Is affirmative action a fair game?
Asian Americans face a double standard
Published: Thursday, October 11, 2012
Updated: Tuesday, November 20, 2012 17:11
The fate of the University of Texas’ affirmative action program rests with the United States Supreme Court.
Abigail Fisher, a white woman, has accused the university of not admitting her because of her race. Like other plaintiffs who have fought universities on admission policies, she is arguing that the University of Texas violated the Constitution’s equal protection guarantee.
And, so, the nation has a dilemma — a dilemma that has repeated itself continuously since 1961 when the government decided to use affirmative action programs to boost minority numbers — on its hands: Is affirmative action justified or needed decades after the Civil Rights movement?
Affirmative action was originally instituted as a policy to address systemic discrimination against African Americans in the United States. It was argued that historic policies against African Americans had limited their educational and employment opportunities. It was further argued that African Americans faced discrimination from their white counterparts and federal policy was needed to overcome inherent discrimination.
Over the years, this logic was extended to other minority groups: Hispanics, Native Americans and other indigenous groups.
However, one group that meets the founding logic of affirmative action has never benefited from affirmative action.
American history is not pretty when it comes to the treatment of minority populations — Jews, Catholics and the Irish can all attest to that statement.
Asian Americans faced some of the most anti-discriminatory policies in American history. During World War II, more than 100,000 Japanese Americans were placed in internment camps in the name of national security. The Chinese Exclusion Act, a federal law signed in 1882, barred Chinese immigration to the United States. The government took more than six decades to repeal the law.
The widespread belief in yellow peril — the belief that the mass immigration of Asians threatened wages and standards of living — resulted in widespread Ainophobia that led to very real hate crimes and violence.
Yet, the historical facts have not garnered Asian Americans any unearned, non-meritorious benefits. According to a landmark study by Thomas Espenshade, a Princeton University professor, and Chang Chung, a Princeton University statistical programmer, at elite universities Asian Americans face a loss of 50 SAT points before an admissions counselor even sees their application.
On the other hand, African Americans can receive 230 extra points on the SAT while Hispanic Americans can receive up to 185 extra points on the SAT — the most important factor in the undergraduate admissions process.
This means that if an Asian, an African American and a Hispanic all make a 1300 on the SAT on a 1600 scale, the Asian will have a 1250, the African American will have a 1530 and the Hispanic will have a 1485.
Students who worked for and earned the same score end up with largely different scores in the admissions process.
Clearly, an argument can be made that Asian Americans do not need a boost in the admissions process. Asians already test better than most demographic groups. In terms of population, Asians have disproportionately higher employment rates in academia and the corporate world.
One can also make the argument that most Asian immigrants, especially those that came to the United States in the 1980s and 1990s, were highly educated.
Weaker cultural arguments also exist. The argument that Asians are “naturally smarter” or “naturally harder working” is not warranted by empirical data.
But, why does it matter that Asians have outperformed their historical wrongs? It matters because not only are Asians being held to a different standard, but also because Asians are proving the very logic of affirmative action wrong.
Asians, as a group, have largely succeeded without federal intervention. The descendants of interment camp victims and poorly paid Chinese railroad workers are now leading their fields.
Is historical discrimination a barrier to success? Yes. How long is it a barrier to success? This is the question that the nation will have to continue asking itself as yet another affirmative action case is settled by the Supreme Court.
Asian Americans, like myself, will continue to watch the affirmative action debate to see if the government can finally mold a more consistent and fair policy for all.
Faruk is a sophomore majoring in political science, economics and public policy.