(Note from the Editor: AsAmNews invited both the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund and 80-20, two Asian American organizations with opposing views on affirmative action in higher education, to submit blogs on today’s action by the U.S. Supreme Court. AsAmNews encourages its readers to engage in a rational discussion on this controversial issue. We welcome and encourage your comments on this important issue )
Asian American Legal Defense & Educational Fund
The U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed the value of diversity in higher education in its ruling in Fisher v. UT-Austin. Though the decision requires the lower court to take a second look at UT’s admissions policy to see if it meets the constitutional standard, the vast majority of Justices agreed that the principles of affirmative action still hold. Namely, colleges and universities can consider race among many other factors in an applicant’s profile when trying to achieve something that’s essential for a high quality education: a diverse learning environment.
You know who else agrees with that assessment? Asian Americans.
Several months ago, I visited a PTA meeting for Hunter College High School, a highly-selective New York City school with a considerable Asian student population, to give a presentation on the Fisher case. When I asked the group—which consisted of nearly all Asian immigrant and Asian American parents—how many of them thought it was important for their children to be in a diverse learning environment, nearly every hand was raised. When I inquired further about their opinions on affirmative action, many voiced their support for programs that expand opportunities for the underprivileged. They saw such measures as ensuring fairness, inclusiveness, and equality.
Though opponents have insisted otherwise, Asian American support for affirmative action has remained consistently strong. In a recent study, the National Asian American Survey reported that Asians and Pacific Islanders overwhelmingly support affirmative action programs in employment and education. This is consistent with other social science data over the last decade looking at Asian American attitudes towards affirmative action, and with AALDEF’s own exit polls around the passage of Prop 2 in Michigan. The truth is that, despite the lampooning of Asian parents as Tiger moms and dads who zealously guard only their children’s best interests, Asian Americans “get” the affirmative action issue, and understand what’s at stake for Asian students and communities.
For one, consideration of diversity in admissions advances equal opportunity for many Asian American applicants who continue to face educational barriers. Southeast Asians like Vietnamese, Cambodians and Laotians, most of whom came to the U.S. as refugees, have significantly lower educational attainment and higher poverty rates than many other Asian and non-Asian ethnic groups. The same is true for Pacific Islander communities who share a common heritage of colonization and marginalization. As a conglomeration of highly heterogeneous cultures and immigration experiences, AAPIs understand that while not every Asian community arrives to America’s shores with the same privileges and advantages, improved access to a quality education can put opportunities within reach.
Additionally, Asian Americans know that getting in the door is just half the battle. As one parent noted during my discussion with the PTA, a good track record of diversity was important when he assessed potential colleges, because he did not want his daughter to experience the same isolation that he felt among his colleagues at work. Indeed, there is a substantial amount of social science research that demonstrates the positive impact a diverse learning environment has upon Asian American students. This includes not only improving the breadth of experiences and knowledge to which Asian American students are exposed, but also improving perspectives on their own racial identities and reinforcing their sense of self. Such outcomes can play a crucial part in undoing stereotypes and preparing Asian American students to succeed in a diverse and global workforce.
These are the arguments that AALDEF advanced in our amicus brief to the Supreme Court in Fisher, a case that has seen an unprecedented inclusion of the perspectives of Asian Americans on affirmative action. And these are the same reasons why the Asian American community has remained a solid—albeit misunderstood—supporter for diversity policies. Though there is certainly more ink to be spilled on this issue in the courts and in the media, one thing is sure: affirmative action matters to Asian Americans, and Asian Americans matter to the discourse on affirmative action.
(About the author: Thomas L. Mariadason is a staff attorney in the Educational Equity Program of the Asian American Legal Defense & Education Fund. )