if we work together, there can be plenty of opportunities to go around.

That is, for the sake of our country's future competitiveness in the increasingly intense global marketplace (which includes not just academic skills but also being more familiar and comfortable with increasing racial, ethnic and culture diversity all around us), we need to expand educational opportunities for everyone.

Author Citation

Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Affirmative Action and Asian Americans" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <> ().

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