An Asian American’s Opinion on Affirmative Action
I often see a lot of threads for/against affirmative action, but until recently the Asian perspective on affirmative action hasn’t really been highlighted. Thanks to the Department of Justice’s investigation into Harvard’s admission practices, however, it now has become a more common area of discussion. As an Asian female currently applying to graduate school, I strongly oppose affirmative action. I’d love for any comments/discussion. Here are the numbers and my perspective on a lot of arguments about Asians and affirmative action:
First off, let’s be clear that affirmative action strongly discriminates against Asians. We can look at the 2004 Princeton study, which was rigorously conducted and found that out of a 1600 point scale, identifying as Asian was equivalent to a loss of 50 points, while identifying as Hispanic was equivalent to an addition of 185 points and identifying as black was equal to adding 230 points. (And I’ve heard later studies have generally found even higher point additions for non-Asians). We can also look at Asian enrollment at California’s public universities. Their enrollment of Asian American students climbed to 40-50% after California passed proposition 209, which banned the use of affirmative action. Likewise, the California Institute of Technology (which also does not use AA) saw its Asian American population grow from 25% to 43% between 1992 and 2013.
During the same time, Harvard’s admit rate for Asians declined slightly, from 19% to 18%, even though the Asian population increased by 72% between 2000 and 2015, based on Pew research. Overall, according to WSJ statistics, Asians stand a 50% greater chance of being admitted when affirmative action is banned. Proponents of affirmative action often argue that affirmative action works merely as a way of “breaking ties.” They argue that race is used only as a deciding factor when two applicants are equal in all measures except for their race. The numbers strongly suggest otherwise, particularly for Asian Americans – Asians are penalized to the point where their numbers are cut in half. And being penalized 50 points (and essentially suffering a total loss of 280 points compared to black students) out of a 1600 scale is clearly not a “tiebreaker” penalty. It is a massive jilt of the scale.
Even after affirmative action has clearly been shown to harm Asian students, there are a host of arguments made to encourage Asians to embrace affirmative action. Personally, I find many of them condescending and deeply offensive. They violate fundamental principles of equality, autonomy, and fairness.
I will offer my counterpoints to the most common arguments and justifications for affirmative action’s harmful effect on Asians.
Asians are not your “wedge” against other minorities.
This argument is a notorious one. It appears to take the side of Asian Americans by arguing correctly, at least at first, that Asians as a minority group have suffered discrimination historically and currently. Then, the argument becomes flawed and (to me, at least) very condescending. It suggests to Asians that because Asians happen to be a minority group, Asians must always ally with other minorities and should never ally with conservatives even when it helps them. Essentially, Asians should accept affirmative action, even though the policy deeply harms them, for the sake of other minorities.
However, this argument rejects the principle of autonomy and fairness: Asians are allowed, as every group is, to advocate for their own interests. Asian Americans are not mindless allies of other minorities simply because they also happen to be a minority group. Asians are permitted to protest policies that hurt them and support policies that help them. Imagine if affirmative action discriminated against blacks and helped Asians. Would anyone accuse African Americans of “driving a wedge” among minorities if they protested the policy? Absolutely not – and it is a common example of a double standard applied to Asians. Secondly, Asian Americans should not be compelled by the government to sacrifice their own spots in order to promote other minorities, especially when Asians can suffer discrimination greater than that faced by other minorities (Asians actually suffer more workplace discrimination than blacks*, making >$8,000 less a year than their white counterparts in tech occupations even when education and experience are comparable, for example. African Americans make >$3000 less per year). (*corrected because earlier version said Hispanics, not blacks).
As a whole, this argument is a classic case of victim-blaming, silencing and blaming the victims of discrimination as being “divisive” in order to maintain the status quo.
Admissions are holistic, so that’s why Asians don’t get in.
This argument is an especially poor and dishonest one. Of course admissions are holistic, accounting for more than GPA and SAT scores. It’s a good thing that we look at people as people and not numbers. However, this argument sets up a strawman, suggesting that the admissions process is actually very fair. Rather, Asians simply don’t participate in extracurriculars and are less well-rounded and interesting than their white, Hispanic, and black counterparts.
Unfortunately for proponents of affirmative action, this argument is patently untrue. According to the investigation documents released from Harvard and reported on by the New York Times, Asian students had, on average, the same number of extracurriculars as their white counterparts. In addition, they are rated as positively on personality traits as their white counterparts by alumni interviewers (who have actually met the students). Suggesting that the problem lies among Asians who as a group lack extracurriculars or “good personalities” is simply dishonest and unsupported by evidence. It is the Harvard admissions officers who systematically rate Asians lower on personality even when there is no justification for the lower ratings. This is simply to prevent Asian enrollment from passing a certain cap.
(And you can discount this if you want, but from personal experience, I know many of my Asian friends and classmates are passionate about their extraccuriculars and are involved in a lot of them, while also having good grades. They are far from being “robots.”)
Proponents argue that Asian enrollment should be capped for the sake of diversity. A campus that has blacks, Hispanics, Asians, and whites is inherently superior to a campus that is predominantly Asian or white.
Here are the many, many things wrong with this argument:
Argument itself is racist
The argument itself is a racist one. If your race is not connected to your ideas or thoughts, then a diverse group cannot be superior to a non-diverse group simply based on race. On the other hand, if you do believe that race and ideas or worth are fundamentally intertwined, then you can presuppose that a diverse group is inherently better than a non-diverse group. A lack of racism would suggest that race and ideas/thoughts/intellect are NOT linked. For instance (this is obviously a simplification for example’s sake): let’s define good as “making moral decisions” and bad as “making immoral decisions.” A diverse group of good people is better than a non-diverse group of bad people or a diverse group of bad people. A non-diverse group of good people is better than a non-diverse or diverse group of bad people. A group of good people that happens to be less racially diverse is not inherently better or worse than a group of good people that happens to be racially diverse. Diversity for diversity’s sake is not inherently beneficial. The values and ideas of a particular group, racially diverse or not, is what matters (if you do not believe in racism). And we can look for your values/ideas on applications.
Doesn’t Stand Up To Scrutiny
The argument that racial diversity is superior to a lack of racial diversity does not stand up to scrutiny. Particularly, it does not hold up to the reverse. Are historically black colleges inherently inferior to traditional universities, simply because they have fewer whites, Asians, or Hispanics?
Intellectual Diversity is More Important
The benefits to diversity of race can exist, but they are somewhat undefined and pale significantly compared to the benefits of intellectual diversity. Intellectual diversity, or diversity of ideas, provides and exceeds the benefits of racial diversity. We can admit people based on the diverse perspectives they bring, which is a fairer and much less racist way of achieving the same (and more) benefits of racial diversity. This means we can fairly assess the Asian American student who has lived on the streets, the African American student who has worked for the United Nations, and the Hispanic student who had parents that highly valued education. We do not assume that the Asian had tiger parents, the African American student grew up in a ghetto, and the Hispanic student’s parents didn’t care about their education. We don’t have to assume that you have certain ideas/experiences simply because you identify as part of a particular group – we can look at your ideas and experiences and treat you as an individual. We can account for any hardships/discrimination if you have suffered them.
African Americans’ past grievances
Affirmative action as a justification for African Americans’ past grievances.
I won’t spend too much time on this one, considering that the Supreme Court has already ruled that using historical reparations as a justification for affirmative action is unconstitutional. In the case of Asians, this argument stands on even shakier grounds. Asians were never responsible for any of the injustices faced by African Americans in the 1800s and 1900s. It makes no sense that Asians must forfeit seats in order to remedy this.
No one deserves a spot at top universities
No one deserves a spot at top universities. Asian Americans who protest affirmative action policies, however, believe that they deserve spots.
This argument is also a classic one. It attempts to characterize Asian Americans who protest affirmative action as being entitled. I fully agree that no one is entitled to anything, particularly a spot at prestigious universities. However, this argument sets up a strawman. Of course no particular Asian American “deserves” a spot at Harvard, but every Asian American applicant does deserve to be evaluated fairly. To rephrase, Asian Americans are protesting the unfair process, not simply the outcome of the unfair process. And I believe that Asian Americans do deserve to receive a fair and equal evaluation, regardless of the outcome (whether or not that results in better chances of admission) itself.
Secondly, the proponents of affirmative action contradict themselves, which is also why the argument does not hold. Let us define “deserve”: it implies that someone should be given something, as it is their right. It does not need to be earned. Now, let’s look at the proponents’ argument that black or Latino underpresentation on campus (in relation to their population percentage) is a negative thing. I agree that it would be great to see more black and Latino students on campus. However, this argument suggests that blacks and Latinos should be making up a certain percentage or percentage range on college campuses, even if a non race-based (or in many cases, a race conscious) policy does not result in this desired percentage. When the percentages of African American or Latino students do not meet this target percentage, it is considered an injustice – depriving people of something they should receive. Thus, the assumption is that African Americans and Hispanics deserve to fill a certain number of seats. This argument is also different from the process-oriented one I mentioned earlier, as it is the outcome that is emphasized (at the end of any process, African Americans and Hispanics should occupy a certain percentage range of spots. In fact, the quality of the process can be defined by how well it fulfills this goal).
The only way to make the two points (#6 about Asians and 6b about blacks and Latinos) intellectually consistent is to suggest that ethnic groups cannot exceed their allotted percentage on campus, but they do deserve to fill their allotted percentage. In other words, you are considered “entitled” when you demand to fill more seats than your allotted percentage, but within your rights to fully fill that allotted percentage (and it is an injustice when you do not). However, this would be equivalent to a quota system, which has been ruled to be unconstitutional. Without advocating for a quota system, the first argument suggesting that Asian Americans are entitled when they argue that they should fill more seats and the second argument indicating that African Americans and Hispanics should be filling up more spots than that resulting from even race-conscious admission processes is inherently contradictory. It is a double standard (unless you want quotas). Asians should not be characterized as “entitled” for arguing that they should fill more spots when African American and Hispanic students do not face this criticism for suggesting the same.
Affirmative action to level the playing field.
Statistically, African Americans do tend to go to more low-income schools and suffer more poverty-related problems than Asian Americans. However, using this argument to justify AA would categorize Asians as a monolithic whole and play into the model minority myth. What about the Asians that do live in inner cities? What about the Asians that have also gone to poor schools and suffer intense discrimination? I support affirmative action that accounts for hardships such as discrimination and low socioeconomic status. However, we should treat everyone as an individual. We cannot assume that the Asian American has suffered less simply because he is Asian, or the African American has suffered more because he is black. In addition, when California banned race-based affirmative action and instituted socioeconomic-based affirmative action, the percentage of Asian enrollment went up, but it was the low-income Asian Americans that benefited the most. (One account suggested that high-income Asian American enrollment at top California universities actually decreased). This shows that we can institute viable forms of affirmative action that help our most vulnerable while fairly assessing applicants.
Conclusion: Oppose race-based affirmative action
In conclusion, I strongly oppose race-based affirmative action as an Asian American and as an American citizen. Philosophically, I firmly believe that you cannot subvert individual justice in order to achieve collective justice, i.e. you cannot violate an individual’s equality of opportunity, freedom of expression, or any other liberty or equality protection in order to achieve a desired social goal, such as diversity. Because you can justify any social goal as “good” or “noble” in some way, the subversion of individual protections for collective interests has been used to justify everything from simple diversity quotas to much more egregious human rights violations and systematic atrocities.
As an example of taking this idea to its extreme (a test that a good concept should withstand), Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution culminated in the deaths of millions as he attempted to fulfill his arguably noble vision of “empowering the lower classes.” The most vulnerable and smallest minority is the individual, who must be protected even at the expense of larger social interests. This is the only way to ensure that human rights – an individual’s right to freedom and equality under the law – are always preserved. Affirmative action would clearly violate that principle. It is certainly doing so for Asian Americans.
Thoughts? Feel free to disagree.
Reprinted with permission from: Reddit
See my own article on affirmative action and why it’s racist.