If you’re applying to college this year, you’ve probably heard of affirmative action: the policy certain schools have where admission favors historically disenfranchised minority groups. That’s thanks in part to a holistic admission system that looks at other factors besides grades and extracurricular activities, which are metrics often out of reach for poorer, less privileged groups.
But as you might imagine, affirmative action hasn’t always sat well with people. For most of American history, the typical college student was male, affluent, and white. But in 2014, the total percentage of minority students, including Latinx, Asian American, Pacific Islander, Native American and Black students, surpassed the percentage of white students for the first time. In California, the UC system admitted 29 percent Latinx students compared to 27 percent white students: a sign that the tide was turning.
That’s why every year around college admissions season, news outlets love running article after article about whether affirmative action is still required today. This year, though, is different.
The Justice Department steps in
Earlier this month, it wasn’t white students that were rallying against affirmative action, but rather Asian Americans. The Justice Department began an investigation into a discrimination suit filed on behalf of 67 Asian American organizations against Harvard University: the first time the Justice Department has ever stepped into an affirmative action suit.
That suit claimed that Harvard University discriminated against Asian American applicants in favor of non-Asian people of color during the admissions process: a familiar claim to anyone paying attention to white backlash against affirmative action.
At first glance, it might seem like they might have a point. WIth an overall enrollment rate of 9.4 percent, the probability that any Asian American goes to college outstrips that of any other group. In fact, the average American only has an enrollment rate of 6.7%, making Asian Americans one of the more prominent minority groups on college campuses.
But that doesn’t make it any less ironic that Asian Americans are now leading the charge against affirmative action.
Here are the facts: communities of color have been historically disadvantaged in college admissions, and Asian Americans are part of those communities. So when Asian Americans, not white Americans, are the plaintiffs against affirmative action, they’re fighting against a policy that has benefited them immensely in the past.
Now that Asian Americans have a foothold in higher education, they’re using the same tactics white Americans once used; it’s telling that the number of Asian Americans who support affirmative action has dropped from 63 percent in 2014 to 52 percent in 2016.
Just see what anti-affirmative action advocates argue about affirmative action. Cory Liu, executive director of Students for Fair Admissions, argues that “antiquated racial categories should not be used to determine our destiny.”
Liu, an attorney, seems not to believe completely that affirmative action had no part in his particular ascension into higher education, or in any Asian American’s. But if we disaggregate the term “Asian American,” we find that groups like Cambodian Americans and Hmong Americans actually have reduced rates of college admission versus Chinese Americans or Korean Americans. It’s these very groups that need uplifting the most.
And yet like many others before him, Liu demands that college admissions be reduced to a numbers game: the person with the highest grades and best extracurriculars should win. But access to grade-bolstering services like tutoring remains limited to the wealthy or middle class, even though minority students are far more likely to take advantage of tutoring if given the chance.
In other words, if admissions does become a numbers game, it’ll be the same numbers game as everything else: the game where the wealthiest--and more often than not whitest--Americans still win.
Proximity to whiteness doesn’t equal success
This suit from Asian American groups only serves to reinforce the model minority stereotype, painting Asian Americans not only as collaborators, but as enforcers of wealthy and even white supremacy.
Somehow, Asian Americans like Liu have fallen into the trap of considering their own demographic as a monolith: one that only contains East Asians, and not the groups that could benefit most from affirmative action, whether they be Native Hawaiian, Laotian, Burmese or otherwise.
By rallying against affirmative action, Asian Americans rally themselves not only against their own people, but all communities of color. Instead, Asian Americans should look to supporting affirmative action, helping uplift not only the Latinx and Black communities, but the disaggregated groups within Asian America that need policies like affirmative action to succeed.
After all, the point of affirmative action isn’t something insidious. It’s to make sure that all communities of color receive the same opportunities that may otherwise be out of reach. Asian Americans are part of those communities of color-- and should act like it.