Why Asian Americans Should Support Affirmative Action

Affirmative action in higher education remains one of the most contentious issues in America today. The U.S. Supreme Court considered affirmative action last term and will do so again this term.  California’s legislature recently considered a bill, SCA5, that would have paved the way for voters to overturn Proposition 209, the state’s existing ban on race-conscious admissions in higher education. Although the California Senate passed the bill, members of the House recently announced that the bill would not move forward in time for voters to consider it in 2015. But the issue remains very much alive in California and will likely be reconsidered for 2016.

The debate over affirmative action raises unique considerations for Asian Americans.  While research has shown that a substantial majority of Asian Americans support affirmative action, some vocal opponents of SCA5 have claimed the bill would have dramatic negative consequences for Asian Americans applicants.  These claims are unfounded.  Speaking both as a law professor who has taught in the UC school system and as a proud Asian American, I believe that Asian Americans should support SCA5 in the California legislature and affirmative action in higher education nationwide. Here are ten reasons:

1. Affirmative action has helped countless Asian Americans. Historically, Asian Americans, like blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans, suffered exclusion and de jure segregation in public education. This was particularly true in California given the state’s significant Asian American population.  Race-conscious admissions programs were critical in making public higher education available to Asian Americans in the 1960s and 1970s. Even assuming that race-conscious programs no longer help Asian Americans—an incorrect assumption that I will challenge below—we shouldn’t deny others the benefits of programs that have already provided massive benefits to our communities.

2. Many underrepresented Asian subgroups would benefit directly from affirmative action today.  Cambodian, Vietnamese, Thai, Laotian, Burmese, Filipino, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander students, among others, are underrepresented at many schools.  Allowing consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions would permit admissions officials to consider the unique obstacles that these groups face and the discrimination that they overcome.

3. Asian Americans continue to benefit from a wide range of race-conscious practices.  Asian Americans are underrepresented in many areas, including leadership positions in both private businesses and government; elected office; and the judiciary. Race-consciousness benefits us by correcting our underrepresentation in all of these areas. Moreover, Asian Americans benefit directly from race-conscious decision-making in areas such as government contracting, where historically we have been vastly underrepresented and remain so today.  It’s intellectually inconsistent—and unfair—for us to approve of race-conscious decision-making in some contexts and not others.

4. Race is relevant to college admissions. Nearly all colleges already consider a wide range of factors in admissions, including grades, essays, letters of recommendation, test scores, extracurricular activities, personal qualities, and life experience. For many non-white people, including Asian Americans, race is inseparable from the last two factors in particular.  We continue to suffer discrimination on the basis of race, and experiencing such discrimination often shapes our personal characteristics and becomes part of our life stories. Succeeding despite discrimination demonstrates character. It reveals the determination to overcome obstacles and the refusal to quit. These characteristics are unquestionably relevant to a student’s likelihood of college success. Race-conscious admissions allow schools to acknowledge these relevant characteristics.

5. No Asian American applicant is automatically disadvantaged by SCA5 or by affirmative action in general. Consistent with U.S. Supreme Court precedent, SCA5 simply allows consideration of race as one of many factors in admissions. This doesn’t automatically disadvantage anyone. Opponents of SCA5 have alleged that the bill would impose “quotas” or “caps” on Asian American students.  This is simply false.  Quotas have been unconstitutional since 1978, when the Supreme Court decided Bakke v. Regents of the University of California. Consistent with this decision, nothing in the text of SCA5 would limit the number of Asian American students admitted to public universities in California. Indeed, the bill might instead increase the number of Asian American students. The effect would depend on how individual schools decided to take race into account—if at all—and would likely vary from one school to the next. Remember, SCA5 only allows consideration of race. It doesn’t require it, and it certainly doesn’t require it in any particular form.

6. Test scores are flawed predictors. Opponents of SCA5 argues that Asian Americans should oppose affirmative action by emphasizing that Asian Americans average better scores on standardized tests than their counterparts of other races.  This is true: in 2013, for example, Asians scored an average of 1645 out of 2400 on the SAT, compared to 1576 for white students, 1427 for Native American students, 1355 for Latino students, and 1278 for black students. But a recent study of 123,000 students at 33 schools that don’t require SAT scores found no significant difference in either grades or graduation rates between students who chose to submit scores and those who didn’t. A twenty-year study at selective Bates College echoed the finding, showing that SAT scores do little to predict success even at elite schools. Asian Americans shouldn’t advocate for a flawed assessment device simply because, on average, we happen to do a little better at it. Let’s instead work on improving the admissions process for everyone—including Asian Americans who don’t do well on standardized tests.

7. Non-white groups who support affirmative action are important allies of Asian Americans on civil rights issues.  Opponents of SCA5 have framed the bill as a wedge issue, pitting Asian Americans against other non-white groups. Yet historically Asian Americans, blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and other groups have been allies on important civil rights issues that impact us all.  We protested together against a shared sense of injustice, and celebrated together at the passage of important civil rights legislation. A recent tribute to Martin Luther King, Jr. by Scot Nakagawa eloquently describes Asian Americans’ considerable debt to the civil rights movement—a movement initiated by blacks in the south. To abandon this coalition over an imagined rivalry would be a tragic mistake.  Racial minorities in America need one other’s support on a wide range of critical civil rights issues, including voting redistricting, racial profiling, employment equality, fair housing, and anti-poverty legislation.

8. Affirmative action improves cross-racial relations on college and university campuses. Recent ugly incidents directed at both Asian and black students on UCLA’s campus exemplify the racially charged atmosphere on campuses in California and nationwide.  Clearly the state’s eighteen year ban on race-conscious admissions in higher education hasn’t eliminated racial tension.  This is unsurprising, given that more diverse and integrated environments have fewer instances of both overt and covert racism. Race-conscious admissions would help to foster such an environment on our college and university campuses.

9. Affirmative action is good for education. Social science evidence has shown that racial diversity in higher education is good for everyone. Students, including Asian American students, learn better when they’re surrounded by people who aren’t like them, and interaction with people of other races helps to break down stereotypes. Moreover, policy isn’t made in a vacuum, and in evaluating race-conscious admissions, we need to consider the alternatives. An educational system without race-conscious admissions too frequently isolates students of color or forces them to become spokespersons for their race. At UCLA Law School, a powerful video recently captured the grievous toll taken on the 33 black students in the school’s student body of 1100. Race-conscious admissions would diminish the isolation of underrepresented groups. And Asian American support for race-conscious admissions would strengthen networks that would benefit members of all groups in times of racial tension.

10. Affirmative action is good for society. Race-conscious admissions compensate for past injustice by opening doors for members of historically disadvantaged groups and hastening progress toward a more equal society. Many people are familiar with John Roberts’ claim that “[t]he way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” But the problem with Roberts’ logic is that it ignores vast swaths of history. If we abandon affirmative action today, we leave untouched the racial hierarchies created by centuries of slavery, segregation, and discrimination. And choosing to leave existing racial hierarchy in place looks an awful lot like discrimination. Instead, we should permit admissions policies that acknowledge the reality of past racism and the continued salience of race today. The path to racial equality doesn’t begin by ignoring the existence of racial inequality.

The commentary above was previously published in Chinese and is reproduced in English with full permission.