The views and opinions expressed on this site and blog posts (excluding comments on blog posts left by others) are entirely my own and do not represent those of any employer or organization with whom I am currently or previously have been associated.
Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.
Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.
You may have heard that a coalition of about 60 Asian American organizations recently filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education, alleging that Harvard University and other Ivy League schools systematically discriminate against Asian American applicants using affirmative action. This complaint follows two similar lawsuits filed in federal court last November that allege the same charges of discrimination against Asian Americans using affirmative action.
Specifically, the complaints allege that Harvard and other universities around the country that use affirmative action policies ultimately discriminate against Asian American applicants by, among other things, imposing a quota that artificially limits the total number of Asian Americans admitted, and by forcing Asian American applicants to achieve higher GPAs and SAT or ACT scores in order to have an equal chance of admission compared to non-Asian applicants.
Before I continue, I want to reiterate that I strongly support affirmative action. Rather than detailing the multiple reasons why affirmative action ultimately benefits the Asian American community, I refer you to the recent post on AsianAmericanCivilRights.org that contains a concise summary of the arguments in favor of affirmative action, along with a list of more than 135 Asian American organizations that support affirmative action. Further, you can download copies of two studies by academics that provide even more detailed arguments about affirmative action and specifically, how “negative action,” rather than affirmative action, explains the inequalities Asian Americans face in college admissions:
Chin, Gabriel, Sumi Cho, Jerry Kang, and Frank Wu. 2003. “Beyond Self-Interest: Asian Pacific Americans Toward a Community of Justice.” (PDF)
Kidder, William C. 2006. “Negative Action Versus Affirmative Action: Asian Pacific Americans Are Still Caught in the Middle.” (PDF)
These articles also get into how claims of discrimination play into the model minority image of Asian Americans, how affirmative action has been used repeatedly as a ‘wedge’ issue to divide communities of color by conservative actors, and to impart a superficial “honorary White” status onto Asian Americans and to use our community as an example that African Americans, Latino Americans, and Native American Indians should follow. So instead of elaborating on these aspects in detail, the purpose of this post is to provide an historical and sociological context for us to understand why some Asian Americans oppose affirmative action.
As I have written on previously, affirmative action is one of, if not the most divisive issue within the Asian American community (up there with interracial dating and marriage). As such, I am not surprised that many Asian Americans are passionately opposed to affirmative action. I also understand why they are so opposed.
The first factor that helps us to understand why many Asian Americans are against affirmative action is that, more than likely, those Asian Americans who oppose affirmative action tend to be recent immigrants. This is an important distinction because, as recent immigrants, they are less likely to be familiar with the U.S.’s unfortunate history and ongoing legacy of systematic inequality and discrimination against groups of color, particularly African Americans.
Instead, these recent immigrants are more likely to see the U.S. in very idealized ways, specifically as the “Land of Opportunity” where, if they just work hard enough and achieve the highest test scores and GPAs, they will be able to achieve “The American Dream” of economic, if not social, success. In other words, many recent Asian American immigrants see the U.S. as a pure meritocracy, where those with the highest ‘objective’ qualifications should reap the biggest rewards.
Unfortunately, this view of the U.S. as a pure meritocracy is rather simplistic, naive, and fails to consider the multitude of institutional mechanisms that historically, have given members of certain groups a systematic advantage over others, and how such advantages (and disadvantages) have accumulated and become reinforced year after year, decade after decade, generation after generation. As many supporters of affirmative action would rightly point out, even if a student is extraordinarily intelligent, motivated, and hard-working, s/he may not have access to certain economic resources and educational opportunities to maximize their talents and skills to succeed.
Based on this idealized, simplistic, and meritocratic view of U.S. society, these recent Asian American immigrants who oppose affirmative action are likely to think that if their child has higher SAT or ACT scores and/or a higher GPA than other applicants, then their child should be admitted, end of discussion. To them, any other factor besides ‘objective’ measures such as test scores and GPA are irrelevant. They would scoff at suggestions that factors such as applicant’s life experiences, increasing demographic diversity in the student population, or racial identity can be considered (even though the U.S. Supreme Court has consistently concluded that it is constitutional to consider all such factors in college admissions).
Many of these recent Asian American immigrants who oppose affirmative action also come from professional or upper-income backgrounds. This tends to reinforce and perpetuate their meritocratic mentality of how the world, and U.S. society in particular, should work. In other words, they are likely to think, “If I worked hard and became successful, then why can’t everybody else can do the same.” Also perhaps because these Asian immigrants tend to come from a racially homogenous country, they are not likely to be aware of, or even care about, the history of systematic racism against African Americans, Latino Americans, Native American Indians, and other Asian Americans (such as those from refugee backgrounds in Southeast Asia from and therefore do not have the same levels of human capital) here in the U.S., and how the legacy of racism still hurts the chances of these groups of color even today.
If nothing else, this debate over affirmative action within the Asian American community should illustrate once and for all that Asian Americans are not a monolithic category and that instead, there are numerous differences across ethnicities, human capital and social class, generation, and political ideologies. With this mind, I completely understand why some Asian Americans are opposed to affirmative action. I just think that their arguments are misguided, too narrowly-focused, and completely miss the larger sociological and historical context that continues to frame the contentious dynamics of race and ethnicity in U.S. society today.
In case you’re the nostalgic type, here are some posts in this blog from December of years past:
2009: How Immigrants Contribute to American Society Within the partisan an emotional debates on the cultural and economic effects of immigration, several new studies point out that immigrants ultimately make several important contributions to American society.
2005: Model Minority Expectations and Suicide The intense pressure from families and society of living up to standards of high achievement can be overwhelming and has led many young Asian Americans to take their own lives.
2004: Inter-Asian Sentiments Examples from popular culture in both Japan and South Korea illustrate the contradictory nature of inter-ethnic relations between Asians of different ethnic groups.
2004: Affirmative Action: Beginning of the End? Recent political and educational trends suggest that the use of affirmative action programs is declining, although the need for such programs is still open to debate.
Despite — or perhaps because of — Barack Obama’s election as President, affirmative action remains one of the most controversial and divisive issues in American society today. It’s an issue that can divide not only different racial/ethnic groups, but even members of a single racial group like Asian Americans. In fact, some of the most heated arguments I’ve had with people over affirmative action has been with other Asian Americans.
The issues and controversies surrounding affirmative action are not going to be resolved any time soon and perhaps not even in my lifetime. For now, I hope that we can all look at the issues from a more sociological and objective, rather than personal, point of view and at least understand each side’s positions, even if we don’t agree with them. To help in that process, MSNBC as an article that does a nice job at describing the current state of affirmative action in the U.S. in an objective and balanced way:
Strict racial quotas were unconstitutional, the court said — affirmative action was not. But that ruling far from decided what many considered the big-picture issue: Does protecting minorities discriminate against the majority? More than 30 years [after the famous Bakke v. University of California lawsuit], and scores of lawsuits later, the question remains unanswered. . . .
“The laws that Congress wrote are clear — everyone is protected from racial discrimination,” said Roger Clegg, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank that advocates eliminating race and ethnic considerations. “Not just blacks, but whites. Not just Latinos, but whites.”
Those who favor affirmative action say race divisions still exist in this country, 40 years after the civil rights movement. “Race so permeates society that you can’t ignore it,” said Dennis Parker, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Racial Justice Project. . . .
Twenty years later, a more conservative court declared that public school systems cannot try to achieve or maintain integration based on explicit race rules. . . . At issue in the case were programs in Seattle and Louisville, Ky., that tried to maintain racial diversity by limiting transfers and admissions.
“The Supreme Court case law isn’t clear. There aren’t bright lines and clear guidance,” said attorney Deborah Archer, director of the Racial Justice Project at New York Law School. “It’s very difficult to extract a rule from those cases that can be applied across the board.” Instead, “they have tended to be concerned with a specific aspect, and the decisions are made on case-by-case basis,” said Archer.
To summarize, through the years, the Supreme Court has basically ruled that consideration of an applicant’s race/ethnicity is legal, if there is a direct and specific reason supporting it, which includes the goal of creating a racially and ethnically diverse student population at colleges and universities and in private sector companies. However, the Supreme Court has also ruled that blanket policies such as quotas and allocating points to minority candidates are illegal and unconstitutional.
As the article also mentions, the Supreme Court is not likely to make any broad or sweeping decisions on affirmative action in general any time soon, instead preferring to make judgments about specific programs and policies on a case-by-case basis.
Blacks and Hispanics lag behind whites for higher-paying jobs at the largest rates in about a decade . . . Blacks overall slightly narrowed the gap in 2007 with whites in average salary, but the pay disparity widened for blacks with college degrees. Blacks who had a four-year bachelor’s degree earned $46,502, or about 78% of the salary for comparably educated whites.
It was the biggest disparity between professional blacks and whites since the 77% rate in 2001, when the U.S. fell into a recession due to the collapse of the tech bubble and the Sept. 11 terror attacks. College-educated blacks had previously earned as much as 83% of the average salary of whites in 2005.
Hispanics saw similar trends. . . . Hispanics with bachelor’s degrees had an average salary of $44,696, amounting to roughly 75 cents for every dollar made by whites — the lowest ratio in more than a decade — after hitting a peak of 87 cents to every dollar in 2000.
The numbers highlight some of the barriers for minorities, said Mark Mather, a demographer for the Population Reference Bureau. He said the pay disparities could widen further since blacks and Hispanics tend to be relative latecomers to the professional world and thus more vulnerable to layoffs in the current recession.
On the flip side of this issue about affirmative action, as I mentioned in an earlier post, the University of California has officially approved changed to its policies on eligibility for admissions (i.e., on who qualifies to be considered for admissions, not who actually gets admitted). Many Asian Americans and other people of color argue that these changes will disproportionately hurt the chances of Asian American applicants and other applicants of color and that these policies basically amount to “affirmative action for Whites.”
All of these developments illustrate the complex and often contradictory nature of this issue. Like I said, as a sad legacy of our country’s racialized history, it’s an issue that will unfortunately continue to perplex use for years and likely generations to come.
A popular topic on this blog is university admissions and the representation of students from all racial/ethnic groups, especially at the University of California (‘UC’), the nation’s largest, most diverse, and in many ways, the most controversial higher education venue in the country. With the debate on affirmative action still on high boil and as American society continues to become more diverse, the issue of university admissions is likely to be on the front burner of American educational policy for the foreseeable future.
The latest flare-up involves recently-approved changes to the University of California’s admissions requirements that tries to expand the pool of students who are eligible for admissions (as opposed to the actual criteria for deciding who actually is admitted). As Inside Higher Education reports, according to data from the UC itself, they project that under these new eligibility rules, the racial/ethnic group that would be affected most negatively in terms of admissions are Asian Americans:
36 percent of those admitted to the university system in 2007-8 were Asian Americans. Applying the new admissions standards, that percentage would drop to 29-32 percent. In contrast, white applicants made up 34 percent of those admitted in 2007-8. Under the proposed reforms, they would have made up 41 to 44 percent of the entering class. . . .
But university leaders are playing down the demographic projections and defending the admissions plan, which emerged from the Academic Senate, a system-wide faculty group. . . . The proposal before the Board of Regents today would do the following:
End the requirement that applicants submit two SAT Subject Test scores.
Narrow from the top 12.5 to the top 9 percent of high school graduates the percentage who will be guaranteed admission to the university system (although not necessarily to the campus of their choice).
Expand the definition of applicants eligible for a full admission review to include all who complete 11 of 15 required high school courses by the end of their junior year, and achieve a grade-point average of at least 3.0
The last shift is expected to greatly expand the pool of those entitled to a full admissions review, where personal qualities and other factors may help some win admission. Indeed those deemed eligible for a full review would go up in all racial and ethnic groups. But the gains in eligibility are not necessarily going to translate into gains in admissions for all groups. . . .
Mary Croughan, an epidemiologist at the university’s San Francisco campus and chair of the systemwide Academic Senate, said that the apparent disadvantage for Asian Americans is actually a result of their success. Such a large share of Asian American high school students already are eligible to be considered and win admission that their numbers couldn’t go up as much as those of other groups, she said.
It appears that there are two separate issues here. The first is, changing admissions eligibility rules so that more students from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups (specifically, African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians) will be eligible for admissions. On that count, I have always and continue to wholly support such efforts.
If these changes do in fact allow students from a more diverse set of backgrounds to have a chance at admission, they would be very similar to the kind of “holistic admissions” changes that I and other scholars support that do not focus specifically on an applicant’s race/ethnicity but would still give underrepresented minority students a better chance at admissions. So in this context, I think everybody involved is basically on the same page and share the common goal of wanting to improve the admissions chances of underrepresented students.
But it’s the second issue here that is much more controversial — will these proposed changes affect Asian Americans in a disproportionately negative way and will their proportions of all admissions decline as a result? The first question to ask is, how accurate are the UC’s own estimates and predictions? How likely is it that Asian American applicants will be hurt by these new changes? If it turns out that these changes do not affect the proportion of Asian Americans, the question is basically moot.
A regular reader of my blog (Oiyan Poon, graduate student in Education) is writing an analysis paper on this issue and makes several good points. First is that because the new eligibility rules basically expands the number of California students eligible for admissions (from 46,795 to 76,141), in terms of raw numbers, all racial/ethnic groups, including Asian Americans, will see an increase in the actual number of students eligible (about 4,000 for APAs).
But since the number of the increase for Asian Americans is small in proportion to their existing number of eligible students, the percent change represents an increase relative to the new overall total of students eligible for admissions. However, Oiyan points out that these projections are very tentative (projected to affect the first eligible class four years from now) and are based on several debatable assumptions — for instance, not all eligible students actually apply for admissions to the UCs. Finally, most of the increase in eligibility for APAs will benefit low-income and first generation students.
So as Oiyan points out, there are valid questions over whether the dire projections about fewer APA students being admitted under these new rules. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that the new rules do end up lowering the proportion of each entering class that is Asian American. If so, the question then becomes, how fair are these changes? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to that particular question.
On the one hand, as the article points out, the number of Asian American applicants to the UC’s is already disproportionately high so that as a matter of simple mathematics, there’s not much room to go any higher and almost by default, their numbers would decline somewhat as a result of these changes.
On the other hand, we can validly argue that even if Asian Americans as a whole have disproportionately high application and admissions numbers, the fact is that every one of those Asian American students has worked hard and earned that position. Therefore, these changes would unfairly hurt them when in fact, they did everything right.
Inevitably, if these changes result in lower Asian American admission rates, there would certainly be a loud outcry from many critics of affirmative action — many of whom are already Asian American — that once again, “good” students are being denied admissions in favor of “mediocre” ones.
My position on affirmative action has always been two-fold: first, whether it relates to university admissions, government contracts, job preferences, etc., these areas of contention do not have to be zero sum propositions. That is, one person’s gain does not automatically have to mean another person’s loss. Instead, we can have a system that includes plenty of opportunities for everyone.
I understand that the number of university admission spots is not infinite and you have to draw the line somewhere, but if we as a society make higher education a higher priority, we can provide more opportunities for more students. In the process of doing so, we can also depressurize this atmosphere of intensity and hostility over a resource that in many ways, has been artificially limited.
My second point is that rather than focusing disproportionate attention on the symptoms of the problem, we need to address the fundamental cause of it — the unequal quality of education that underrepresented groups such as African Americans and Latinos face. In other words, through no fault of their own and even if they are extremely bright and hardworking, many such students receive a substandard education that puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to university admissions.
For this reason, affirmative action was created to help them overcome these structural (as opposed to individual) disadvantages. So to really cure the root problem, we need to focus more attention on ensuring that all students, regardless of their race or where they live, receive access to a high quality education that will ultimately put everyone on the same level of competitiveness.
These are issues that we as a society have been dealing with and trying to address for generations and obviously, such solutions are easier said than done. However, for the first time in a long time, I think we have a realistic chance at making such changes. Hopefully this new administration can begin to take constructive steps toward more equality in elementary and secondary schools that can put underrepresented students in a better position to compete for university admissions.
With any hope, such disagreements around these admissions eligibility changes and the entire debate around affirmative action will fade into the background, if we tackle the root of the problem, rather than just trying to alleviate the symptoms.
As an educator and a person of color, I have a particular interest in issues surrounding racial/ethnic diversity on college campuses. In fact, this topic is a common theme that I’ve written about on this blog. Like most liberals, I happen to think that greater diversity is generally a good thing, although I acknowledge that there are some ways in which diversity can lead to some challenges in the short run.
In other words, racial/ethnic diversity is a complicated and multidimensional phenomenon. This is especially true on college campuses where, in most cases, there are students who come from a wide range of backgrounds and once they interact with each other, can lead to an equally wide range of outcomes. To illustrate this point, Inside Higher Education reports on the release of a new study that looks at actual outcomes of racial/ethnic diversity on college students and finds, you guessed it, some mixed results:
One key finding was the generally positive impact on racial attitudes of living with someone of a different race. Students were surveyed on their attitudes before being assigned someone to live with, and after a year in which some lived with “outgroup roommates.”
Generally, and regardless of the attitudes with which students entered UCLA, those who lived with members of other ethnic groups showed statistically significant gains in comfort levels with people of different groups, having circles of friends beyond one’s own group, and a variety of other measures of tolerance toward different groups. The changes in attitudes were most striking for those living with either black or Latino roommates.
The one exception to this positive impact was with Asian students as roommates: White and black students who lived with Asians tended to show increased prejudice against Asians on some measures after living with them. . . .
[However], the researchers examined the impact of membership in groups that are defined largely by race and ethnicity (such as black student unions) as well as membership in groups that do not have an explicit racial or ethnic mission, but have overwhelmingly white members (some fraternities and sororities). Generally, they found that a negative impact resulted from membership in these groups — white or minority — in which belonging to such a group led to an increase in feelings of victimization.
There are several key findings here, so let me address them one at a time.
The Benefits of Diversity
The study’s finding that increased racial/ethnic contact and interaction among students leads to greater comfort with others of a different race is not new and in fact, reinforces what sociologists have been saying for decades — this is frequently referred to as the “Contact Hypothesis.” Nonetheless, it is nice to see real, concrete evidence of this idea in a real-world situation.
As the article also notes, this finding confirms one of the basic principles of affirmative action — that increased racial/ethnic diversity represents a net benefit for American society and is therefore a worthwhile goal. Opponents of affirmative action are free to criticize other aspects of affirmative action that they disapprove of, but as this study confirms, the argument that increased diversity can’t improve people’s attitudes and levels of acceptance towards others is simply not true.
The Drawbacks of ‘Segregated’ Student Groups
On the other hand, the study points out that racially/ethnically homogeneous student groups and organizations generally do not improve racial tolerance and acceptance. This finding is basically the flip side to the first one that I discussed above. The only potentially controversial part of this finding is that it applies to all kinds of homogeneous groups, whether they are all-White fraternities/sororities or Black Student Unions, Asian American Student Associations, etc. that are based explicitly on a particular racial/ethnic identity.
On that count, I would point out that while feelings of victimization and anger may exist among students of color in such racial/ethnic student organizations, there are many benefits that also exist within such groups. For example, these groups can also foster a sense of community identity and support and can also empower students by educating them about their group’s history and shared experiences, as well as giving them opportunities to turn their feelings and emotions into positive, constructive activities that provide the campus community the chance to further promote racial/ethnic diversity.
In other words, to echo another central theme of this blog, there is a difference between all-White and all-minority organizations in terms of their historical, cultural, and political meanings. That is, in the past and frequently still true today, all-White organizations have been associated with excluding marginalized groups and perpetuating a superior position of power for themselves.
In contrast, minority organizations have traditionally been focused on working to eliminate that kind of social inequality and to improve the conditions and lives of its members so that they more equally match that of their White counterparts. Therefore, the social dynamics are likely to be different between all-White and all-minority organizations.
I am not saying that all-White fraternities or sororities exist to actively reinforce White superiority. Rather, the nature and impact of the “negative” consequences of segregation are different because the history of American race relations has been different through the years. That’s what we should keep in mind when considering the dynamics of such groups.
The Negative Impact of Having an Asian Roommate
I’ve left this finding for last because I have the most trouble understanding it. My first reaction is skepticism of the results themselves. But as an academic myself, for now I will presume that the results are valid and reliable until I read the study’s exact methodology myself.
That said, my first question is, are there differences between having an Asian immigrant roommate versus a U.S.-born Asian American roommate? In other words, did White and Black students who had an Asian roommate have conflicts with the fact that their roommate was Asian or that s/he was an immigrant and therefore, presumably not as “Americanized” as they were. That may help to explain this particular finding.
If there is no difference between having an immigrant versus U.S.-born Asian American roommate, then my second thought is that perhaps it has to do with the fact that Asian Americans are something like 40% of the student population at UCLA. More generally and at the national level, perhaps White and Black Americans see us as symbols of globalization and how the U.S. is slowing losing its cultural superiority around the world as the 21st century progresses.
With that in mind, perhaps this finding that having an Asian roommate actually had a negative impact on racial tolerance for White and Black students at UCLA reflects this general atmosphere of economic insecurity and cultural change and instability.
While it is possible that individually, Asian American roommates exhibited specific behaviors that offended their White or Black roommates, I have a hard time seeing that this was a systemic or consistent pattern among most Asian American roommates. I will have to read the actual study and the authors’ explanations for this finding to have a more concrete idea.
Ultimately and with most studies dealing with the topic of racial diversity, there are many interpretations and conclusions to make. On the one hand, I am encouraged to see the study’s results that in almost all cases, increased racial/ethic diversity led directly to increased racial/ethnic tolerance among students.
At the same time, I am a little worried about how Asian Americans fit into this equation and to what extent this finding — that having an Asian American roommate had the lone negative impact on racial tolerance — is reliable and generalizable to American society in general.
As we all know, the debate over affirmative action is still quite intense and fraught with controversy and strong emotions on both sides. Unbeknown to most people however, is that very similar debate going on in Hawai’i about who qualifies to be Native Hawaiian and therefore gets to enjoy the various government programs that, at this point, only Native Hawaiians qualify for:
Under a program created by Congress in 1921, Native Hawaiians with strong bloodlines can get land for a home for $1 a year. Those with more mixed ancestry still receive many other benefits, including low-interest loans and admission for their children to the richly endowed and highly regarded Kamehameha Schools. . . .
About 400,000 people claim Native Hawaiian ancestry nationwide, two-thirds of them in the Hawaiian islands, making them a minority in a state of 1.2 million. Roughly 60,000 of those who consider themselves Hawaiian claim at least half Hawaiian blood.
Proving Native Hawaiian ancestry is a big deal. Without it, you can be born in the islands but can never call yourself Hawaiian. No blood or DNA test exists to determine who is or isn’t Hawaiian. Instead, people have to prove their ethnicity through birth certificates, marriage licenses, census records, family trees or newspaper obituaries.
Like I said, like affirmative action, this issue regarding who qualifies to be “Native Hawaiian” can be quite controversial. At this point, I do not feel that I cannot make a definitive judgment on the issue one way or the other. However, I would like to point out that this debate illustrates a very important point when it comes to the Asian American community — that not all Asian Americans are the same.
In other words, while there are some Asian Americans who are undoubtedly doing well, there are many others who may be struggling and therefore, may be entitled to certain benefits or programs designed to rectify historical disadvantages. Of course, a big part of the debate on this Native Hawaiian issue and on affirmative action in general is whether such historical disadvantages still directly hamper particular individuals of such groups today.
On that question, the debate is likely to rage on for quite some time.