Who’s afraid of affirmative action?

It’s no surprise that there is declining support for affirmative action among Chinese Americans.

The affluence and education of Chinese Americans places them apart from disadvantaged racial minorities who seek equal opportunity in an unequal world.

According to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) data, from surveys tracking Asian American attitudes on racial diversity on college campuses, there is growing agreement among Chinese Americans that affirmative action is not a policy that works in their favor.

In 2012, 78% of Chinese professed support for affirmative action, including race-based college admission policies, but in 2016, that number fell to 41%.

With affirmative action, ethnic categories compete within their own race-based categories to gain admission to hallowed institutions and for some Asians that competition is brutal.

If surveyed, I do believe that Indian Americans would have similar points of view for the same reasons that Chinese Americans do.

In my work editing college application essays of high school students, I was frequently informed by my Indian American clients that their college counselors advised them not to set their sights on top tier colleges, even if they were above average academic performers. Frequently Asians jest that if an Asian student picks up a third “B” in the four years of high school, the chances of making it to an elite college have flown out the window.

It’s true that Asians strive to be better than most to make it to selective colleges. CNN reports that more than 8,000 Asian American applicants for the class of 2019 had perfect grade point averages, 3,500 had perfect SAT math scores, and 2,700 had perfect SAT verbal scores.

A 2009 book “No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life,” co-authored by Thomas J. Espenshade, analyzed data on 9,000 students in 10 highly selective private colleges and universities and found that Asians have to score 140 points more than whites on the SAT in order to have a fighting chance for admission at the same institution. And rich Asian students can tack on an additional 30 points to that.

This debate has come to a head because Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) filed a lawsuit on June 15, 2018 against Harvard University maintaining that Harvard “intentionally” discriminates against Asian Americans and that admissions policies at Harvard disproportionately limit Asian Americans from being selected for admission through subjective scoring.

Harvard ranks applicants (from 1 to 6) on five categories: academic, extracurricular, athletic, personal and overall.

The discrimination takes shape in the “personal” category rating. While Asian Americans are academically stronger than most other racial groups, and appear to have higher extra-curricular scores and strong recommendations from advisors, teachers, guidance counselors and interviewers, they fall short when it comes to rankings on personality traits such as “likability,” “courage,” “kindness,” and “attractive to be with.” It is alleged that at Harvard, Asian Americans are consistently assigned the lowest scores of any racial group in the “personal” category.

In 2013, Harvard conducted its own internal investigation and found that if students were judged on academics alone, 43% of Harvard’s student population would be Asian American.

When I use the label “Asian” I’m mostly referring to Chinese and Indian Americans, since they constitute the largest Asian ethnic groups and are, generally speaking, fairly successful. Jennifer Lee, professor of sociology at Columbia University reported in a NY Times article that education and English proficiency are good predictors of success and “people from India and China have higher incomes than those from Southeast Asia, because they have higher levels of education on average.”

But it’s a problem that all Asian Americans are lumped under one category, even though it is clear that access to opportunities among Hmong refugees is far different from that among Chinese or Indian Americans.

That’s why, even though Chinese Americans show a steep decline in supporting affirmative action, other Asians have held their support steady at 73%.

The demographic makeup of the University of California school system tells the other side of the story. In the fall of 2016, 1 in 3 undergraduates enrolled in University of California schools were of Asian descent. While Asian Americans are 14.9% of the California population, at U.C. San Francisco, Asian Americans constitute 28% of the fall 2018 class profile.

This, as we know, is because in 1996 California voters approved Proposition 209, which prohibits race-based selection for admission to California public schools and colleges. It is well-documented that with the implementation of proposition 209, the number of blacks and Latinos at UC campuses dropped significantly.

In the fall of 2017, at UC Berkeley, there were 3.5% black students and 20% Latinos registered for the freshman class, in contrast to the 6% black and 51% Latinos graduating from high school in California. Asians constituted 44% and whites 26% of the same UC Berkeley class.

Affirmative action policies create opportunities for disadvantaged minorities, but they also put limits on the number of advantaged Asians on campus. It’s a crisis of affluence and privilege for Chinese and Indian Americans.

I don’t believe that affirmative action is a one-size-fits-all solution. With sensitivity training, and awareness, colleges could well correct the subjective bias against Asians.

On the other hand, it would be a zero-sum game to dismiss affirmative action out of hand. The policy has enabled far too many minorities, even among Asians. What we need is a little Asian calibration, Asian sensitivity, and an even-handed approach to diversity.

Jaya Padmanabhan can be reached at jaya.padmanabhan@gmail.com. Twitter: @jayapadmanabhan. In Brown Type covers immigrant issues in San Francisco.

Jaya Padmanabhan
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Jaya Padmanabhan

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