Asian-Americans and Affirmative Action

Affirmative action has survived decades of conservative antagonism, an unfriendly Supreme Court, and attacks by Republican state legislatures, but the institution’s future looks bleaker than ever.

While long a staple of the progressive agenda, race-conscious affirmative action has quickly been relegated to the relative fringes of the liberal platform. While both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders are both supporters, it’s been a non-issue so far in the campaign. But while it’s been mostly missing from the national stage, the frame of the affirmative action debate has also shifted – the rise of Asian-Americans as the country’s anointed “model minority” has helped to disrupt the common understanding of affirmative action as an issue of black versus white.

The question is whether Asian-American achievement – or rather understanding its underlying mechanisms – could hold the key to affirmative action 2.0. New research attempts to answer that question and highlight alternatives to race-conscious affirmative action. There are no easy answers, though, and with universities preferring to maintain statistical rankings rather than foster true diversity, it’s hard to find a practical example of affirmative action innovation. One thing’s for sure: If affirmative action is to continue to live up to its ideal, something needs to change.

In December, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in Fisher v. Texas for the second time, a case in which a white plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, alleges that she was unfairly denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin as a product of the college’s race-conscious affirmative action policies. (The Court dodged the decision in 2013, sending the case back down to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals.) “I think it’s clear that Fisher will limit the ability of universities to use race in admissions when the final decision comes out,” says Richard Kahlenberg, a Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation who researches education policy. “I don’t think it will eliminate the use of race in all cases, but it’s likely to severely constrain the ability to use race.”

Justice Kennedy, the court’s swing vote, has been skeptical of affirmative action policies that consider race. “So far, he has not been willing to say that the Constitution will never allow you to consider race. That is what the four people to the right of him have said and want him to say,” says Sheryl Cashin, a Georgetown law professor and the author of Place Not Race.

The court’s original ruling in 2013 was a forceful nudge for colleges to experiment with race-neutral affirmative action devices, but according to a survey released by the American Council on Education in July, only 13% of university administrators acknowledged doing so.

An especially vocal cohort of Asian-Americans eager to witness the end of race-conscious affirmative action has drawn increasing media attention as they are eager to highlight what they claim is unfair racial discrimination.”Given that Asian-Americans as a group are overrepresented among highly-talented students, affirmative action and race-consciousness can end up hurting Asian-American applicants,” says Kahlenberg. “There’s a great irony here, that a program that started with an effort to benefit victims of historic discrimination, is now employed in a way that hurts at least one group of students.”

In 2014, California’s attempt to revoke its longstanding affirmative action ban was scrapped when Asian-American activists mobilized in droves against the bill. Harvard continues to battle a lawsuit spearheaded by notorious conservative activist Edward Blum accusing the university of systematically discriminating against its Asian-American applicants.

These media spectacles mask a surprisingly nuanced relationship between Asian-Americans and affirmative action. Asian-American supporters of affirmative action are rarely heard from, “because it’s much more interesting to hear about controversy and conflict,” said University of California, Irvine sociologist Jennifer Lee. “There’s much more support among Asian-Americans for affirmative action policy than oftentimes is portrayed in media outlets, because I think it’s much more appealing and it makes a stronger narrative to think that Asian-Americans are against affirmative action and race-conscious policies.”

With its increasingly diverse population, California, unsurprisingly, has served as Ground Zero for the affirmative action debate. In California, “the fraught debate that has been part of the big conversation around affirmative action has very discouragingly really pitted some Asian-Americans against other Asian-Americans and communities of color writ large,” says Suman Raghunathan, Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together, a social justice organization. When University of California, Riverside political science professor Karthick Ramakrishnan watched Asian-Americans revolt against SCA-5, an amendment to California’s state constitution that would have functionally revoked the state’s affirmative action ban, he had one question: Did these activists mirror the views of Asian-Americans as a whole?

“If you look back to 2014, when affirmative action came up in a major way in California,” Ramkrishnan says, “it seems like conservative groups and many Chinese immigrant associations in California got very heavily mobilized around it. They were threatening elected officials who supported their opponents, and stopped giving them campaign contributions. It was a pretty strong and mobilized effort. But, we never knew how representative those opinions were of the more general Asian-American population.”

In October of 2014, Ramakrishnan surveyed Asian-Americans to finally gauge these perceptions. Using a question he says was modeled from previous polls by the Pew Research Center and Quinnipiac University, Ramakrishnan found broad support among Asian-Americans for affirmative action, perhaps bolstered by their consistently liberal political leanings. 68 percent of the Asian-Americans that Ramakrishnan polled supported affirmative action, ranging from as low as 63 percent of support among Chinese-Americans and as high as 73 percent among Indian-Americans.

In an extended period of stagnating wages and downward mobility that has helped fuel the rise of Donald Trump, many Asian-Americans have been able to benefit from the American Dream. For Lee, support for race-conscious affirmative action isn’t just ideological: in June, she published The Asian American Achievement Paradox with Min Zhou, investigating exactly how Asian-Americans are so upwardly mobile.

Culture has taken grip as a reductionist explainer of Asian-American success, but for all the talk of “Tiger Moms” and helicopter Asian parents, Lee and Zhou pinpoint highly-educated Asian immigrants as the foundation for how poorer Asian-Americans so easily override the deep disadvantages that accompany their socioeconomic status. Focusing specifically on Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants in the Los Angeles area, they discovered that many arrive in the U.S. as not only more highly educated than those who don’t immigrate, but also more highly educated than the American average.

“About 51 percent of these Chinese immigrants have a college degree or more, compared to only 4 percent of China’s adult population,” Lee told me. “Chinese immigrants are 12 times as likely to have a college degree than those who don’t immigrate. And they are also more likely to have a college degree than the general U.S. population. So, their children are starting off much higher on the ladder. They have more resources because the strongest predictor a child’s level of education is his or her parents’ level of education.”

Wealthy Chinese and Vietnamese immigrants establish vibrant community institutions with resources that serve to clear a path for mobility among their less-affluent counterparts. With community organizations and programs like after-school tutoring, affluent Asian immigrants spread a frame of reference about achievement and success that permeates throughout the ethnic community.

“Second generation Chinese and Vietnamese-Americans are really benefiting from these ethnic resources like after school programs and tutoring, and seminars about how to get into MIT that are free to members of the community,” Lee said. “When I’ve asked my [Asian-American] students how many have gone to some kind of supplemental education, it’s almost everybody. They all had some kind of prep, whether it’s in the mainstream economy (Princeton Review or Kaplan, for example), or something in their own communities. They assume that everyone is doing some sort of tutoring.”

In the context of Lee’s research, it’s unrealistic to assume that a working-class black student and a working-class Chinese-American student have an equal chance at achievement. The resources and organizations that empower mobility are generally unavailable to most black and Latino students. “To think that race does not continue to matter for one’s life chances is really naive,” Lee added, “especially given the current debate about #BlackLivesMatter. The fact that it took off shows you how important race is in every facet of one’s chances and mobility.”

There is perhaps nothing more quintessentially American than the idea of meritocracy – that individuals should be rewarded simply on the grounds of their own virtue and ambition. America is so attractive to immigrants, my parents among them, precisely because it is perceived as meritocratic. At its core, what makes race-conscious affirmative action so unsettling is that it acknowledges the dirty truth that America, in practice, is anything but.

Ultimately, affirmative action has the difficult task of reaching out to the hordes of students that are most routinely excluded by the meritocracy. And, it’s painfully obvious that race-conscious affirmative action so far has been an ineffective solutions for the shortcomings of the current system. With race-conscious affirmative action, “selective schools can achieve an optical diversity with the least amount of cost to their median SAT scores and their U.S. News rankings. And the least amount of cost in terms of financial aid,” says Sheryl Cashin, the Georgetown law professor. “People who really need help – of all colors and of all races – including disadvantaged Asians, aren’t benefitting very much from this policy.”

“Diversity” has become a trendy higher education buzzword hackneyed to the point of insignificance. With little thought about what diversity might actually mean, colleges create bubbles of faux racial diversity without conveniently delving beyond the surface level of the word’s meaning. “We tend to homogenize in the United States because race is such a dominant paradigm,” Jennifer Lee says. “We tend to think of all groups who are Asian, all groups who are Latino, all groups who are black as very similar.”

What’s lost is the inevitable nuance that accompanies race and ethnicity. Not all Asian-Americans have the ability to overcome their poor backgrounds in the same fashion as Chinese and Vietnamese-Americans. Laotian and Hmong immigrants in America remain quite poor, lacking a class of affluent professionals that propel some other Asian groups. Many African immigrants, especially Nigerian-Americans, the nation’s most highly-educated immigrant group (more than 60% have bachelor degrees), in many ways resemble their Chinese counterparts. “Nigerian immigrants comes to America with extremely high levels of education, and people will often look at that group and say ‘race doesn’t matter’ if this black group can get ahead without thinking of where they started off in their quest to get ahead,” Lee adds.

If the job of affirmative action is to remedy the failures of meritocracy, than it’s not Nigerian-Americans and other highly-educated groups who should be the key target of any affirmative action policy. Yet, as less than 1% of America’s total black population, Nigerian-Americans comprise nearly 40% of all black students at Harvard Business School, note Amy Chua and Jed Rubenfeld in their book The Triple Package. As Richard Rothstein puts it in the American Prospect, elite colleges have “too many Barack Obamas and not enough Michelles.”

Could simply switching race to ethnicity fix the most egregious failures of affirmative action? It’s an enticing (if far-fetched) proposal. But forcing colleges to consider the sociological context of achievement among students of various ethnicities would almost certainly produce more meritocratic results than a system based on race alone.

The growing test optional movement could be another key opportunity in beginning to mend the meritocracy. “There are alternatives to race-based affirmative action that I think are more likely to help people that actually need and deserve extra help in the admissions process because they are currently locked out of systems and networks of advantage,” Cashin says. “The few brave colleges that have decided to go test-optional – Wake Forest, Bowdoin, and George Washington among them – have witnessed a rise in racial diversity after doing so.”

It’s poor and minority students that disproportionately lack access to test prep, which has itself become a billion dollar industry. “I think these kind of strategies are more likely to help create diversity in a sustainable way that’s completely insulated from legal attack, but also more likely to have political support,” Cashin says.

Whatever the alternative, colleges can’t be given the easy way out: fostering racial diversity without truly reckoning with the hardship that students must overcome before they arrive on campus. America is a pretty awful excuse for a meritocracy, but we’re kidding ourselves if we think that affirmative action is doing all that much to correct for its enduring failures. “What universities really have to be willing to do, and where I really take them for the task, is to stop allowing U.S. News and World Report dictate their policies to them,” Cashin says. “If only they were willing to sacrifice their precious rankings a little bit, or stop letting the College Board dictate their policies to them. If only there were willing to innovate.” At least for now, it’s the primacy of that feared ranking that stops colleges from really experimenting in ways that could create a framework to fulfill affirmative action’s true potential.

Saahil Desai

Saahil Desai is the Washington Monthly's Digital Editor. He previously worked for NPR's Morning Edition and has written for the American Prospect.