Blog: The Educated Reporter

Does Affirmative Action Hurt Asian-American Students?

A panel discussion at EWA’s 67th National Seminar at Vanderbilt University proved that fervor has not dimmed in the debates over affirmative action and the related issue of whether quotas limit Asian-American enrollment in the Ivy League.

The topics have had renewed currency since a California legislator recently proposed that the state’s ban on affirmative action at public colleges should be lifted. That triggered outrage–and a lot of misinformation–in the Chinese-American community, who saw the proposed repeal as an attempt to reduce the numbers of Asian students at the highly selective University of California schools. So the measure was withdrawn.  

“There was a huge, huge backlash against it,” recalled panel moderator Katy Murphy, an education reporter for the Bay Area News Group, who covered the issue. “It was a really interesting story about politics, about education obviously and whether it was creating a rift in the Democratic base.” She noted that in the past, exit polling had shown that most Asian-Americans had supported the use of affirmative action in college admissions.

Haibo Huang, an advisor for the 80-20 National Asian American Education Foundation, was active in opposing the recent proposal that would have restored affirmative action. He said that it was “a distraction” from the real issue in California education, which is improving the preparation of high school students. The socioeconomic diversity of the UC and Cal State systems, the two systems of public universities in California, have improved since the ban on affirmative action was approved in 1996, he contended. Plus, he said that minority students are helped by not carrying “the stigma of racial preferences.” Others see them as having earned their place on campus, he said.

Huang said that his own six-year-old son, Bryan, is already worried that he could be a victim of racial quotas. He displayed one of boy’s drawings that showed monkeys of various shades. “I am an American. I am not a monkey by color,” the boy wrote. “Why do I have to be sorted by color?”

Next up was Ron Unz, the conservative activist who has written extensively about what he contends is a quota on Asian-Americans at Ivy League universities just as there had been against Jews in the ‘20s and ‘30s. Unz, a Silicon Valley businessman and the former publisher of the American Conservative magazine, said Asian-Americans rose up against the recent California proposal because they feared that the bias they face in the Ivy League would extend to the University of California. According to Unz, the representation of Asian-American students, based on academic achievement, should be much higher at Harvard than the current 17 percent. And he repeatedly scolded Harvard and other Ivy League campuses for not publicly releasing complete demographic information about their applicant pools.

Unz contended that statistical evidence proving Ivy League quotas against Asian-Americans was overwhelming. “I didn’t find a smoking gun; I found a smoking Howitzer,” he said.

Affirmative action was defended by two Asian-American academics.

OiYan Poon, an assistant professor of higher education at Loyola University Chicago, said it was wrong to focus so much on just the grades and test scores of Asian-Americans and jump to a conclusion that they face discrimination. Many other admissions criteria are used, including geographic diversity, legacy, leadership, special talents and even the ability to pay full tuition, said Poon, who previously worked in UC admissions. Affirmative action, she said, plays an important role in promoting democracy in higher education and the entire nation. Its use is crucial, she said, “in the face of historic and current exclusion.”

Robert Teranishi, a UCLA professor in education and Asian-American studies, urged that people not look at Asians as a monolithic group but realize that they are from many ethnicities with many different languages and religions. While much media attention was focused on the recent California controversy, he said that Asian-Americans “benefit from a race-conscious policy” in admissions. The experience of studying on a diverse campus prepares them for the world and improves others’ attitudes toward Asian-Americans, he said.

 And he noted the negative effect that the affirmative action ban has had on his alma mater, UC Santa Cruz, where African-Americans are just 2 percent of the student body. Instead of obsessing about affirmative action, citizens should look at more important issues of rising tuition and how difficult it is for students to enroll in the classes they need to graduate, he added.


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