Affirmative Action Meets Challenges in U.S. and China

The Supreme Court announced on Feb. 21 that it will hear an appeal from a white student challenging the race-based affirmative action policy in the University of Texas, signaling a possible legal change for the use of race in college admission, which dates from its 1978 ruling in University of California v. Bakke. Meanwhile, the People’s Republic of China has had similar preferential policies for its minority groups since the 1970s and is also looking at modifying its measures to address objections from society.

The appeal comes from Abigail Fisher, who in 2008 was turned down for admission to UT. The admission policy at the university automatically admits the top ten percent of the Texas graduating high school class that applies. The university admits the rest of students through a complicated system where race plays a role. This has led Fisher, who was not among the top ten percent of her high school class, to argue she was discriminated against as a white applicant.

The Supreme Court ruled in favor of race as a factor in 2003’s Grutter v. Bollinger. But the new hearing could offer a more conservative Supreme Court (5 justices are on record against “racial balancing”, and Elena Kagan will not participate because she dealt with this issue in her role as U.S. solicitor general) the chance to rule against affirmative action issue.

Fisher’s case has an interesting context: under UT’s admission mechanism, entering Black and Latino students have already reached a “record high,” making up about 26 percent of the freshmen class in 2007, a year before Fisher began her lawsuit. (About 50 percent of Texans are ethnic minorities.)

A public debate about whether to keep minority preferential policies is also taking place in China. Even though polices will not be abolished immediately, the government has indicated that it plans to make changes to the policy.

The Chinese government instituted “education preferential policies” for minorities (someone who belongs to one of 55 ethnic groups other than the majority Han group; the Han group is about 90 percent of the total population) to make up for the economic and educational divide between rural regions and Chinese cities. Currently more than 88 percent of minorities live in rural areas, where education resources are most scarce.

In China, universities can give admissions preference to a minority applicant with equal score to a Han applicant, or the provincial education department can decide to award a minority student extra points (usually 5 to 20 points) to his final examination score (in most provinces, the full score is 750 points). In this fierce competition one point removes hundreds of other applicants from consideration for admission.

Since its implementation, the policy has increased minority groups’ chances of going to college: according to a study supported by China’s National Social Science Foundation, the number of minority students enrolled in higher education increased from 36,000 in 1978 to 1.367 million in 2008, at an average yearly increase rate of about 12 percent (though the percent of college students who are ethnic minorities, 6.7, is still lower than the minority percentage in the total population, 8.4.)

Despite its evident success, scandals have revealed the policy’s vulnerability to misuse; some Han candidates pretend to be ethnic minorities for extra points.

These scandals have led to a public debate. Some suggest abandoning the preferential policies altogether. As one Chinese blogger from Guangdong province wrote, “The preferential policy should be abolished. Otherwise the College Entrance Exams is not fair to everyone.” Others are pushing for its reform, arguing ethnicity alone should not be a deciding factor, according to another blogger: “It is unfair that minority students are getting extra points, even when they live in big cities like Beijing and enjoy abundant educational resources.”

Some provincial governments have instituted changes. Since 2010, Chongqing has reduced the extra points a minority student can get from 20 points to 10 points. And in provinces such as Hunan and Guangdong, Han applicants living in minority-dominated areas can also receive extra points.

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor who endorsed affirmative action in 2003 has said that “the court expects that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.” In an interview with the state-run Xinhua Agency’s website, Zhang Qiang, the director of ethnic education at the Ministry of Education also said that the country is not ready to abandon the policies yet as the educational resources for minorities is still significantly less in rural areas.

But it seems that in both countries, affirmative action is up for adjustment. This debate about retaining education preferences for ethnic minorities stems, at least in part, from their evident success. O’Connor’s 25-year mark will occur in 2028. Will affirmative action last that long?

Siyu Hu

Siyu Hu is an intern at the Washington Monthly.