Minh-Ha T. Pham, an associate professor at Pratt Institute, writes in a June 13, 2018, opinion piece in The New York Times about New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to change the way students will be chosen for eight of the city’s elite specialized high schools.
Unfortunately, some Asian-American parents in New York are protesting this proposal, arguing that it is anti-Asian because it would decrease the number of Asian children in elite schools. They are on the wrong side of this educational fight.
The mayor’s plan isn’t anti-Asian, it’s anti-racist. It would give working-class parents — including Asian-Americans — who can’t afford and shouldn’t have to find ways to afford expensive test prep programs a fairer chance that their child will be admitted into what’s known as a specialized high school.
In a watershed decision last month, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the University of Texas at Austin’s race-conscious admissions program. The Court’s decision is profoundly important for at least two reasons. First, as our nation grapples with significant racial disparities and tensions, the Court’s decision acknowledges the significant role race plays in our society and allows universities to foster racially diverse, complex learning environments. Second, the Court’s opinion squarely addresses — for the first time — the impact of race-conscious admissions programs on Asian Americans and flatly rejects the notion that Asian Americans do not benefit from them.
Much has been written on the first point, but the second point merits equal analysis. The Court did not merely conclude that UT Austin’s race-conscious admissions policy did not discriminate against Asian Americans. Instead, the Court recognized that it “may be beneficial to any UT Austin applicant — including whites and Asian Americans,” debunking the myth that Asian Americans necessarily lose out under affirmative action.
In numerous surveys, large majorities of Asian Americans have supported race-conscious college admissions and rejected efforts to use Asian Americans as a wedge group against other communities of color who support affirmative action.
Most recently, a 2016 national poll conducted by Advancing Justice, APIAVote and AAPIData.com found 64 percent of Asian-American voters favoring programs designed to help blacks, women and other minorities access higher education. These results should not surprise, as many Asian American groups, second perhaps only to white women, have been among the greatest direct beneficiaries of a variety of affirmative action programs. Indeed, over the past 50 years, the dramatic increase in Asian American representation at elite schools such as Yale was made possible because such schools included Asian Americans in their race-conscious admissions.
However, in recent years, the anti-affirmative action movement has attempted to co-opt Asian Americans, ignoring the historical gains our community has made as a result of affirmative action. Anti-civil rights activists like Edward Blum, the lawyer behind the Fisher litigation and several lawsuits seeking to dismantle voting rights for people of color, have openly fished for Asian-American clients to further their attacks against holistic, race-conscious admissions programs at prominent universities.
Despite having suffered a history of de jure discrimination, including the banning of Chinese immigration and the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans, some Asian Americans are now being exploited by primarily white players who stand to benefit from current inequities in higher education. They stoke the insecurities of newer Asian immigrants, provoking them to lash out at the very programs that have helped communities of color, including Asian Americans, gain access to higher education.
Fortunately, the Court in Fisher II got it right in holding that a carefully-studied and narrowly-designed affirmative action program like the one at UT Austin does not discriminate against Asian Americans.
A close review of the data bears out the Court’s conclusion and refutes the misconception that college admissions is a zero-sum game in which African American or Latino students “take” the place of an Asian-American student with higher test scores. The evidence shows that after UT Austin started considering race as one of several factors in its holistic admissions program, there was no drop in Asian-American admissions (indicating they were not being “replaced” by African Americans or Latinos) and the difference in mean test scores between Asian Americans and other groups remained the same, indicating that any “test score gap” could not be attributed to any consideration of race.
Justice Alito’s dissent in Fisher II repeats racially-charged, inflammatory claims that the consideration of race at UT Austin harms Asian Americans, and whites as well. Yet it selectively ignores evidence in the record, which was cited by the majority and highlighted in amicus briefs filed by groups like ours and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, showing that such claims are “entirely unsupported by evidence in the record or empirical data.”
Instead Justice Alito takes pains, during a period of significant racial conflict in our society, to look outside the record to irresponsibly pit Asian Americans against other communities of color. Even then, he also inadvertently undermines one of the main arguments used to bolster claims of discrimination against Asian American applicants — that SAT scores are the best measure of merit — by acknowledging that SAT scores reflect racial, cultural, and socioeconomic biases.
Also, while Justice Alito rightly recognizes the tremendous diversity among ethnic groups that fall within the “Asian American” label, he fails to acknowledge that holistic admissions programs have benefited and can continue to benefit more disadvantaged, underrepresented Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (e.g., Cambodian, Hmong, Samoan). The value of considering race and ethnicity as part of a holistic admissions policy is precisely to obtain the rich diversity of perspectives brought by students of varied backgrounds, including varied Asian and Pacific Islander ethnic groups.
The Fisher II decision offers a promising path forward. In today’s turbulent racial climate, the Court did the right thing in continuing to allow the consideration of race in college admissions. As Asian-American civil rights leaders, we believe the decision both protects the broader interests of our ethnically diverse community and creates the right environment for students to develop into future leaders of a racially complex and diverse society.
With the Court’s historic decision siding with race-conscious admissions programs, we hope affirmative action opponents will stop pitting Asian Americans against other communities of color and focus instead on the real prize of increasing admissions opportunities overall for all students.
Are you all about the #StarringJohnCho posters, the Photoshop phenomenon that reimagines posters for recent Hollywood blockbusters with actor John Cho in their leading-man roles? Then you should be equally as excited about supporting race-conscious affirmative action in college admissions, too.
To understand how John Cho relates to college admissions, let’s first take a closer look at why #StarringJohnCho matters.
#StarringJohnCho and its counterpart #StarringConstanceWu are reactions to the abysmal underrepresentation of Asian American actors in lead roles in both television and movies. #StarringJohnCho ponders why Asian actors continue to be shut out of lead roles in entertainment, even when “studies show that films with diverse casts result in higher box office numbers and higher returns on investments for film companies.” #StarringJohnCho challenges Hollywood to break out of tired templates and think more expansively about casting and storylines.
For studios, the lesson is clear — diversity pays off.
These breakthroughs don’t just benefit the Asian Americans working on and off camera; they benefit audiences, too. Not only do the characters and stories begin to look more like our country as whole, these changes in the industry make for better stories. As the New York Times recently wrote, “The less homogeneous TV is, the less boring it is.”
What Hollywood needs — and what #StarringJohnCho demands — is more affirmative action. For decades, race-conscious college admissions has been the Fresh Off the Boat — or even the Crazy Ex-Girlfriend — of higher education. Race-conscious college admissions acknowledges that many groups — women, minorities, LGBTQ individuals, and others — have historically been denied access to college. Affirmative action is a conscious effort — just as casting John Cho as James Bond would be — to include “characters” and “stories” that have long gone ignored in higher education.
And just as in entertainment, the benefits of this inclusion inure to the entire community. After all, the less homogeneous a college is, the less boring it is. More diversity, in other words, leads to richer conversations inside and outside the classroom.
That’s why the recent complaints filed by the so-called Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE) against Brown, Dartmouth, and Yale are misguided. The complaints overlook the myriad ways in which Asian Americans have benefited from affirmative action in education and elsewhere in American society.
Indeed, for example, Asian Americans have been direct beneficiaries of affirmative action at Yale. The rich Asian American community that Yale boasts today only exists because of the gains in representation that Asian American applicants received through affirmative action. And Yale still can do more to improve Asian American and Pacific Islander representation — certain ethnicities, including Southeast Asian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander ethnic groups (all conspicuously absent from AACE’s list of coalition members), remain woefully underrepresented on campus. As Yale, Dartmouth, and Brown have all recognized, strengthening student body diversity is in everyone’s interests. Just as all viewers benefit from diversity in Hollywood, all students — Asian American or otherwise — benefit from a diverse student body that enriches classroom discussions and campus life.
So your excitement about #StarringJohnCho likely reflects just how much Hollywood needs affirmative action. College campuses still do, too. And defending race-conscious college admissions deserves just as much of your enthusiasm as casting John Cho as Captain America.
Join Asian Americans Advancing Justice — Los Angeles in defending affirmative action by signing our open letter here.
Last week, in partnership with more than 160 Asian American and and Pacific Islander organizations, Asian Americans Advancing Justice (Advancing Justice) and Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), filed an amicus curiae (“friend of the court”) brief to the U.S. Supreme Court in support of University of Texas Austin’s (“UT-Austin”) race conscious admissions policy. So, why did more than 160 AAPI-serving organizations, from large, pan-Asian national organizations and professional associations, to student and grassroots groups serving Arab, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, South Asian, Southeast Asian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities stand together to tell the nation’s highest court that it should uphold UT-Austin’s race conscious admissions policy for a second time?
Here are the top 5 reasons:
Reason # 1 – We refuse to be used as a racial wedge and break solidarity with other communities of color.
Opponents of affirmative action often use Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPIs) as a racial wedge by selling the myth that affirmative action hurts Asian American students by placing quotas on their admissions into elite colleges in favor of African American and Latino students. Quotas, in fact, have been unconstitutional for decades and AAPIs have historically benefitted, and continue to benefit, from affirmative action policies. Defending affirmative action also means standing in solidarity with other communities of color, as we collectively fight and work against the reality of structural racism in our country.
Reason # 2 – Race still matters in American life.
The idea that race should be eliminated from holistic admissions policies in higher education is ludricous. Race is an integral part of how each of us views the world and is treated by society. The epidemic of black lives lost at the hands of law enforcement, the racist rhetoric of the immigration debate, and the proliferation of English only policies in the workplace are irrefutable evidence that race still matters in American life and colors every person’s experience.
Reason # 3 – There is no such thing as a race-neutral admissions policy.
Opponents of affirmative action would have us believe that eliminating race as a factor from any holistic admissions program makes the policy race-neutral. This is a lie. Test scores play a dominant role in any holistic review program, and test scores are not race-neutral. In fact, a recent study demonstrated that race is the single most determinative factor in SAT scores (even more than socioeconomic status and parental education levels) and that its effect is increasing over time.
Reason # 4 – AAPI groups still need affirmative action.
Contrary to the model minority myth, which presumes that all AAPI students are universally successful, many Southeast Asian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander subgroups face school segregation, inadequate preparation for college, and other barriers to higher education. A recent report on AAPI access to higher education in California, which is home to the nation’s largest AAPI community, revealed that the admit rates of Filipino, Thai, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander students are all significantly lower than the general admit rate, and that relative to their overall population, Filipinos, Native Hawaiians, Samoans, Guamanians or Chamorros, and Fijians are underrepresented in the UC system.
Reason # 5 – Racial diversity on campus benefits all students.
Some AAPI subgroups are underrepresented on college campuses while others are overrepresented, but all students benefit from the increased racial diversity and improved racial climate produced by race-conscious admissions programs. Even AAPI students who belong to subgroups that may be overrepresented on college campuses report racial hostility, pressure to segregate and/or assimilate to the dominant White culture, feeling silenced in academic exchanges, and stereotyped as perpetual foreigners and/or model minorities. Studies also show that campuses that reach the highest levels of diversity have fewer racial incidents.
If this feels like déjà vu, it is — back in 2013 the Supremes reaffirmed that universities may consider race as part of a holistic review program to increase racial diversity on campus, but sent the case back to the 5th Circuit to look more carefully at whether UT Austin tried race-neutral methods of achieving racial diversity (a paradox in itself). The 5th Circuit upheld the program on the basis that the consideration of race is necessary to obtain the diversity within racial groups that it seeks. Abigail Fisher, the white plaintiff in the case, appealed this decision, resulting in a second hearing of the case by the Supremes in December.
This seems a timely observation since something else also happened yesterday: the Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE) — which describes itself as “the proven leader in fighting for Asian-American children’s equal education rights” — announced that it has filed a third complaint against Ivy League universities alleging that the schools’ use of holistic review during college admissions discriminates against Asian American applicants.
Describing the complaint lodged with the Office of Civil Rights at the US Department of Education at the beginning of August, AACE alleged that Cornell University and Columbia University had discriminated against applicant Hubert Zhao when they did not offer him an acceptance to their schools this past spring. The complaint speculates that Zhao was either the victim of racial discrimination, or of political retaliation; Hubert also happens to be the son of AACE president, YuKong Zhao.
After eight years, the Abigail Fisher case finally has been put to rest. In a landmark judgment on June 23, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of race-conscious affirmative action in university admissions.
Abigail Fisher, a white woman, had sued the University of Texas at Austin (UT Austin) for its race-conscious admissions policy after she was denied admission. She had argued that the university violated the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.
Supporters of race-conscious admissions programs are understandably gratified. But has the case resolved the larger moral and political disagreements over affirmative action?
Indeed, over the last 40 years, affirmative action opponents have repeatedly strategized anew after important Supreme Court decisions in favor of affirmative action. They did so after the 1978 decision in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, when the Supreme Court, while allowing race to be one of the factors in choosing a diverse student body, held the use of quotas to be “impermissible.“
And they did so after the 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, when the high court again ruled that race-conscious affirmative action was constitutional.
We are scholars who study affirmative action, race, and diversity in higher education. We believe that the disagreement about affirmative action will not end anytime soon. And it may well center on lawsuits on behalf of Asian-American college applicants.
What is different about the Harvard lawsuit is that the lead plaintiff in the case is not a white student. The plaintiff is an Asian-American student.
“Students for Fair Admissions,” an arm of the Project on Fair Representation, filed a suit against Harvard College on November 17, 2014, on behalf of a Chinese-American applicant who had been rejected from Harvard. The lawsuit charges that Harvard’s admissions policy violates Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars federally funded entities from discriminating based on race or ethnicity.
“Were you denied admission to Harvard? It may be because you’re the wrong race.”
How it started
This controversy over how Asian-Americans are being treated in selective college admission was jump-started in 2005, when sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Chang Chung published findings from their study on the effects of affirmative action bans on the racial and ethnic composition of student bodies at selective colleges and universities.
Espenshade and Chung found that if affirmative action were to be eliminated, the acceptance rates for black and Latino applicants would likely decrease substantially, while the acceptance rate for white applicants would increase slightly. But more than that, what they noted was that the acceptance rate for Asian-American applicants would increase the most by far.
As the researchers explained, Asian-American students “would occupy four out of every five seats created by accepting fewer African-American and Hispanic students.”
Such research has been cited to support claims of admissions discrimination against Asian-Americans.
In the complaint against Harvard, Espenshade’s research was cited as evidence of discrimination against Asian-Americans. Specifically, the lawsuit cited research from 2009 in which Espenshade, this time with coauthor Alexandria Radford,found that Asian-American applicants accepted at selective colleges had higher standardized test scores, on average, than other accepted students.
These findings, especially that Asian-American applicants seem to need a higher SAT score than white applicants or other applicants of color in order to be admitted to a selective college are being used as proof that elite institutions like Harvard are discriminating against Asian-Americans in their admissions processes.
The picture is more complicated
As we know, selective admissions processes are much more complicated than SAT score data can show. There are many factors that are taken into consideration for college admission.
For example, in the “holistic” admissions processes endorsed by the Supreme Court in Grutter v. Bollinger, standardized text scores are not the only, or even the main, criterion for admission. “Holistic” review takes many relevant factors into account, including academic achievement, of course, but also factors such as a commitment to public service, overcoming difficult life circumstances, achievements in the arts or athletics, or leadership qualities.
So, why would the plaintiff in the Harvard case conclude that the disparities in SAT scores shown by Espenshade and Radford necessarily indicate that Asian-American applicants are being harmed by race-conscious affirmative action?
Legal scholar William Kidderhas shown that the way Espenshade and Radford’s findings have been interpreted by affirmative action opponents is not accurate. The interpretation of this research itself rests on the faulty assumption that affirmative action is to blame if an academically accomplished Asian-American applicant gets rejected from an elite institution.
Based on his analysis, Kidder concluded,
“Exaggerated claims about the benefits for APAs [Asian Pacific Americans] of ending affirmative action foster a divisive public discourse in which APAs are falsely portrayed as natural adversaries of affirmative action and the interests of African American and Latinos in particular.”
In our opinion as well, focusing on simplistic ideas about standardized tests as the primary evidence for who “deserves” to be admitted to elite institutions like Harvard may serve to stir up resentment among accomplished applicants who get rejected.
As the “Harvard Not Fair” website and accompanying lawsuit demonstrate, these findings have been used to fuel a politics of resentment among rejected Asian-American applicants.
When speaking with reporters, Espenshade himself has acknowledged that his data are incomplete – given that colleges take myriad factors into account in admissions decisions – and his findings have been overinterpreted and actually do not prove that colleges discriminate against Asian-American applicants.
Moreover, in using images of Asian-American students to recruit complainants against Harvard and other highly selective institutions of higher education, the Project on Fair Representation relies on the idea that Asian-Americans comprise a monolithic group. In fact, the term “Asian-American” refers to a diversity of Asian ethnicities in the United States, whose educational opportunities and achievements vary widely.
The 2010 census question on race included check boxes for six Asian groups – Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, and Vietnamese – along with a box for “Other Asian,” with a prompt for detailed responses such as “Hmong, Laotian, Thai, Pakistani, Cambodian, and so on.”
At this time, Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College, filed in the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, is pending.
Now that Fisher has been decided, this case is the next front in the divisive politics surrounding race-conscious affirmative action in higher education admissions.
Relevant to the Harvard case is that a civil rights complaint alleging that Princeton University discriminates against Asian-American applicants was dismissed in 2015 after a long federal Office of Civil Rights investigation.
Although public disagreement about the policy continues, affirmative action is an imperfect, but as yet necessary tool that universities can leverage to cultivate robust and diverse spaces where students learn. June 23’s Fisher ruling underscores that important idea.
Related to the coming public discussions about the Harvard lawsuit, we are of the opinion that race-conscious policies like affirmative action need to be supported. The fact is that “Asian-Americans” have diverse social and educational experiences. And many Asian-Americans benefit from affirmative action policies.
The Supreme Court handed down their long-anticipated decision on Fisher v University of Texas II yesterday, eight years after Abigail Fisher (who is White) first filed suit challenging holistic review at the University of Texas. Fisher alleged that the University’s holistic admissions process, which includes race-conscious affirmative action, denied her admission to the school. The Court had previously heard Fisher’s case, and essentially punted it back to the lower courts asking them to take a second look. When the Fifth Circuit again ruled in favour of the University of Texas, the Supreme Court was once again challenged to weigh in.
There was a lot at stake with this decision in the case now known as Fisher II: a decision against the University of Texas’ admissions program could effectively dismantle affirmative action programs across the country.
But, in a 4-3 vote, the Supreme Court elected to reaffirm the Court’s earlier perspectives on affirmative action as outlined in the landmark Grutter case which first explicitly established the “compelling interest” of colleges and universities to address issues of campus diversity through the limited and narrow use of racial information.