We are Southeast Asian American Students, and we Support Race-Conscious Admissions at Harvard and Beyond

Luke Kertcher is an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. Trinh Truong is an undergraduate student at Yale University. This was originally posted on https://www.pivotnetwork.org, the website of the Progressive Vietnamese American Organization (PIVOT).

Like 20% of our classmates at Yale and Penn, we are Asian American students attending Ivy League schools.

One of us graduated from a public school in the rural Midwest, where only a handful of Asian Americans were enrolled. The other attended a high-needs, urban public school in upstate New York, where more than 47 languages were spoken by a student body comprised mainly of refugees and immigrants. One of us had no standardized test preparation beyond poorly resourced teachers printing past exams. The other is lucky to have been included in a limited-enrollment college preparation program for low-income students that offered test preparation. Both of us are first-generation, Vietnamese American college students receiving substantial amounts of financial aid.

Edward Blum, a conservative activist who has previously attacked the Voting Rights Act and worked to disenfranchise immigrant voters, is now claiming to be on the side of Asian American students like us. Blum’s organization, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), is suing Harvard for discrimination against Asian Americans. The anti-affirmative action plaintiffs argue that consideration of many factors, including race, in college admissions disproportionately hurts Asian American applicants. If admissions were based on academic measures alone, Blum claims, more Asian Americans would be admitted to elite colleges like Harvard, or Yale, or Penn.

Blum and SFFA perpetuate a narrative that claims schools like Harvard engage in racial bias by assigning Asian Americans lower “personal scores” than other applicants. But the personal score is not a “personality” test. More accurately, the personal score is part of a holistic review process that considers students’ personal histories and unique circumstances—aspects of a student that are not effectively captured by standardized tests. These are exactly the aspects of our lives that we sought to emphasize in our applications. The Trump administration and the Department of Justice have also expressed support for ending whole person review, instead supporting the use of metrics like test scores and GPA alone.

However, reducing applicants to purely numeric standards doesn’t help Asian American students like us. Rather, it erases our rich ethnic and racial histories—who we are as people. Expert analyses from both sides of the case show that the elimination of non-quantifiable factors in college admissions would have a devastating effect on Black and Latino students’ enrollment. Economist David Card, who is working on the Harvard case, has shown that relying on academic criteria alone benefits white students most and Asian American students negligibly.

Moreover, standardized test scores and grade points are not free from racial bias. Studies have shown that higher scores correlate with higher socioeconomic status. Data aggregation also obscures the interethnic disparities within the Asian American community, rendering our educational system blind to those facing the most systemic disadvantage.

When Blum and his supporters stereotype all Asian Americans as the same, they dehumanize us and obscure diversity within our Asian American community. While most Asian American applicants are of Chinese and Indian origin, a minority have heritage from Southeast Asian and many other Asian countries. Those from places like Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos are much more likely to identify as limited English proficient, live in poverty, come from households with lower levels of educational attainment, and confront gang violence at higher rates than other Asian Americans.

However, this history is forgotten and erased under the predominant stereotype of the model minority. Janelle Wong, a political scientist studying Asian American civic life, traces the origins of this model to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that instituted meritocratic, “selective recruitment” policies based on occupational skills, education, and family reunification that have become the cornerstones of contemporary immigration law. As a result, all Asian Americans are perceived as test-taking aces due to some innate racial quality, but this is not our story. Our immigration narrative begins not with selective economic migration, but with the Vietnam War, the Secret War in Laos, the rise of the Khmer Rouge, and the subsequent exodus of refugees from mainland Southeast Asia.

Ed Blum and SFFA don’t represent us or our interests. As two Vietnamese American students, we have benefited from holistic admission policies that considered our families’ unique immigration histories and socioeconomic backgrounds instead of just our imperfect test scores. Because of affirmative action and holistic review that considered factors like our racial and ethnic backgrounds, Yale and Penn were able to see us as more than just numbers, but as high achievers with unique experiences and perspectives capable of contributing to our campus communities.

One of us is the son of a refugee who fled South Vietnam on a boat in 1975. The other is a more recent political refugee from South Vietnam resettled in 2001. Both of us are in the United States because of the historical legacy of the Vietnam War and the mass refugee resettlement of more than three million Southeast Asian refugees that occurred in its wake. Many of these individuals–including our families–were resettled without adequate access to education, housing, and healthcare, creating generational poverty, violence, and trauma.

Students with experiences like us will be excluded if holistic admissions and affirmative action policies are eliminated.

In an era where the definition of who belongs in America and who gets access to its institutions is in flux, this case becomes about more than just Harvard University and Asian Americans. An attack on affirmative action is an attack on racial justice, social mobility, and immigrants.

Advancing Justice Los Angeles Files Brief Supporting Race-conscious Holistic Review

Asian Americans are finding themselves in the crosshairs of the debate on affirmative action. Despite what Edward Blum may claim, the current lawsuit against Harvard is not about Asian Americans. He’s using our community as a cover for his crusade to dismantle affirmative action.

If he thinks we’re going to buy-in to this agenda, he’s wrong.

Today, we filed an amicus brief on behalf of a diverse group of students — including several Asian Americans — in support of Harvard’s holistic review policies. What this means is we are reaffirming our commitment to protecting race-conscious holistic review.

After his failed attempt to end affirmative action at the Supreme Court (Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin), Edward Blum, through Students for Fair Admission, actively began to recruit Asian American students to be plaintiffs for his latest campaign targeting Harvard’s race-conscious holistic admissions.

At the heart of this issue is not whether Asian Americans are discriminated against, but whether Harvard (and other universities and institutions) can continue to value racial diversity in ways in which our country has fallen short. Race-conscious holistic review allows applicants to be valued for who they are as a whole person, beyond just test scores and grades. It allows talented and gifted students from all backgrounds an opportunity to attend college and succeed in life. People of color, including Asian Americans, lose out under a colorblind system.

Earlier this summer, we launched a series of infographics that seek to demystify affirmative action and its importance for Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. We highlighted two infographics a week for the last six weeks, each detailing important facts about affirmative action. If you missed it, I encourage you to look through them on our affirmative action webpage.

We recognize Blum’s strategy for what it is: a thinly veiled attempt to use Asian Americans as a cover to destroy racial diversity across college campuses. We refuse to be used as a wedge in this issue.

We’re in this together,

Nicole Ochi
Supervising Attorney, Impact Litigation
Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Los Angeles

P.S. If you’re interested to learn more, we’re hosting a Twitter Town Hall on Wednesday, August 1st starting at 12 p.m. PT. Join the conversation by following @AAAJ_LA and the hashtag #NotYourCover. Hope to see you there.

Minh-Ha T. Pham: ‘De Blasio’s Plan for NYC Schools Isn’t Anti-Asian, It’s Anti-Racist’

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.

Read the opinion piece.

Re-Imagining Leadership Summit Offers Leadership Training for Young Chinese Americans

The Re-Imagining Leadership Summit (http://www.reimaginingleadership.org) is a five-day program that provides an opportunity for Chinese American young people in the metropolitan Boston area to develop critical consciousness for leadership. The Summit runs August 6-10, 2018, at Harvard University’s Phillips Brooks House.

The Summit will give selected participants an opportunity to explore the local history and contemporary experiences of Chinese Americans in relation to other communities, and to connect with other members of the Asian American community in Boston.

Program participants will:

  • Reflect on personal and family histories.
  • Developing a community of learning and support in the Boston area.
  • Collectively cultivate an analysis of intersecting social systems that shape diverse Chinese American communities, histories, experiences, and cultures.

Participants will be recognized in a May reception where they will be gifted, and invited to read, the following books:

  • Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People — by Helen Zia
  • American Born Chinese — by Gene Luen Yang
  • Living for Change: An Autobiography — by Grace Lee Boggs
  • The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril became the Model Minority — by Madeline Hsu

Participants will also be invited to complete a creative culminating project by the end of the program.

The Re-Imagining Leadership Summit is organized by Chinese Americans Re-Imagining Leadership is a collective of Chinese Americans from the Boston metropolitan region working to develop a new generation of Chinese Americans committed to transformative community leadership for social justice: Eugenia Beh, Delia Cheung Hom, Felix Poon, OiYan Poon, Ellen Wang, and Chu Huang.

Learn more at http://www.reimaginingleadership.org.

Best Reads About Affirmative Action – December 2017

Below are great reads about affirmative action.

You’re not going to get accepted into a top university on merit aloneThe Conversation.

“…We should discard the notion that admissions is a meritocratic process that selects the “best” 18-year-olds who apply to a selective university. When we let go of our meritocracy ideals, we see more clearly that so many talented, accomplished young people who will be outstanding leaders in the future will not make it to the likes of Harvard, Stanford and Yale.”

Harvard student’s story offers window on ‘diversity’ in the US college admissions. Asia Times.

“Vietnamese and Filipinos in the US, according to Thang, typically face higher educational hurdles than Chinese and other Asian groups due to the scars left on their cultures by Western colonialism…”

The Price of AdmissionSlate.

“I believe affirmative action is a necessary policy to counter systemic racism and provide students with a diverse set of peers. But after seeing Asians take center stage in the debate in the months since I’ve graduated, I can’t stop thinking about the disquieting incentives that the college application process is creating for Asian students in America, as it once did for me.”

 

On Affirmative Action, Asian Americans ‘Are Not Your Wedge’

By Stewart Kwoh and Mee Moua

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.

Original Post on NBC News.  

Stewart Kwoh is the president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles, and Mee Moua is president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice-AAJC.

#StarringAffirmativeAction: How #StarringJohnCho Debunks Recent Asian American Complaints Against Ivy League Universities

This is cross-posted from Reappropriate.co. The original post is here. 

By Guest Contributor: Christopher M. Lapinig

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.

Of course, there have been some signs of progress — on the small screen, at least. For example, Fresh Off the Boat — recently renewed for a third season — became the first sitcom focused on an Asian American family to thrive past its first season. Critically acclaimed Crazy Ex-Girlfriend not only features an Asian American man as the protagonist’s primary love interest, but showcases a Filipino American family for the first time in network television history. And Aziz Ansari and Alan Yang’s Netflix hit Master of None—which, in one episode, poignantly depicts relationships between immigrant parents and their U.S.-born children— recently won a Peabody Award.

All of these recent breakthroughs resulted from intentional actions to depict characters and stories that have historically been shut out of television.  These breakthroughs only happened because network executives intentionally took a chance on airing the first Asian American family sitcom on television in twenty years. They happened only because show creators actively chose to cast an Asian man as their romantic lead — in part because that was something they had never seen on television before.  And they happened because writers decided to translate their own relationships with their immigrant parents into a script.

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.