Are Asian Americans really for the end of affirmative action?

May 16, 2012 1:39 PM

It's cap and gown time, and along with it come thoughts that threaten to break apart Asian America. You'll notice it when you are at your child's commencement this graduation season (my Jillian, the rock star, gets her B.S. in Geology this week at San Francisco State, where the graduation speaker is Mayor Ed Lee).

It's hard to imagine there are some unhappy Asian Americans, given the number you are likely to see on campus.

But what if after four years, you are graduating from your "fall back" school and not your number one choice?

Instead of joy, some Asian American parents are actually wondering how differently they would feel if their kids were not at UC This and Cal State That, but at their real number one choice, that private school or that Ivy League place, the one that rhymes with kale?

That's the school that said no to your offspring's resume of perfect grades, SATs, and tireless extracurriculars, and instead let in a few others who couldn't hold your son's high school jock.

What's next to come as Asian American adults--more discrimination?

That's the logic that's going through the minds of many Asian Americans these days as they grapple with this question: Should race-neutral policies replace affirmative action?

More than anything else, it's the single biggest threat to the notion of an Asian American community. And it's brought out the opportunists who want to use Asian Americans to break up the solidarity on the issue among people of color. The Asian American group 80-20 launched an online petition drive and now claims it has 50,000 signatures of Asian Americans who want to end the unfairness of it all.

They are sadly deluded.

It all comes about as the Supreme Court contemplates the latest assault on affirmative action, Fisher v. Texas, later this year.

If the Sandra Day O'Connor-less court swings further rightward, it would mark the real end of a policy that has assured Asian Americans equal opportunity in education for decades.  

San Francisco has dealt with this issue in the past with the caps on Asian American admissions at my alma mater, Lowell High School. I said back then that the issue is not about race, but about limited resources. Besides, if a super-majority white population is not considered good, why would a super-majority of Asian Americans be any better? The answer in my mind has always been to make more Lowells.

But how would you do that on a national level? It's harder given all the budget cuts on education, but adding resources, not dumping race-based admissions, is still the real answer.

In California, where the alternative to affirmative action--race-neutral admissions--has been the law and upheld since the passage of Prop. 209, inequality still exists. All 209 did was codify the ideal (a colorblind world), but it de-codified the groups that are less than equal now.  The colorblind 209 has left us with a policy that gives us results like UCLA, where 91,000 applicants vied for 5,400 spaces.

The numbers don't work.

Qualified applicants will still be denied, not just Asian Americans. Race-neutral approaches don't come close to addressing the real problem of the need for more resources.  

In addition, the race-neutral system only exacerbates the problem of inequality. When it comes to Asian Americans, the political umbrella term includes 24 ethnic groups, and all have varied experiences based on when the first immigrants arrived. Asian Americans are far from being just Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. Among Southeast Asians, for example, 40 percent of Cambodians and Laotians in California haven't finished high school, double the state rate. After 209, those groups continued to be severely underrepresented.

As President Obama said last week, the day before he came out for marriage equality, he urged a group of the wonkiest Asian Americans at the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies dinner in Washington to consider the importance of affirmative action:

"And I know it can be tempting--given the success that's on display here tonight--for people to buy into the myth of the "model minority" and glance over the challenges that this community still faces.  But we have to remember there's still educational disparities like higher dropout rates in certain groups, lower college enrollment rates in others. There's still economic disparities like higher rates of poverty and obstacles to employment," said the president. "Dozens of different communities fall under the umbrella of the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and we have to respect that the experiences of immigrant groups are distinct and different. And your concerns run the gamut."

Any real solution needs to address all of us, not split us apart.

But there are those who have lost that community feeling and can only see public policy as it applies to me, myself and I.

80-20 is circulating the story of "Martin," with his weighted 4.35 GPA, four subject SATs, 10 AP tests, ranked 7th out of 455, captain of the tennis team, city teen council member, president the last two years, volunteer tennis coach, and paid camp counselor.

His results: Rejected by Harvard, Penn, Cornell, Georgetown, Duke.

But he was accepted at UC Berkeley? Is the difference the virtues of race-blind admissions?

Well, maybe yes and maybe no. We've already seen the inequities 209 has left us with.

And what about the Southeast Asians who remain underrepresented?

College admissions are imperfect. It's not simply a matter of rounding up the top scores and letting just those people in. Building a vibrant, diverse student body is far more complicated than that. And if it is all about resources, budget cuts on education, which are being imposed throughout the land, certainly are counter-productive.

But in dealing with these issues, Asian Americans, and all Americans, need to understand if you're not for affirmative action as the continuing remedy to educational inequality, you are really for the non-diverse America we've left behind, a country where segregation and inequality ruled the day.

Going forward, as Americans, can we really afford to stand for that?
Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, @emilamok.

Posted by:Emil Guillermo

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the views or policies of AALDEF.


1. Emil: Congratulations....Your argument for AA is well founded and well written. Thank you, Monty, Secretary/Treasurer, Friends of the Filipino American Community (FFAC). (Tracy, CA)
Posted by: Monty Martinez | May 17, 2012 7:31 AM

2. "And I know it can be tempting--given the success that's on display here tonight--for people to buy into the myth of the "model minority" and glance over the challenges that this community still faces. But we have to remember there's still educational disparities like higher dropout rates in certain groups, lower college enrollment rates in others. There's still economic disparities like higher rates of poverty and obstacles to employment," said the president. "Dozens of different communities fall under the umbrella of the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and we have to respect that the experiences of immigrant groups are distinct and different. And your concerns run the gamut." What you and Obama don't seem to understand is that those AA&PA groups that don't do as well we be discriminated against in favor of Hispanics and Blacks because they will be lumped in with the elite AA&PA.
Posted by: soren | May 18, 201210:44 AM

3. Thank you, Emil, for writing this! This articulated well how injustice and lack of access continue to be the default experience for most minorities. I wish more of my friends who are, like me, Chinese or Korean or Japanese would understand how much our compassion and solidarity with other minorities means to the larger society. We minorities who are more privileged should be the first ones to speak up and keep advocating for minorities who have less access and privilege!
Posted by: a friend | May 18, 2012 2:53 PM

4. "I wish more of my friends who are, like me, Chinese or Korean or Japanese would understand how much our compassion and solidarity with other minorities means to the larger society. " Why do you need to have solidarity with those minorities? Do you just like hating whitey or what?
Posted by: soren | May 19, 201210:19 AM

5. I agree absolutely with the comment posted by Soren. I am against Affirmative Action. Emil, you don't seem to understand the thinking of admissions officers at elite schools. Once Affirmative Action is gone, these Admissions officers can choose how much diversity they want based on Merit and not on the color/race of the applicant. You are setting up these young college applicants for failure if you want them to be admitted on the basis of their race/color because they will end up dropping out when they are unable to compete with their better-qualified peers. There is only a finite number of applicants that can be accepted into the elite schools and we, as a community, should want those applicants to be the best and brightest. Moreover, you seem to suggest that the newer immigrants such as Cambodians or Laotians are not up to that caliber, which is simply stereotyping and discrimination on your part.
Posted by: Audrey | May 19, 201211:40 AM

6. Affirmative Action -- if it is a Helping Hand to someone who is deservant -- is wonderful. But if affirmative aciton is the provision of a resource (e.g. education) to someone who cannot make best use of it, at the expense of someone who could better use it -- is wrong and self defeating. It is one thing to "spread the wealth" -- take resources created and spead it around more evenly (i.e. tax the rich more and share it with the poorer). But if you don't allow the best to get the best opportunity to make MORE WEALTH, then there will be less wealth to tax and share. Everyone loses. You gotta allow the best to be the best they can be to create the most wealth for the entire society (that can be taxed and shared). Affirmative Action should be to give a helping hand to those who are otherwise deservant -- so they can help society maximize wealth.
Posted by: stevchipmunk | May 20, 2012 8:43 PM

7. The anti AA people seem to forget that society is structured to favor whites at the expense of all non-white people. The effects of hundreds of years of slavery, and imperialism and the aftermath of such are still being felt today in many different ways even if the most virulent forms of oppression and discrimination have been dealt with. This is what gave birth to 'white privilege'. Society first has to deal with the underlying systemic racism, ethnic stereotyping and unfair treatment that all minorities have to deal with to this very day to truly even out the playing field before even thinking of getting rid of affirmative action.
Posted by: Geb | May 21, 2012 4:54 AM

8. a. Seems like Asians can't agree on this, what a surprise. b. It's not big-bad-whitey against suppressing all the poor minorities. It's pretty much everyone stepping on East Asians, e.g. Eddie Murphy, Sarah Silverman, Marion Barry, Andrew "Dice" Clay, Floyd Mayweather, need I continue? At the end of the day, affirmative action in the name of diversification punishes a more qualified candidate in favor of a less qualified candidate, no matter how you slice it, it's undisputed. Diversification curiosly is only being applied in the one realm where East Asians excel, academics. Are we seeing diversification in athletics? No. The best players are chosen as the starters regardless of race. Why because you can't have a better player warming the bench for a lesser player. Are we seeing diversification in dating? No. Females like who females like and if they don't like East Asian males, too bad that the AF/Non Asian male / Non Asian Female/East Asian male ratio is ~99/1. Why? Because you can't force people to go out with someone they don't want to. Are we seeing diversity in decision making positions? No. East Asian males for the most part are the workers doing the heavy lifting while Non East Asian males are the managers. I could go on with more examples but I'm hoping you get the idea. Personally I find it a little "convenient" that this push for diversity is targeted in the one arena that East Asians excel in, don't you?
Posted by: Mark | May 21, 2012 9:43 AM

9. Diversity is way over-rated. Only by the Grace of God, diversity has worked to some degree in America. Affirmative action hurts everybody, especially Asians and even those who are given the preferential treatment. It is truly un-American and un-Constitutional at its face value. Allowing those less-qualified to advance is against the laws of nature and will breed more frictions and animosity among different groups. This kind of mindset will bring forth demise of the western civilizationas we know it, which would make some folks rather giddy until they find out the alternative that's in stored.
Posted by: TeamKoolGreen | May 22, 2012 4:19 PM

10. I'm all for diversity of backgrounds, but the problem with the current way Affirmative Action is implemented soley by race is that the elite colleges who look to fill a "quota" of underrepresented minorities inevitably give most of those slots to wealthy or prep-school black or latino students. Like Obama himself has stated about his own daughters, I don't feel that these kids help diversify a campus or require a "leg-up" for historic racism. I'd rather Affirmative Action factor in parents' occupation and income, low-income communities or poorly-performing urban/rural schools. THUS: Yes to Affirmative Action, but NO to racial preferences.
Posted by: jys390 | May 23, 201211:50 PM

11. I just don't think even "selective" affirmative action would work with any degree of success. I realize many of us Asians tend to automatically favor any kind of legislature or federal/state-enforced statute that even remotely suggests to help minorities, but it's about time we quit the denial and reassess the situation more realistically. I have seen so many racially preferred students struggle in university settings. Statistics show many of them don't even graduate regularly - although many were given preference in financial support and took spots away from other more qualified students. I saw so many of them walking around campus with big chip on their shoulders rather than being grateful for being catered to. Meanwhile, other students and faculty members have to deal with them as if walking on egg shells. In truth, this kind of governmental intervention in our lives are destructive and never meets its objective. I can't stand these government imposed "great equalizers." They simply don't work. Not in schools, no in jobs, not in government contracts, etc. Asians need to get out this ridiculous indoctrinated mentality and start being more objective when it comes to minority issues. I'm a big supporter of AALDEF, but the institution is simply wrong on this issue of affirmative action.
Posted by: TeamKoolGreen | May 25, 2012 5:22 PM

12. You're right, we need more diversity. There are too many Jews. If a Jew applies, they have to score 500 points higher than a black or hispanic to have the same chance of admission.
Posted by: Don | May 28, 2012 2:44 PM

13. This post is sadly deluded. It's been well-established that Asian-Americans have the LOWEST chance of rising to management positions compared to any other minorities despite having the highest educational attainment. Affirmative action is not just about college, and the way that it is instituted now does not work for Asian-Americans. Wake up and look at the facts, instead of arguing for the merits of a system that you clearly haven't examined in detail.
Posted by: Mark | Jun 4, 201210:06 PM

14. I m an African-American so I m not going to pretend that Affirmative Action hasn t afftceed me in my schooling as far as college acceptances, scholarships, etc. But even so, my thoughts and overall opinion of AA are pretty complicated and not fully formed. I will address them later. For now I d just like to say that one of the most annoying things that comes with discussing AA with other people is the fact that the topic of AA is almost always relegated exclusively to race. The most common connotation for AA is the idea that people within underrepresented races get opportunities that whites of equal (or higher) qualification are denied. And although that idea can potentially describe many of the situations in which affirmative action plays a part, it doesn t accurately describe all of them. I d like to use myself as an example to illustrate this point, my college search during my senior year in high school in particular. As I already stated, I m an African American student. My high school grades and test scores exceeded the requirements for Penn State and during the college application process I viewed it as a safety school. And obviously, since I m typing this blog post now, I made it in and chose to come here. But let s just pretend things were different and I was kind of teetering on the edge of the minimum requirements. And let s pretend that even though Penn State wasn t such a safe bet, I still made it in. Let s also go as far as to say that another person, of white descent, who had the same grades and test scores as me, didn t make it in. I think the first thing that person would think is that affirmative action played a role in my being selected to attend Penn State and they would assume that the biggest factor in my being selected over him or herself would be my race. However, they wouldn t be taking into consideration all of the different factors that go into the student selection process that Penn State employs. Penn State looks at factors such as whether or not the student is from Pennsylvania, whether or not the student s parents went to Penn State, etc. The entire selection process doesn t just come down to race, even in cases where affirmative action is used. Having taken this course, my views on affirmative action are that it is needed in schools, the workforce, and wherever else, but not necessarily by looking at just one factor such as race. I think the prevailing factor behind affirmative action should be socioeconomic status. What resources does this person have to get ahead? In the case of a high school student looking at colleges, does a poor person have the same access to tutors and good schools as a rich person? And in the case of finding jobs, does everyone have the same network of well-connected peers? And after learning about race and socioeconomic status in America through this course, I think that affirmative action would still pan out the way it is currently in regards to race due to the fact that underrepresented minorities are typically the least affluent in the country.
Posted by: Diene | Jun 11, 2012 9:52 AM

15. Some very basic problems with this article. 1. AA hurts admissions for all Asians, not just the big 3 NEAs. The problem with the model minority myth is that economically disadvantaged SEAs get lumped in with NEAs, therefore denying them opportunities that would exist in similarly disadvantaged minorities. 2. Why is it important for AAs to converge into a monolithic voting bloc? Does that mean that we need to conform to a lcd set of political agendas that only serve the most disadvantage subgroups? There are serious "bamboo ceiling" problems for "advantaged" asian groups. Why should AAs on the top end of the spectrum have to put aside their own personal agendas? Is the same expected from the latino, black, or white communities? 3. Affirmative Action as a concept has been a moderate success story, yes. But after 2 generations, it no longer serves its original function - to provide opportunities to disadvantaged minorities. It now only serves to maintain a quota of token minorities in the upper middle class because the main beneficiaries are primarily the children upper middle under represented minorities. We do need race based affirmative action, otherwise by sheer numbers the game would be fixed to primarily serve poor whites. However, it needs to be controlled by wealth and class. 4. Lowered standards helps no one and only propagates the prejudice that people of color cannot compete. If whites and asians can "deal with it" and go to lesser schools, so can under represented minorities. However, what under represented minorities often lack are the robust financial resources of whites and asians. It would be much fair to be race blind admissions, but to compensate that with financial aid packages dependent on affirmative action. i.e. if you're poor and black, congratulations, you get a full ride through college.
Posted by: spak | Jun 12, 201212:45 AM

16. There are flaws to your argument regarding southeast Asians. 1. That 40% includes mostly people who did not live in the U.S during their teenage and childhood years. The majority of those are people who fled war torn and highly impoverish countries. Were there was little access to education. 2. After proposition 209 passed the percent of southeast Asian admitted to California's universities such as the University California system increased and not decreased. 3. Southeast Asians are not underrepresented in the Universities and Colleges. Over 5% of University of California's population is Southeast Asian, but this groups represent less than 2% of the state population. More than 5% of the medical students in California Medical schools are Southeast Asians, but again these people are less than 2% of the state. That is not underrepresented.
Posted by: Doug K | Sep 28, 2012 1:17 AM

17. This is a country that claims there are equal opportunities and justice for all. AA is extremely injustice to Asian students in terms of college admission and AA has been implemented for decades. It should have a time that AA is obsolete and out of date. I mean you can ask help for some for couple of time, not for your whole life. AA is like you ask help from someone for your whole life, and not only that for generations. It created great injustice for Asians!
Posted by: Alex | Oct 6, 201210:20 PM

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