Are Asian Americans Disadvantaged by Affirmative Action?

Asian American communities are clearly split on whether affirmative action in college and university admissions disadvantages Asian American applicants. Add to this the fact that some institutions do not even consider Asian Americans as underrepresented minorities (URM’s) in their employment outreach efforts or student enrollment processes.

Complaints filed with the Department of Education suggest that being Asian American can be a disadvantage at some Ivy League institutions. Take, for example, Michael Wang who had a perfect ACT score and had taken 13 Advanced Placement Courses. Wang filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education after not being admitted to Yale, Stanford, and Princeton, alleging discrimination based on race. According to Princeton sociologists Thomas Epenshade and Alexandria Radford’s study of eight selective public and private universities, Asian American applicants at these institutions received a 140 point penalty compared with whites. In the view of commentator Hrishikesh Joshi, since affirmative action addresses historic injustice such as that faced by Asian Americans for generations, it is difficult to understand how this reverse differentiation argument can be applied to Asian Americans when compared to whites. The exclusionary educational treatment of Asian Americans today is reminiscent of the strategies by which elite universities such as Harvard, Yale, and Princeton limited Jewish enrollment beginning in the 1920’s and continuing into the World War II period.

Opposition to affirmative action by Asian Americans includes the complaint filed by the Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE) with the Departments of Education and Justice in May 2016, noting the decrease or flat level in Asian American student representation at Dartmouth, Brown, and Yale over the past twenty years as a result of “holistic” admissions review processes that consider race as one factor among many. In addition, the Project on Fair Representation, a one-person organization run by Edward Blum, a wealthy conservative entrepreneur who initiated the Fisher v. University of Texas lawsuit among other legal challenges, has filed suit against Harvard University based on the alleged differential treatment of Asian Americans. The Harvard suit charges that Harvard has set admissions quotas for Asian American students and subjected them to higher standards than other students as well as to stereotype bias.

So why the sudden interest in Asian Americans as reflected in Blum’s efforts to recruit Asian American students to his cause?

As Alvin Evans and I point out in Affirmative Action at a Crossroads: Fisher and Forward, this move is designed to splinter the interests of ethnic and racial minority groups. In an article in the UCLA Law Review, Nancy Leong underscores the fact that conservatives who oppose affirmative action are misusing Asian Americans to portray the “wrongs” of affirmative action. They have not shown an interest in major issues that impact the well-being of Asian Americans such as fair housing, voting redistricting, and employment opportunities. By characterizing the harm of affirmative action as applying to both whites and Asian Americans, conservatives can mask their underlying opposition to programs that disrupt racial hierarchy through the alleged “harm” of affirmative action. As Leong explains,

affirmative action opponents wish to conscript Asian Americans into their opposition because doing so makes them look less racist.

By contrast, consider the fact that in employment processes for federal contractors under Executive Order 11246 and Chapter 60 of Title 41 of the Federal Code of Regulations, minority groups are considered in aggregate rather than separately. Since all minority groups face forms of oppression historically and up to the present day, this broader grouping of minorities acknowledges the need to address the common barriers faced by minority groups within institutions, agencies, and corporations that receive more than $50,000 in federal contracts and have 50 or more employees.

We know that Asian Americans face significant barriers in their upward mobility. As Jennifer Lee and Min Zhou underscore in their recent book, The Asian American Achievement Paradox, Asian Americans are extremely limited in their representation in leadership positions at the academic department and university administrative level, and make up less than 1 percent of corporate board members, and 2 percent of college presidents. To assert that Asian Americans as a “model minority” do not need assistance in overcoming social and institutional discrimination overlooks the structural, organizational, and behavioral barriers they face as members of an American minority group. In their insightful interview study, The Myth of the Model Minority, Rosalind Chou and Joe Feagin indicate that the subtle and even blatant forms of stereotyping and discrimination faced by Asian Americans is an untold story and represents “a very harmful invisibility (p. 3).” Because Asian Americans lack a constituency, have few public intellectuals, and have failed to organize effectively as a minority resistance group, forms of discriminatory treatment can be exercised without fear of retaliation.

The need for Asian Americans to work collectively with members of other minority groups for racial and social justice is best summed up by Frank Wu, Chancellor of the University of California’s Hastings College of Law:

Add to that the anger over college admissions, which has been portrayed by demagogues as inexorably pitting Asian Americans against African Americans (and Hispanics) — a framing that is as inaccurate as it is inflammatory to all involved — and there is a mess that foreshadows the worst of our changing demographics. It likely confirms the negative perceptions of white observers.

Asian American Students: The Invasion Theory

Asian American academic success may be an Achilles heel. Predominant myths about the so-called “model minority” have obscured the very real challenges that Asian Americans face and that are exacerbated by such fictions as the invasion of American universities by Asian American and Pacific Islander students (AAPI).

In his article, “Asian Evasion: A Recipe for Flawed Recipes,” Mitchell Chang notes the avoidance of fact-based discussions about issues relating to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, leading to confusion on educational issues. As he notes, a 2005 report by the College Board, “Facts not fiction: Setting the record straight” defuses the myth of Asian invasion by demonstrating that AAPI student increases are similar to other minority student populations. Half of these students are in California, New York, and Texas, with two out of three Asian American and Pacific Islander students attending only 200 institutions of high learning in eight states.

A second predominant myth that the report debunks is the notion that Asian Americans attend only elite institutions. AAPI students are evenly concentrated in two- and four-year institutions, with over half of the students in California and Nevada enrolled in community colleges. Like other minority students, Asian American and Pacific Islander students often struggle with poverty, public assistance, and linguistic barriers. In fact, according to a (pdf) report entitled “Beyond myths: The growth and diversity of Asian American freshmen, 1971-2005,” more Asian American families are classified as low income (47.4 percent) than the national population (39.5 percent). Increasingly, the availability of financial aid determines where Asian Americans attend college.

Perhaps another area for consideration is the focus of Asian American culture upon academic achievement at the expense of other domains of knowledge as well as the interplay of shame and family pride associated with the ebb and flow of success. Witness the controversy over the austere view of Chinese parenting offered in Amy Chua’s book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother.

How do we account for the high suicide rates among AAPI students cited in the College Board Report, representing 46 percent of the deaths at an elite public institution, and 13 out of 21 deaths at an elite private university? Like other minority groups, Asian Americans may internalize self-blame when achievements do not match aspirations and when faced with the unexpected burdens of systemic racism. Alvin Evans and I share research in our book, Are the Walls Really Down? Behavioral and Organizational Barriers to Faculty and Staff Diversity (Jossey Bass, 2007) indicating that Asian American students have a greater tendency to blame failures on themselves and to minimize discrimination in comparison with members of other minority groups.

And the invisibility of discrimination as it affects Asian Americans only makes the impact of such exclusion more severe. As Rosalind Chou and Joe Feagin observe in The myth of the model minority: Asian Americans facing racism (Paradigm, 2008), “The Asian American experience with racial hostility and discrimination is also very negative and largely untold, and such an untold experience is indeed a very harmful invisibility” (p. 3). Unlike their African-American counterparts, Asian Americans are remarkably fragmented and have not been successful at organized resistance or collective consciousness relating to discriminatory practices.

A new narrative of the Asian American student needs to replace the glamour of the model minority stereotype. More likely, this version will not only make visible the invisibility of Asian Americans as a minority group facing the pernicious effects of discrimination, but it may deviate from the prototypical views of success of their own parents, relatives, or communities. In the face of significant external challenges to self-esteem and self-determination, the new narrative will inevitably need to chart the voyage of Asian Americans from encounter with prevailing stereotypes toward positive self-identity and self-affirmation.