The Brown Spectator has joined with other college political publications to form the Alliance of Collegiate Editors (ACE), hoping to generate cross-campus dialogue on political issues. The first topic we will discuss is class-based affirmative action. This is the third entry; for the first entry, see Sam Barr’s post at HPR; for the second entry, see John Gee’s post at PPR.
The civil rights movement espoused an ideal that all Americans should embrace: the creation of a color-blind society in which persons are judged by their merits as individuals, not by their membership in a particular racial group. Thirty years later, the legacy of the civil rights movement is bitterly contested and America remains a color-conscious society. Contemporary affirmative action policies—on the parts of government and private institutions—are central to understanding the “great American dilemma” as it endures into the 21st century. Although affirmative action proponents endeavor to implement the vision of the civil rights movement, their policies have polarized Americans according to racial divisions, creating the phenomenon of the “angry white male.” This black and white dichotomy tends to dominate the debate over affirmative action. An examination of the Asian American dimension will offer new insights into such an enduring issue. Understanding the complicated relationship between Asian Americans and affirmative action requires an analysis of Asian Americans as a distinct racial group. Contrary to the myth of the “model minority,” Asian Americans do not constitute a monolithic ethnic group.
Educational and economic statistics reveal a dramatic degree of polarization within among Asian American groups. For example, the overall poverty rate for Asian Americans in 1990 was one percent above the average of the total U.S. population; this statistical mirage obscures the reality of many ethnic groups that fall under the Asian American title. For in comparison to the total U.S. population, Pacific Islanders were 4 percent above the average poverty rate, Vietnamese were 12.6 percent above the average, Laotians were 21.6 percent above the average, Cambodians were 29.5 percent above the average, and Hmongs were 50.5 percent above the average. These Southeastern Asian groups often have higher poverty rates because they usually arrive on American soil as refugees.
Moreover, in a report for the American Council on Education, Shirley Hune and Kenyon Chan found that 55.1 percent (almost double of other groups of color) of Asian Americans ages 18-24 were enrolled in college during 1990; however, this statistic did not reflect the complexity of their enrollment rates. At opposite ends, 66.5 percent of Chinese Americans were enrolled in a college, whereas only 26.3 percent of Laotian Americans were as well. In fact, Chinese, Japanese, Asian Indian, and Korean Americans were more than twice as likely to be enrolled in college as Hmong, Guamanian, Samoan, Hawaiian, and Laotian Americans.
This evidence exposes the lack of homogeneity among the ethnicities that comprise Asian Americans. Clearly, Asian Americans occupy both ends of the political and social spectrum according to different origin, language, culture, religion, and other factors such as educational attainment and personal income. This internal heterogeneity produces a variety of reactions to the issue of affirmative action.
The affirmative action debate for Asians in higher education is especially different from the black-white paradigm. In fact, it has been the allegations of possible quotas or limitations in Asian American admission and enrollment to prestigious public and private institutions that has fueled this educational controversy. Beginning in the early 1980s Asian Americans were recognized in the press for their surprisingly large presence in college populations. Their rise in many of the country’s most prestigious and selective universities drew attention of much of America. U.S. News and World Report described Asians to be “flocking to the top colleges,” noting that “they make up about 10 percent of Harvard’s freshman class and 20 percent of all students at the Julliard School. In California, where Asians are 5.5 percent of the population, they total 23.5 percent of all Berkeley undergraduates.” Newsweek even asked rhetorically in an article, “Is it true what they say about Asian American students, or is it mythology? They say that Asian Americans are brilliant. They say that Asian Americans behave as a model minority, that they dominate mathematics, engineering, and science courses—that they are grinds who are so dedicated to getting ahead that they never have any fun.”
By the mid 1980s, allegations spread across the nation that policies were being adopted to curtail the number of Asian Americans being admitted to institutions of higher learning through the imposition of quotas. Suddenly, Asian Americans found themselves being compared to the Jews in the 1920s and 1930s when Jewish students were vilified as “damn curve raisers” because of their outstanding performance and were thus restricted by quotas on their admissions to undergraduate universities. So began the attack on liberalism’s cornerstone affirmative action policy.
In 1983, Brown was the first school to receive and respond to formal complaints about of discrimination against Asian Americans. Brown director of admissions Jim Rogers declared, however, that the “vast majority of Asian Americans applying here, 70-75 percent, are premedical students. The question is not one of race, it’s academic balance.” Insiders at Brown, including Asian American students and staff, argued that based on various comments made by admissions officers, it was clear to them that decisions were often racially motivated. Thus, the Brown Asian American Students Association (AASA) made a case of racial discrimination before Brown’s governing board—the Board of Trustees. The Board of Trustees delegated the task of investigating the claims to the Committee on Minority Affairs (COMA) to examine AASA complaints. The COMA investigation found that the disparity in admission rates between whites and Asians were an “extremely serious” problem, as were the attitudes of some officials in the admissions office. According to then Assistant Dean Bob Lee, interviews of admissions officers substantiated many of the claims about racial discrimination brought forth by the AASA. Director Rogers was said to have joked that they could reduce the admitted class by deleting the first 10 Kims off the top of the list. An independent review board study by the Committee on Admission and Financial Aid confirmed COMA’s findings of racial discrimination. Brown was only one of a few prestigious schools that admitted bias against Asian Americans and promised reform in their admission policies.
Perhaps the most important landmark case for Asian Americans, however, was that of the University of California Berkeley. Between 1987 and 1988, Berkeley’s treatment of Asian American admission policies generated a national controversy. Assistant Vice Chancellor Travers and President Gardner staunchly defended Berkeley’s admissions policies and their effect on Asian Americans, especially when they added the criteria of an ambiguously subjective category called “supplemental criteria.” Accusations against Berkeley claimed that the supplemental criteria category was being manipulated to keep down the number of Asian American admissions. Travers and Gardner claimed that Asian Americans were “overrepresented” based on number that matriculated to Berkeley in comparison to the graduating high school population. Their overrepresentation, they argued, undermined the diversity on campus. Admissions officers throughout the country defended affirmative action by depicting admissions as a zero-sum game. They were alarmed by the declining black enrollment statistics, which had been triggered by a scale back in affirmative action after the 1978 Bakke case.
These cases dramatize the dilemmas raised by the pursuit of diversity. Conservatives in particular have employed the example of Asian Americans to focus criticism on affirmative action. For example, in the 1980s Reagan administration official Reynolds blamed affirmative action for the discrimination against Asian Americans. Referencing GPA and SAT scores, Reynolds argued, “there has been substantial statistical evidence that Asian American candidates face higher hurdles than academically less qualified candidates of other races, whether these candidates be minorities (black, Hispanic, Native American) or white.” Reynolds saw both discrimination and diversity as “two sides of the same bad coin, affirmative action.” In his 1988 article in the New Republic, James Gibney reiterated this argument, “if Asians are underrepresented based on their grades and test scores, it is largely because of affirmative action for other minority groups. And if blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented based on their fraction of the population, it is increasingly because of the statistical overachievement of Asians. Both complaints can’t be just, and the blame can no longer be placed solely on favoritism towards whites.”
Conservatives have found an especially sympathetic ear for campaigns against affirmative action among Asian Americans in California. Kenneth Lee’s article “Angry Yellow Men” conveys the sentiments of Asian in California. During Bob Dole’s presidential campaign, he delivered his only anti-affirmative action speech to a 2000 member receptive audience of Vietnamese Americans in Little Saigon, California. In fact, Dole’s reception typifies many Californian Asian sentiments. The fact that the receptive audience was a Vietnamese one, statistically poorer and less educated, reveals the power of the manner in which affirmative action is propagated to ethnic audiences. In 1993, the California Policy Seminar conducted a poll that found that 2/3 of Asians oppose affirmative action. Moreover, the National Conference of Christians and Jews determined that Asians in California identified more with whites than with any other racial groups. It is no wonder, then, that in 1996, 40 percent of Asians voted for Proposition 209, a California measure outlawing preferences based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in public employment, education, or contracting. Not all Asian Americans, however, face the dilemma of Asians in California. In fact, a large coalition of 28 Asian American groups filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the University of Michigan’s affirmative action policy.
This third perspective reveals that affirmative action spawns division not only between racial groups, but also among ethnic groups. As America becomes an increasingly multiracial country, the example of Asian Americans testifies to the unique conflicts created by race-based public policies that are implemented in multiracial contexts.