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Are Asian Students Really at Risk? An Asian American Student’s Perspective on Affirmative Action

As the Black Lives Matter movement gains traction across the country, people are increasingly urging large corporations, state governments, and schools to attack the racism built within their structures. One partial solution proposed to combat America's vehement racial inequity is affirmative action, which is an attempt to help remedy injustices among historically and currently marginalized groups. This system proposes considering race, nationality, socio-economic class, and gender identity in school admissions and job hiring processes.

It’s no secret that America has a history of racism, white supremacy, and misogyny. Although the US constitution states that all citizens have equal rights under the 14th, 15th, and 19th amendments, America’s history of segregation, slavery, and racism has prevented true equality among all groups. The legacy of white supremacy leaves students of color at a disadvantage, especially for college admissions. When students come from a marginalized background, studies show that they score lower on standardized tests, have less time for extracurriculars, and don’t have access to resources (such as college counselors or SAT prep classes) that many upper class white students do.

Affirmative action is a system that is often used during school admissions processes as one strategy to combat these inequities. Universities across America from state schools to Ivy Leagues consider race, nationality, socio-economic class, etc. when admitting students. Because it seeks to create opportunities for marginalized groups, affirmative action most commonly benefits people of color (specifically Black and brown students), female-identifying students, and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. By providing these students with better education, affirmative action can set them up for success and help remedy the negative impacts of slavery and other historic inequities. It can create equal opportunities for students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Also, integrated classrooms have been proven to improve all students’ performances. The Century Foundation reports that students learning in racially and socio-economically diverse schools score higher on standardized tests, are less likely to drop out, have less racial bias, and overall benefit socially and cognitively from their inclusive environment.

However, many who oppose affirmative action argue that it can disadvantage talented students who do come from privileged backgrounds. Many prominent opponents of affirmative action are Asian since they believe affirmative action places specific harms on Asian applicants. Asian American families have more education and higher median incomes than the national average. This means these students can more easily access high-quality & highly-funded primary and secondary education, extra standardized test-prep courses/tutoring outside of school, college counselors to aid with the admissions process, and other resources. Because of these privileges, Asian college applicants often don't need the same benefits from affirmative action that go to those who actually are from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In 2014, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) filed a lawsuit against Harvard University, accusing them of discriminating against Asian students. The lawsuit was based on data showing Asian students’ personalities being rated significantly lower than their non-Asian peers. These low ratings would cause Asian applicants to be rejected from the university, despite students’ high test scores and other qualifications. SFFA claimed that the lower personality scores were rooted in stereotypes of Asians that frame them as coldhearted and passive. These personality scores were allegedly a way Harvard could disadvantage Asian applicants. In 2018, the case reached the Supreme Court, which ultimately ruled that Harvard’s admissions processes were constitutional and nondiscriminatory. The university’s admissions processes were proven to only consider race as a positive to an individual’s application, but not a negative.

SFFA was created by Edward Blum, who has filed over 12 lawsuits against selective universities on behalf of rejected applicants. He used Asians as a stepping stool to achieve his ultimate goal from Fisher v University of Texas—a lawsuit filed by a white applicant—when the Supreme Court ruled that affirmative action is in line with the Equal Protection clause. Blum then realized he “needed Asian plaintiffs” to eliminate affirmative action. Blum’s intentions behind the lawsuit was not to end any discrimination against Asian applicants, but rather to end affirmative action completely. In reality, statistical projections show white people benefiting the most from Blum’s proposed solution. As an ACLU article states, “Not talking about race doesn’t erase discrimination; it reinforces the privileges of white applicants by ignoring the ways in which deep-seeded structural racial inequality impacts individuals.”

A more recent opposition to affirmative action also comes from the Asian American community. For the past couple of weeks, the #AsianStudentsAtRisk tag has been going around on social media. The account @AsianStudentsAtRisk posts graphics opposing California Assembly Constitutional Amendment No. 5 (ACA-5), which would repeal Proposition 209. Proposition 209, passed in 1996, bans government institutions—including public universities—from discriminating against or giving preferential treatment to individuals on the basis of race, gender, nationality, or ethnicity. The account states that under ACA-5, only 12% of students accepted into the University of California will be Asian. Currently, 30% of accepted applicants are Asian, more than any other racial group. According to the account, this means “under-qualified non-Asian students” will be given acceptance over Asians if ACA-5 is passed. However, this is a misinterpretation of both affirmative action and the bill. The “12% quota” is based on the percentage of college-aged Asian students in California. ACA-5 doesn’t mention any racial quotas. In fact, in accordance with the Regents of the University of California v Bakke case, racial quotas have already been ruled unconstitutional and are prohibited in all public American universities. As seen in the SFFA v Harvard case and universities across the nation, affirmative action under ACA-5 will only consider race as a positive factor and not as a reason for rejection.

As an Asian American student, I understand how necessary affirmative action is as a step towards combating racial inequities in America. I understand that I don’t need the extra “boost” because my societal standings have already given me that advantage. We need to recognize America’s deep rooted history of racism, white supremacy, and classism; in order to resolve the inequities embedded in American society, it’s imperative to consider historic oppression that has left a legacy of disadvantage for marginalized groups.

However, it’s also important to note that affirmative action does have its flaws. Some data shows higher dropout rates and lower test scores in minority students that are accepted to universities that use affirmative action. This is because many universities do not have systems in place to support students of color or students from lower socio-economic status. To continue battling racial injustices in universities, supports need to be created for all students on campus, especially for students that are accepted through affirmative action. Regardless, this system is an important tool that will begin to remedy historic inequities. The keyword is “begin”. Affirmative action is not a final solution to racial injustices in America, it will not solve our country’s racism. White supremacy and racism are so deep rooted in America that it will take many more solutions to reverse history. As we move forward, I urge readers (especially other Asian students) to talk to their peers and family about how affirmative action benefits our society. Especially if those people are immigrants, they may not understand the severe disadvantages America’s history has left BIPOC (Black & Indigenous People of Color) and people of lower socioeconomic status with. Affirmative action promotes racial equity and inclusion in a country that has historically perpetuated the opposite. As we move forward in the fight against injustice, it will be critical to instate affirmative action in all schools and to continue doing so until true racial equality is achieved.

Emily Zou is a sophomore at Lakeridge High School and a member at Oregon Student Voice, a student-led organization that empowers all students to be authentic partners in making decisions that affect their K-12 education.

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