• Project Angel Island

Affirmative Action: Friend or Foe?

In 2014, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) filed a federal lawsuit against Harvard University. Why? Because Harvard’s method for creating a “racially-balanced” student body through admissions did the exact opposite of its purpose: it discriminated against numerous ethnic and racial groups, most notably the Asian-American community. Instead of helping the POC which it was intended to serve, affirmative action policies benefit white women the most. These disparities highlight a greater underlying problem with systemic racism in America: institutions are unaware of the diversity within minority groups, particularly choosing to ignore African-Americans whose ancestors were slaves and poorer Asian-Americans.

But before we get into any of that, what does it mean to be “Asian”? The continent of Asia contains a diverse, multiethnic population that includes Eastern Asians, South Asians/Desis, Southeast Asians, and more. And since Asia contains more than half the world’s population, Asian immigrants come from vastly diverse backgrounds. “Some Asian Americans came to the United States to escape communism, authoritarianism, war, and poverty, while others simply sought out greater opportunities. Some Asian Americans come from highly educated families, but many others do not,” Students for Fair Admissions noted in its complaint. But Harvard officials “lump all Asian Americans together in the admissions process” by taking into account race when whittling down the roughly 40,000 applicants for a class of 2,000.

“And yet, in the coverage of the Harvard lawsuit, and indeed in almost any story on affirmative action, you rarely hear from this group — the ones without the Tiger Moms and the private SAT tutors — or from the high school counselors… who worry less about whether their students will appear “too Asian” and more about whether they even know how to apply to college. Decades after the myth of Asians as a model minority took hold, we seem unable to escape it” (The Washington Post Magazine). The policy in which an individual’s color, race, sex, religion, or national origin are taken into account to increase opportunities provided to an underrepresented part of society is called affirmative action.

Before affirmative action, universities had something called “quotas,” in which they had to accept a certain number of people from each race/ethnic group each year. You can see how this could be problematic: many people who weren’t deserving of spots gained admission and many who deserved admission were denied. Affirmative action incorporates the race/ethnic group of an individual into their application. But now we see many problems within affirmative action: universities have retained sort of “de facto quotas”: the number of students belonging to certain minority groups has remained stagnant year after year, even as educational opportunities within communities change.

And although affirmative action was created to make up for centuries of institutional discrimination, we see that most of the POC admitted into these prestigious universities are immigrants, not people whose ancestors had to endure American racism. “Edward Blum, Delmar Fears, and Yukong Zhao [three key figures in the SFFA case] may not agree on much of anything, but they all have made versions of an argument that the spirit of affirmative action has been replaced by a largely cosmetic, overly simplified diversity that allows elite institutions to report gains in black and Latino student populations without having to engage in the harder work of undoing systemic inequality” (The New York Times)

Affirmative action has given itself a bad name over the years. People sometimes tend to dismiss the hard work of POC in leadership positions by reducing their achievements to affirmative action policies. The same goes for spots in prestigious educational institutions like Harvard University. The case is often different for Asian-American applicants because many reach the same (or higher) level of achievement as their white counterparts and are still not granted admission to certain universities. What could be the problem?

One of the most pressing is the “model minority myth”: the perception that Asian-Americans should be smart, hardworking, and compliant. Within this myth, people have accused Asian parents of essentially “buying” their children’s way into universities with expensive prep courses and tutoring programs (not something that applies to every member of the AAPI community, as previously shown). There is also the perception that Asian-American students are “grade-grubbing machines”: they’re so busy getting their grades up and overachieving that they skimp on the social life and emotional expression (also untrue). These stereotypes, especially the latter, might be the reason why Asian-Americans are given a lower average personality score (measured during the interview). And thus Asian-Americans are denied entrance into prestigious institutions because of the subjective factors of universities’ supposedly “holistic” admissions processes.

Asian-Americans (and other POC) often find that their experience as immigrants/POC in America must be included in their college admissions essay, even if it’s something that they don’t want to write about, to be accepted. On the other hand, their white counterparts can write about community service and projects of interest (topics that should ideally decide who gets accepted and who doesn’t) without having to worry if their college acceptance is on the line.

These are just some of the many problems with affirmative action in its current state. Some propose that affirmative action be replaced by something similar to the Texas House Bill 588, or the Top Ten Percent Plan: a plan that allowed the top ten percent of every graduating class to be automatically accepted into state universities. This plan drastically increased the number of BIPOC admitted into university (In 2008, Black students made up 5.6 percent of all incoming freshmen and Latinx students made up 19.9 percent, representing an increase of 2.9 and 7.3 percentage points from 1997) and thus was a far better way of leveling the playing field. Others propose that the question of race be completely removed from college applications and equity be applied based on household income/community statistics. Whatever the solution, one thing is clear: the way universities, and indeed, Americans, plan to address the injustices and inequalities of the past needs to change to create a more diverse future.

Himani Mehta



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