Asian-American Students Face Unique Challenges When It Comes to Affirmative Action

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by Lekan Oguntoyinbo

Irwin Tang, an Austin, Texas-based psychotherapist, says he believes that some of the nation’s elite institutions of higher learning have unofficial quotas that cap the admission of students of Asian descent.
Irwin Tang

Irwin Tang, an Austin, Texas-based psychotherapist, says he believes that some of the nation’s elite institutions of higher learning have unofficial quotas that cap the admission of students of Asian descent.

Though many Asian-American interest groups have lined up to support the University of Texas’ affirmative action policy amid the Fisher v. University of Texas court battle, some Asian-American groups have sided with Abigail Fisher, arguing that race-conscious decisions in university admissions hurt qualified Asian-American students.

When Abigail Fisher, who is White, sued the University of Texas after she was denied admission, claiming UT’s affirmative action policy discriminated against her, as it gave preference to minority candidates over her, the subject of universities and the validity of their affirmative action practices were called into question. Scores of pro-affirmative-action groups voiced their support and stressed how a diverse campus benefits all students, including Whites.

Of those who demonstrated their support of affirmative action, dozens have been Asian-American groups. In the months leading up to the Supreme Court hearing last October, five Asian-American groups — including the Asian American Legal Foundation based in San Francisco — filed amicus briefs in court opposing the University of Texas’ policies. A second brief was filed on behalf of four additional Asian-American groups: the 80-20 National Asian-American Educational Foundation, the National Federation of Indian American Associations, the Indian American Forum for Political Education and the Global Organization of People of Indian Origin.

Asian-Americans are arguably the most diverse ethnic group in the United States — and perhaps one of the least understood. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Asian-Americans are the fastest growing minority group in the United States, accounting for 6 percent of the overall population.

And the spectrum of people of Asian descent in the United States is almost as broad as it is on the Asian continent. Many Asian-Americans have roots from numerous countries, including China, India, Japan, Korea, Vietnam, Pakistan, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and the Philippines. As such, Asian-Americans in support of affirmative action emphasize that they historically have been victims of racism and are beneficiaries of affirmative action.

A study conducted by the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research shows that 63.1 percent of Asian-Americans support affirmative action. The study also shows that 62.6 percent of Asian-American college students disagree with eliminating affirmative action.

Though the Asian-American groups supporting affirmative action outnumbered those against nearly 20 to 1, the differences highlighted a rift within the Asian-American community on the matter.

 

‘Model minority’

“I think there’s more attention on us than usual,” says Khin Mai Aung, director of the educational equity project for the Asian-American Legal Defense and Education Foundation, which filed one of the briefs with 18 other groups.

But Asian-Americans have a complex relationship with affirmative action, one that diverges from that of Blacks or Hispanics in a number of ways. Unlike other minority groups, Asian-Americans have been given the appellation of being “model minorities” due to the many high-achievers in that community.

For example, 8.3 percent of Asian-Americans are physicians and make up more than 50 percent of the technology workforce in Silicon Valley. It is estimated that the percentage of the Asian-American student body at Ivy League schools is between 12 and 18 percent. In fact, Harvard University’s incoming freshman class in 2012 was 21 percent Asian-American, a number that has held steady in recent years. These noteworthy achievements fuel perceptions that all Asians are high-achievers.

It is this perception that is at the crux of the divide in the Asian-American community. For years, there have been rumors that, since Asian-Americans are disproportionately represented at top colleges and don’t get the same breaks as Blacks, Hispanics and American Indian candidates that are often perceived as less qualified, there is an unofficial cap, known as the “bamboo ceiling,” on Asian enrollment at these schools.

Irwin Tang, an Austin, Texas-based psychotherapist, editor and co-author of Asian Texans: Our Histories and Our Lives, says the bamboo ceiling is very real. He says the ceiling is an obstacle for Asian-Americans as far back as birth. Like some Asian-Americans, Tang believes that some of the nation’s elite institutions of higher learning have unofficial quotas that cap the admission of students of Asian descent.

So even though there’s an impressively high percentage of Asian-American students at the nation’s top colleges and universities, many reason that the number would be higher were it not for this quota, which has never been proved to exist. Tang believes this unofficial quota extends down to the K–12 level.

He cited an example of a set of parents — White and Hispanic — who have two children — one who is half-Hispanic and the other who was adopted from China. The parents were attempting to have their children placed in honors classes at their school. He says the parents believe the school has an unofficial quota system for honors classes that favors minorities like their half-Hispanic daughter at the expense of their Chinese-American daughter.

“The daughter adopted from China was going to have a harder time getting into honors classes than the other child who is half-Hispanic,” Tang says. “The school insisted that the races of their daughters be revealed.”

Tang, a son of immigrants from Hong Kong, adds, “Another mother told me that she knows it will be extremely difficult for Asian students to get into an Ivy League school, so she’s going to aim for the University of Texas. Her expectations have already been lowered. To me, that’s really sad.”

 

Helping or hurting?

Tang believes race-conscious admissions harm all minorities.

“Affirmative action lowers the bar for Black and Hispanic students,” he says. “They don’t have to score high or have as high of a GPA compared to an Asian student. That’s why many Asian students are being advised not to reveal their race, because other minority students will have a harder time to get in.”

Proponents say Asian-American groups that favor ending race-conscious admissions overlook some key details that are unique to certain groups.

“It’s true that certain ethnic populations tend to come from highly educated and upper-middle-class backgrounds,” says Dr. Madeline Hsu, an associate professor and director of Asian-American studies at the University of Texas at Austin. “But we have many Indians working as cab drivers and Koreans that run family businesses. There are issues among Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians, like higher-than-average poverty rates.”

Hsu says several highly selective colleges use discretionary factors when making admissions decisions. Such factors, she says, include leadership and extracurricular activities.

“If you look at who benefits from the criterion, it’s actually White students,” she says. “It’s borne out by statistics. The kind of argument Fisher is making doesn’t hold.”

Robert Teranishi, an associate professor of higher education at New York University, believes marginalized Asian-American Pacific Island subgroups will be severely affected if universities banish their affirmative action practices. “Among those groups, we’re seeing low rates of college attendance, high rates of not persisting in college and low rates of participating in selective universities.”

Tang says a sensible answer to race-conscious admissions is simply to eliminate the race factor.

“I would like to see our high schools and elementary schools improve so everyone has a more equal playing field when it comes to receiving a better education,” he says. “The solution is not affirmative action. The solution is to have equal standards for everyone and an improved education system.”

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