What Asian Americans Reveal About Affirmative Action

People assume eliminating race as a factor would benefit Asian Americans, but here's why they're wrong

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Lara Jo Regan / Liaison / Getty Images

A scene from Sproul Plaza at the University of California, Berkeley in 2000, four years after California voters approved Proposition 209, a ballot initiative that banned affirmative action at all state institutions.

As the Supreme Court prepare to reopen the issue of affirmative action, we can expect another fierce debate about whether college admissions should be color blind. But that debate itself is blind.

Consider Asian Americans, who make up a large part of the student body at selective colleges and universities. Most people assume that the dismantling of affirmative action would benefit Asian Americans by opening up even more slots for Asian high-achievers. The notion that this is good for Asian Americans seems plausible on the surface, but on a deeper level, it’s quite misguided.

It is true that if admission were based solely on test scores, more students of Asian descent would be admitted. In one recently published study, Asian American students who enrolled in Duke averaged 1457 out of 1600 on the math and reading portions of the SAT, compared to 1416 for whites, 1347 for Hispanics and 1275 for blacks.

Opponents of affirmative action cite such statistics to tell a story in which deserving yellows lose slots to undeserving blacks and browns. (Tellingly, we don’t usually hear much about undeserving whites.) But the experience of Asian Americans doesn’t easily fit such a narrative. Instead, it reveals three more important realities that we need to face:

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1. Merit Is Not A Number. We all want merit to mean something, and we all may be tempted to reduce that meaning to something measurable and concrete like an SAT score. The reality, though, is that who deserves entry into an institution depends on what the institution exists to do.

Imagine filling a college with the first 1,000 students to get perfect SATs. Whatever the racial composition of that class would be, the notion seems absurd because we know that college in America is supposed to be about creating citizens and leaders in a diverse nation. There are other factors to weigh than test-taking aptitude, some of them intangible.

To be sure, racism sometimes lurks in those same intangibles: consider the stereotype that diligent, detail-oriented Asian Americans make better followers than leaders. But what that calls for is not a misplaced faith that merit can be quantified and that the number should displace all else. It calls for a transparent description of the qualitative factors that shape selection. Among those factors, validly, is whether an applicant’s entry increases the diversity of the class.

(MOREHow Affirmative Action Backfires at Universities)

2. Diversity Is A Necessity Not A Nicety. When Justice Sandra Day O’Connor upheld the limited use of affirmative action in higher education in the 2003 Grutter case, she argued that diversity is a compelling national interest. Social scientist Scott Page has shown that diverse teams perform better than more talented but less diverse teams. As he says: “Diversity trumps ability.” That is the American advantage, in business, sports, and ideas. It is not just nice but necessary for our universities to diversify.That’s why it’s good that there are more Asian Americans in selective colleges than a generation ago – and fewer than scores alone would dictate.

Of course, diversity comes in many forms. The ethnic and socioeconomic diversity within Asian America is usually overlooked in the media. Great numbers of Asian Americans do not fit the model minority or “tiger family” stereotypes, living instead in multigenerational poverty far from the mainstream. Their situation argues for the consideration of class in affirmative action, so that all people who lack social capital can get a fairer shot at social mobility. It also reveals how the current debate is too narrowly focused on the elite.

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3. We Can’t Afford Such a Narrow Conversation. In the end, arguing about affirmative action in selective colleges is like arguing about the size of a spigot while ignoring the pool and the pipeline that feed it. Slots at Duke and Princeton and Cal are finite. The bigger question is why there are so few perceived paths to opportunity and why so few people of any color are moving along these paths.

When Justice O’Connor reluctantly affirmed affirmative action in Grutter she challenged the country to make it unnecessary within a quarter century. We are nine years into her challenge – too early, perhaps, for the Roberts Court to discard her carefully constructed precedent; but getting late, certainly, if we are to deliver on the promise of race-neutral opportunity by 2028. People like Harvard Law School professor Charles Ogletree have taken up O’Connor’s call and have catalyzed projects to close racial opportunity gaps in public schools and the criminal justice system. What we need now are a million such O’Connor Projects, led by citizens of every stripe – and by our own government.

It’s time to shift the debate – to ask why opportunity has gotten more scarce in America, to frame our challenge as something bigger than an every-race-for-itself zero-sum fight. Asian Americans can help lead that shift now. And that would be a great American success story.

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