UCLA students celebrate graduation via Flickr Creative Commons by Perfect Zero
By Eric Chang
Almost 25 years ago, voters in California passed Proposition 209 that resulted in the ending of race-conscious affirmative action at the University of California. In particular, the Asian American community in California found itself split over this issue. Now with Proposition 16 on the November ballot to repeal 209 and reinstate race-conscious affirmative action at California Universities, Asians in California once again find themselves confronted with the same issues.
Recently, Assemblymember Evan Low, a Chinese American, publicly supported proposition 16, then ACA 5, but received substantial push back from his constituents. Low stated that his office had received over 3000 calls, many from his Asian American constituents, asking him to oppose 16. He added that elected officials in his own district criticized him: “Aren’t you Yellow? Why are you voting against your own people?”
This criticism against Low showcases some of the Asian communities’ fears that race-conscious affirmative action negatively affects Asian applicants; I personally remember being advised not to check the “Asian” box when I applied to colleges many years ago. However, much of this fear is grounded in the assumption that race-conscious affirmative action leads to bias against Asians. Affirmative action benefits historically underrepresented minority groups by stacking the cards against Asian Americans, goes the common (but misguided) refrain. In fact, they are unrelated.
A recent lawsuit against Harvard University can help illustrate. In 2014, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) filed a lawsuit challenging the legality of Harvard University’s race-conscious undergraduate admissions policies. Specifically, SFFA argued that Harvard discriminated against Asians and noted that while Harvard’s Asian applicant acceptance rates have hovered around 16 to 19 percent for the last twenty years, the percentage population of Asians in the United States has more than doubled. Many, including my own friends and family, know this case as the “Harvard affirmative action case” and have the misconception that this is a case about race-conscious affirmative action. Stanford University, along with the rest of the Ivy League schools seem to have this misconception too; they submitted a “friend of the court” amicus brief supporting Harvard in this lawsuit where they stated, “race-neutral” admissions policies would mean they “would no longer be able to effectively pursue . . . diversity.”
With this misconception, it is not surprising that Asians might think that affirmative action disadvantages them. After all, here is a university being accused of racial discrimination and at least some are pointing to race-conscious affirmative action as the defense. However, a closer look at the Harvard case shows that any bias against Asians is separate from the intended goals of affirmative action.
Documents revealed in the Harvard lawsuit’s discovery process showed that Asian applicants were rated higher on average than White applicants in almost all categories (including academic, extracurricular, and test scores) but that the lower acceptance rate for qualified Asians could be attributed to the fact that Asians, on average, had a lower “personal rating” than their White counterparts (despite Asians having comparable scores in alumni-student interviews). While the cause of this lower “personal rating” is disputed, it has nothing to do with affirmative action providing benefits to Black, Latinx, Indigenous, or other underrepresented applicants.
This conflation between bias against Asians and affirmative action is furthered by the “mascotting” of Asians in the fight against affirmative action by conservative groups. When Abigail Fisher, a White female, famously sued the University of Texas for using race as a factor in admission after being rejected, the case reached the Supreme Court. In his dissent, Associate Justice Alito argued against affirmative action and many academics noted that he used Asian Americans to avoid talking about White interests and White victimhood. Professor David Shih commented, “if not for the ubiquity of Abigail Fisher’s image in the media today, one might think that Justice Alito were examining a Chinese American.” Similarly, even the Harvard case is an example of mascotting. SFFA is led by Edward Blum, who is also the architect of the Fisher case. Upon losing the Fisher case, Blum specifically created SFFA, stating, “I needed Asian plaintiffs.”
Proposition 16 and affirmative action raise uncomfortable questions, especially in a post COVID world where Asian Americans already find their belonging questioned. However, affirmative action’s goals of diversity and remedying past systemic discrimination should be clearly distinguished from bias against Asians.
Three years after the implementation of Proposition 209, an empirical study of Asian American law school applicants to UCLA, UC Berkeley, and UC Davis was conducted by now-Special Assistant in the Chancellor’s Office at UC Santa Cruz, William Kidder. Kidder found that after Proposition 209, Black, Latinx, and Native American applicant acceptance rates dropped. Acceptance rates for White applicants rose.
There was no effect on Asian applicants.
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