Last Tuesday, five years after the lawsuit was first filed in 2014, a decision on the “Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. v. President and Fellows of Harvard College (Harvard Corporation)” case was made. The court found the use of race in Harvard’s admission processes to be constitutional and not discriminatory toward Asian American applicants.
This ruling answered these two questions, but left others without clear agreements, such as whether Asian Americans are a racial minority, and if so, why they are often left out of affirmative action initiatives in higher education.
To address the question “are Asian Americans a racial minority?” with a simple yes or no answer would be a failure on my end to emphasize the increasing diversity in socioeconomic backgrounds within the Asian American community. The label “Asian American” itself is a complicated one that represents people from a multitude of countries — countries that have diverse and complicated histories we can see the effects of today. I argue that this term is ill-suited for a modern American; it is better suited for a time in history when Americans of Asian descent needed to band together under an umbrella term that washed away individual differences.
According to data published by Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Data in 2018, many of those who do not support affirmative action initiatives are Chinese American. However, Chinese Americans are one of the largest Asian American subgroups with greatly varying levels of wealth, and the data does not include the socioeconomic backgrounds of those who support affirmative action, nor does it explain how the data was obtained. In New York City, Asian Americans have some of the highest poverty rates of all races, with 26.6 percent living “below the city’s poverty threshold in 2014,” according to the Huffington Post, a fact that is often ignored by mass media that paints Asian Americans as a group of highly successful individuals.
In a recent article published by The Harvard Crimson, statistics show that Asian American applicants and admitted applicants had the highest average SAT scores, white Americans had the second-highest average SAT scores, Hispanic Americans and Native Americans were closely tied with the third-highest average SAT scores and African Americans had the fourth-highest SAT scores over an 18-year period. According to a 2017 New York Times article on the case, “a Princeton study found that students who identify as Asian need to score 140 points higher on the SAT than whites to have the same chance of admission to private colleges, a difference some have called ‘the Asian tax.’” It seems that having the top average SAT scores is a direct result of admission policies that hold Asian American applicants to higher standards.
It is clear that many seats in educational institutions, if the admissions process were race-blind, would be filled by Asian Americans. In New York City, admission into Stuyvesant High School, one of the top high schools in the city, doesn’t follow the same admissions policies as colleges, and thus Asian Americans make up about 74 percent of the student population. In the state of California, where race as a factor in admission processes has been outlawed since 1996, the top universities are mostly Asian American. Therefore, unlike Judge Allison Burroughs stated in her conclusion, it is clear that including race as a factor in admission processes does hurt Asian Americans. It is clearer still that these consequences are ones many Americans are willing to bear.
The larger, underlying assumption is that for Asian Americans, their minority status is a status to be outgrown via upward social mobility, a desired and complex process that is fraught with issues of identity and racial politics. Yet, many of those considered Asian American have yet to reach the levels of wealth and success presupposed as applying to all Asian Americans by mass media.
The assumption is that at some point in the future, with the help of race-conscious admission processes, we will be able to and will eventually reach a point of complete or close to complete equality. Is this form of manipulation of admission tactics fair? Does it do more good than harm? Are the consequences worth the positive outcomes? Have we properly defined and analyzed the consequences? Is diversity a perfect synonym for equality or is it a means to an end?
In a recent radio interview with Boston’s NPR News Station, WBUR, Malcolm Gladwell, author of “The Tipping Point,” “The Blink” and “Talking to Strangers,” defines a minority group as “a group without power.” Maybe what’s happening within the Asian American community is an issue of miscommunication between two sides within a fractured group fumbling for words to convey their personal stories of pain, growth and mortality. More than miscommunication, though, are assumptions of arguments, and thoughts left off the table.
Asian Americans who have yet to make that pivotal leap from minority to majority or privileged minority feel left behind and betrayed by those who use the label “Asian American” but support policies that seem to hurt them. Asian Americans who have leapt over to greener fields feel a sense of responsibility and guilt on their shoulders and now have the luxury of caring about the larger American population. Both groups are trying to speak for each other, but neither one is listening or understanding. To turn one’s back on people who are still struggling and have not reached the privileged positions one has reached is at worst a callous act and at best a misunderstanding. To be reluctant or fully opposed to having to sacrifice well-deserved gains, to have diversity and societal progress be expendable, is at best understandable and at worst uncooperative.
Neither those in favor nor those against Harvard’s admissions policy are arguing against societal progress or diversity. One group, however, argues against the means by which this end will be achieved.
Stella Huang is a senior majoring in Chinese studies.