When Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor cast the momentous vote in 2003 that saved affirmative action, she did so with the expectation that in 25 years, such policies would no longer be necessary. To some Americans, that day has already come.
As an Asian American, I believe Justice O’Connor and my fellow Americans are wrong.
The future of race-conscious admissions policies is now more precarious than ever due to cases against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (UNC) in which the Supreme Court is expected to dismantle affirmative action. According to the plaintiffs in these cases, considering race as a factor in college admissions is disadvantageous to white—and particularly Asian—applicants because preference is given to Black, Latinx, and Native American students.
This argument shows that affirmative action naysayers–including Asian American college applicants and Conservative activist Edward Blum, the president of Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) and the force behind the Harvard and UNC cases– are also some of the most uninformed.
Asian Americans and Affirmative Action
In higher education, affirmative action is the practice of considering the characteristics of student backgrounds in the admissions process, which includes—but is not limited to—race, socioeconomic status, gender, geographic locale, and legacy status. More broadly, affirmative action policies allow colleges to review applicants holistically beyond the sum of their GPAs and test scores.
In 2022, 69% of registered Asian American voters expressed support for affirmative action policies “designed to help Black people, women, and other minorities gain better access to higher education.” Amidst affirmative action’s recent legal challenges, many Asian American public figures, like Hasan Minaj, and advocacy organizations, like Chinese Americans for Affirmative Action and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, have spoken out in favor of these policies. Despite these statistics, there has also been a growing minority of right-wing Asian Americans who believe that affirmative action policies take opportunities away from them and their children.
According to this skewed view of affirmative action, Asian Americans with higher GPAs and test scores are less likely to be accepted to elite schools when compared to other students of color due to bias and racial stereotypes. Supporters of this opinion use the media to weaponize their personal stories of being the children of hardworking immigrants who gave up everything for their education. In their attempts to divide communities of color, these individuals often fail to recognize that having parents who believe in and support your higher education goals is not a privilege afforded to everyone.
Additionally, data on admissions procedures at elite universities doesn’t appear to support the claim of Asian American discrimination. A study by Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that over the last decade, the share of Asian American students at Harvard and other highly selective colleges has increased proportionally over the years to reflect the population’s demographic growth. The same cannot be said for Black and Latinx students.
This study also revealed that Asian Americans, regardless of test scores, apply to the nation’s highly selective universities at higher rates than their non-Asian counterparts. Arguably, there is some level of privilege here. Given that Asian Americans as a whole apply to selective colleges at higher rates, they may also face higher rates of rejection. In this context, that doesn’t indicate bias. Finally, the study also showed that the test score-only admissions policies advocated for by Students for Fair Admissions (FFA) and other anti-affirmative action groups would only result in marginal gains for Asian American applicants.
State-level Bans on Affirmative Action
Removing affirmative action policies may marginally benefit Asian Americans, but other minority groups would suffer losses. Through a 1998 voter referendum, Washington state joined a growing list of states that banned affirmative action. The ban was rescinded through executive order by Governor Jay Inslee in 2022, but the effects of the ban speak to the need for affirmative action. Between 1998 and 2020, enrollment numbers at the University of Washington (UW)—the state’s most selective public university and my alma mater—showed that enrollment of Asian students grew by 21% to 24.3% while the enrollment of American Indian/Alaska Native and Native Hawai‘ian/Pacific Islander students shrunk from an already minuscule 1.4% to 0.4 % and 10.9% to 4.5%, respectively. Similarly, 2020 demographic data from Washington state indicated that 5% of the state’s population was Black, yet only 2.9% of UW’s student body was. Arizona, California, Florida, Idaho, Michigan, Nebraska, New Hampshire, and Oklahoma continue to have restrictions on affirmative action.
Affirmative action also comes into play at the local level. When Northern Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology—a top public high school in the U.S.—realized that its student body was severely lacking in diversity due to the small proportion of disadvantaged Black and Latinx students, it sought to rectify it. To do so, the magnet school changed its admissions policies to require proportional representation from the variety of Northern Virginia neighborhoods it received applicants from, while also doing away with a long-standing, notoriously difficult admissions test and a $100 application fee. Additional consideration was given to students from low-income backgrounds and those currently learning the English language. This resulted in an increased number of Black, Latinx, and white students, but fewer Asian students overall–though Asian students still make up most of the student body at Thomas Jefferson. In retaliation, a group of parents calling themselves “Coalition for TJ” sued the school over its admission policy. The Supreme Court ruled in the school’s favor.
As someone who grew up in Northern Virginia, it was unsurprising to hear that a select group of parents attempted to sue a school that wanted to increase the diversity of its student body. This occurred a year after local parents stormed school board meetings to protest critical race theory.
The Legacy of Affirmative Action
Tellingly, affirmative action opponents are incredibly loud when it comes to race, yet they remain silent in regard to legacy admissions that admit children of alumni at significantly higher rates than their academic performance alone justifies. For example, the SFFA v. Harvard complaint uses the word “race” 212 times, but the word “legacy” appears only 17 times. In fact, the complaint alleges that if Harvard wants to seek a diverse student body without considering the race of its applicants, one avenue for achieving this would be to eliminate legacy admissions preferences. For SFFA, the removal of legacy affirmative action practices comes second to the removal of race-based affirmative action practices.
Legacy students—most of whom are white—routinely make up a greater share of Harvard’s student body than students from underrepresented minority backgrounds. By this logic, legacy preferences are far more detrimental to Asian American applicants than race-based affirmative action. Still, a majority of anti-affirmative action rhetoric continues to attack the latter.
Like all policies, affirmative action isn’t perfect; it has flaws and room for reform and improvement. However, saying that it isn’t a necessary policy in American society, where one’s race is so indisputably linked to one’s opportunities, is where anti-affirmative action believers have it wrong.