Are Asian Americans really for the end of affirmative action?

It’s cap and gown time, and along with it come thoughts that threaten to break apart Asian America. You’ll notice it when you are at your child’s commencement this graduation season (my Jillian, the rock star, gets her B.S. in Geology this week at San Francisco State, where the graduation speaker is Mayor Ed Lee).

It’s hard to imagine there are some unhappy Asian Americans, given the number you are likely to see on campus.

But what if after four years, you are graduating from your “fall back” school and not your number one choice?

Instead of joy, some Asian American parents are actually wondering how differently they would feel if their kids were not at UC This and Cal State That, but at their real number one choice, that private school or that Ivy League place, the one that rhymes with kale?

That’s the school that said no to your offspring’s resume of perfect grades, SATs, and tireless extracurriculars, and instead let in a few others who couldn’t hold your son’s high school jock.

What’s next to come as Asian American adults–more discrimination?

That’s the logic that’s going through the minds of many Asian Americans these days as they grapple with this question: Should race-neutral policies replace affirmative action?

More than anything else, it’s the single biggest threat to the notion of an Asian American community. And it’s brought out the opportunists who want to use Asian Americans to break up the solidarity on the issue among people of color. The Asian American group 80-20 launched an online petition drive and now claims it has 50,000 signatures of Asian Americans who want to end the unfairness of it all.

They are sadly deluded.

It all comes about as the Supreme Court contemplates the latest assault on affirmative action, Fisher v. Texas, later this year.

If the Sandra Day O’Connor-less court swings further rightward, it would mark the real end of a policy that has assured Asian Americans equal opportunity in education for decades.


San Francisco has dealt with this issue in the past with the caps on Asian American admissions at my alma mater, Lowell High School. I said back then that the issue is not about race, but about limited resources. Besides, if a super-majority white population is not considered good, why would a super-majority of Asian Americans be any better? The answer in my mind has always been to make more Lowells.

But how would you do that on a national level? It’s harder given all the budget cuts on education, but adding resources, not dumping race-based admissions, is still the real answer.

In California, where the alternative to affirmative action–race-neutral admissions–has been the law and upheld since the passage of Prop. 209, inequality still exists. All 209 did was codify the ideal (a colorblind world), but it de-codified the groups that are less than equal now. The colorblind 209 has left us with a policy that gives us results like UCLA, where 91,000 applicants vied for 5,400 spaces.

The numbers don’t work.

Qualified applicants will still be denied, not just Asian Americans. Race-neutral approaches don’t come close to addressing the real problem of the need for more resources.

In addition, the race-neutral system only exacerbates the problem of inequality. When it comes to Asian Americans, the political umbrella term includes 24 ethnic groups, and all have varied experiences based on when the first immigrants arrived. Asian Americans are far from being just Chinese, Japanese, or Korean. Among Southeast Asians, for example, 40 percent of Cambodians and Laotians in California haven’t finished high school, double the state rate. After 209, those groups continued to be severely underrepresented.

As President Obama said last week, the day before he came out for marriage equality, he urged a group of the wonkiest Asian Americans at the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies dinner in Washington to consider the importance of affirmative action:

“And I know it can be tempting–given the success that’s on display here tonight–for people to buy into the myth of the “model minority” and glance over the challenges that this community still faces. But we have to remember there’s still educational disparities like higher dropout rates in certain groups, lower college enrollment rates in others. There’s still economic disparities like higher rates of poverty and obstacles to employment,” said the president. “Dozens of different communities fall under the umbrella of the Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and we have to respect that the experiences of immigrant groups are distinct and different. And your concerns run the gamut.”

Any real solution needs to address all of us, not split us apart.

But there are those who have lost that community feeling and can only see public policy as it applies to me, myself and I.

80-20 is circulating the story of “Martin,” with his weighted 4.35 GPA, four subject SATs, 10 AP tests, ranked 7th out of 455, captain of the tennis team, city teen council member, president the last two years, volunteer tennis coach, and paid camp counselor.

His results: Rejected by Harvard, Penn, Cornell, Georgetown, Duke.

But he was accepted at UC Berkeley? Is the difference the virtues of race-blind admissions?

Well, maybe yes and maybe no. We’ve already seen the inequities 209 has left us with.

And what about the Southeast Asians who remain underrepresented?

College admissions are imperfect. It’s not simply a matter of rounding up the top scores and letting just those people in. Building a vibrant, diverse student body is far more complicated than that. And if it is all about resources, budget cuts on education, which are being imposed throughout the land, certainly are counter-productive.

But in dealing with these issues, Asian Americans, and all Americans, need to understand if you’re not for affirmative action as the continuing remedy to educational inequality, you are really for the non-diverse America we’ve left behind, a country where segregation and inequality ruled the day.

Going forward, as Americans, can we really afford to stand for that?

Image by AALDEF

Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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