While the DOJ and similar anti-affirmative action lawsuits have framed affirmative action as a case of whether or not discrimination occurs against Asian American and white students, this question itself is a narrow and an inaccurate inquiry into a deeply complex history of why universities have race-conscious admissions in the first place and the positionality of Asian Americans within US history.
In 2015 and 2016, the CAAA and AACE both submitted similar complaints accusing universities and colleges of discriminating against Asian American Applicants to the Department of Education’s (DOE) and the Department of Justice’s Office for Civil Rights. While these complaints were dismissed under the Obama administration, they were resubmitted under the new Trump administration and ultimately used to launch a formal DOJ investigation into Harvard and Yale’s admission practices.
These complaints echo the opinions made by the high-profile 2014 lawsuit supported by white conservative Edward Blum, founder of Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), who recruited primarily Chinese American students to argue against affirmative action at institutions such as Harvard University. Although Federal District Judge Allison Burroughs ruled in favor of Harvard’s race-conscious admissions process in 2019, SFFA filed an appeal and is currently going through oral arguments.
The two-year investigation into Yale concluded on August 13, 2020, when the Department of Justice mailed a four-page letter to Yale University claiming that “Yale grants racial and national origin preferences in favor of African American, Hispanic, and certain other applicants and disfavors most Asian American and White applicants.”
The letter threatened that if Yale did not end the “use of race” in its admissions by August 27, 2020, the Department would “file a lawsuit to enforce Yale’s Title IV obligations.”
The Department followed through on its threat and officially filed a suit against Yale University on October 8, 2020.
Beyond this surprisingly short yet inflammatory letter, the DOJ has not published further evidence to support their claims. And although the DOJ and news media have showcased some vocal members of the Asian American community in support of ending race-conscious admissions, national studies have shown that most Asian Americans have consistently supported race-conscious admissions.
Professor Mike Hoa Nguyen along with multiple co-authors conducted an empirical study to test the claims made by CAAA and AACE, which motivated the launch of the DOJ investigation into Yale’s admissions process.
The original AACE complaint submitted to the DOJ Civil Rights Division in 2015 comments that Asian American students face negative emotional consequences such as “interpersonal problems, lack of self-confidence and assertiveness, high suicidal risk, and anxiety and depression” as a result of not getting accepted into first-choice colleges.
Additionally, the AACE notes that “discrimination by the Ivy League colleges and other elite universities creates a “racial divide,” arguing that Asian American students “are encouraged to resent students of other races, whose accomplishments are more valued by the system.”
However, these complaints neither hold up to empirical scrutiny nor represent the views of Asian Americans in the U.S. In fact, Nguyen noted that many of the studies on Asian American mental health, cited by the original CAAA and AACE complaints, were taken out of context and had no connection to college admissions.
For example, AACE refers to three studies that discuss the negative emotional consequences of discriminatory college admissions. In reality, two of those studies looked into intergenerational conflict in Asian families due to factors such as cultural differences and parental overprotection. The third study looked at the risk factors for suicidal behavior among Filipino Americans and includes no direct discussion of college admission discrimination as a risk factor.
These inconsistencies in the CAAA and AACE complaints, which were taking over the national spotlight, motivated Ngyuen to investigate the AACE and CAAA claims that Asian American students facing discrimination in college admissions experienced negative consequences.
“The overwhelming majority of all the outcomes show that the arguments they make in the complaint don’t hold up to the data that we have and the tests that we ran,” said Nguyen.
Nguyen and his colleagues pulled data from the 2012 Freshman Survey (TFS) and 2016 College Senior Survey (CSS) administered through the Cooperative Institutional Research Program and included students from over 1,900 institutions across the US. His study considers factors within six categories: diversity and racial interaction, academic performance and perception of academic abilities, willingness and ability to contribute to society, satisfaction with college, self-confidence and self-esteem, and level of student involvement.
After controlling for factors including high school GPA, SAT score, gender, and first-generation college status, the study’s analysis strongly demonstrates that there is no substantive difference between Asian American students who were and were not admitted to their first-choice college in the six categories. Thus, Nguyen’s study, which was published in the journal Educational Research, ultimately rejects the claims of the AACE (2016) and CAAA (2015). Based on his findings, Nguyen finds it alarming that the DOJ launched a federal investigation and made serious allegations without exploring the merits of the case.
Ngyuen argues that the debate over affirmative action in college admissions is much more nuanced than the popular media portrayal might admit. The anti-affirmative action views of the CAAA and AACE represent a sliver of Asian Americans. The groups were both founded by affluent, conservative, Chinese Americans who also drew large support and mobilization over Chinese communication apps such as WeChat. Through their dramatic public outcry and intense lobbying efforts, they have gained national recognition while drowning out the voices of the majority of Asian Americans who support affirmative action.
Affirmative action as a term in public policy can be traced back to the mid-1900s when the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement articulated the need for affirmative action to rectify past discrimination. However, the Supreme Court ruling to remove racial quotas from schools in Regents of University of California v Bakke (1978), was a significant turning point in history when “race-conscious admissions shifted its priorities to protect white privilege,” saidc Connie Chang, who holds a Ph.D. in Higher Education from UCLA and is a lecturer at California State University, Dominguez Hills.
Chang, who was also a co-author with Nguyen on the empirical study concerning the CAAA and AACE complaints, also argues in her dissertation that the debate over race-conscious admissions needs to be situated within a larger context of structural racism and Asian American history.
The Bakke decision deemed race-conscious admissions as an infringement upon the equal rights of white applicants. Race-conscious admissions, which originally sought to support Black students and other communities of color who faced generational systemic discrimination and outright denial of educational resources, suddenly became centered on the white experience.
While conservative groups have always attacked racial-equity policies, such as race-conscious admissions. Even Edward Blum originally challenged affirmative action at the University of Texas using the story of a white applicant, Abigail Fisher. However, the more current lawsuits spearheaded by Blum, CAAA, and AACE are unique because it is the first time the “victims” of race-conscious admissions are Asian American, rather than white.
The grouping of Asian Americans with white Americans illustrate the complex racial positionality of Asian Americans in the U.S. Racial scholar, Claire J. Kim, articulates that Asian Americans are racially valorized relative to Black Americans, but are also simultaneously figured as perpetually foreign and unassimilable on white cultural and racial grounds. Positioning Asians as the academically high-achieving and economically successful “model minority,” legitimizes the false narrative of the American Dream and meritocracy, the idea that anyone can make it in America if they just work hard enough. Michael Young coined the term meritocracy and critically challenges merit-based rankings in education in his 1958 dystopian satire, The Rise of Meritocracy. Young argues that meritocracy only preserves an illusion of an equal system by framing social position as solely based on effort while perpetuating existing structural inequalities. Today, many of Young’s arguments are true. Chang highlights that SAT scores and GPAs are better predictors of an individual’s socioeconomic status, rather than intelligence or ability.
Furthermore, these images of success make invisible the struggles experienced by certain Asian American groups. Relative valorization, although it positions Asians in closer proximity to whiteness, necessitates that Asians be foreign and different from whiteness in order to maintain this valorized position. The double-edged sword that is the model minority myth ignores structural obstacles that stand in the way of social mobility for BIPOC and instead blame those very communities for their problems.
The myth of the model minority is rooted in white supremacy. In the late 1800s, as Chinese American communities began to grow in the South, they were figured as not white but also not Black. While Chinese immigrants faced discrimination, they did not face discrimination in the form of anti-Blackness and ultimately were non-Black immigrants in an anti-Black society. Claire Jean Kim, a political scientist at the University of California, Irvine, writes in The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans that Chinese immigrants were given incremental gestures of acceptance from whites and attempted to assimilate by attending white churches, white organizations, naming their children white names, while actively adopting anti-Black sentiment and discouraging interaction with Black Americans.
This partial acceptance of Chinese Americans came as a product of white elites reconciling with the growing economic need for cheap labor and maintaining white dominance. Chinese immigrants became embraced by whites as hardworking, favorable forms of cheap labor in comparison to the “lazy” Black population, but yet were ineligible for citizenry and later painted as dangerous foreign intruders, as seen by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the internment of Japanese Americans in the early 1900s. This paradoxical condition of being Asian was created to directly negate Blackness while constructing white control over all communities of color.
The wedge between Asian and Black communities in the US was further sustained by white Americans in the mid-1900s, when sociologist William Petersen in The New York Times, coined the term “model minority” to describe Japanese Americans coming out of the Japanese internment camps. The media created a fictional story of the Japanese overcoming past racism and prospering because of their work ethic and explicitly compared this to Black activists calling attention to poverty and anti-Blackness rooted in the history of slavery. Asian Americans became a tool for white people to deny civil rights for Black communities.
Additionally, the Immigration and Nationality Act solidified the model minority image of Asian Americans by restricting immigration into the US based on educational achievement and certain skills, rather than by national-origin quota systems. Thus, Asian immigrants at the time tended to come from highly-selective colleges in their home countries and were more educated than the average American, further feeding into the model minority myth. In the 19th and 20th century, Asian Americans were able to evade forms of anti-Black violence and discrimination by performing whiteness and conforming to the role of an acceptable American subject.
This narrative is eerily similar to the current discourse on race-conscious admission in higher education.
“Asian Americans perform whiteness and try to fit into the norms of American and of whiteness. That is what admissions criteria is…. All these criteria are rooted in the history of whiteness,” said Chang in an interview with The Politic. “We don’t have this history of slavery and overcoming poverty. Although we think we are playing fairly by the game, there are all of these other things that set us up differently than other folks and give us an advantage. Unfortunately, we are never going to be white.”
While it is important to acknowledge racism towards Asian Americans, past anti-Asian discrimination such as the Chinese Exclusion Acts, citizenry laws and internment camps do not translate to modern forms of structural racism in the same way that Black communities face. This is even more so apparent today as the murder of Black Americans by police violence, mass incarceration, housing segregation, job discrimination, and more highlight the many ways in which the US is built and run upon anti-Blackness.
The CAAA and AACE framing of Asian Americans as minorities in the US facing discrimination construct a binary of minority and majority that face a singular idea of discrimination without differentiating how anti-Black exclusionary policies differ from the discrimination faced by Asian Americans. While these groups and Blum affirm themselves as champions of racial justice, they dangerously erase the ways in which systems of anti-Blackness directly shape life in the US, including education.
“It is really crucial that people recognize these unequal opportunities are not an accident. They are a huge part of how America has treated Black Americans,” said Mel Eskender ‘23, a sophomore at Yale currently on a leave of absence. “Race can’t be separated from certain opportunities, specifically in education. Historically in the US, through redlining practices, Black Americans have been put into underprivileged public schools where they don’t have the same teachers to provide them with the emotional and academic support that they need.”
Eskender notes that these historical injustices still play out today, as students don’t have access to key opportunities crucial to the college application process, such as AP classes and certain extracurricular activities.
Monique W. Morris, Ed.D., an award-winning author and social justice scholar, highlights in her book Pushout: The Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools, how Black youth in schools are labeled as “delinquents” and disproportionately face punitive school disciplinary actions, including police violence, that have detrimental, and even fatal, effects. She tells the stories of Black girls as young as six and seven being arrested in classrooms for throwing tantrums in kindergarten classrooms, and high schoolers who routinely were suspended, expelled, and even charged by police for something as simple as a science experiment gone wrong. Morris argues that the criminalization of Black girls in society extends into the classrooms, systematically disrupting and denying education while inflicting lifelong emotional and physical trauma.
Schools are sites of whiteness that uphold white curriculum, failing to teach the full histories of American and Western settler colonialism, slavery and imperialism, and enact anti-Black policies and practices. “This is all rooted in the history of higher education. They were not created for slaves, for the Chinese, they were created for rich Europeans and wealthy families,” said Chang. From the metrics of admissions criteria to school curricula and policies, schools are not insular to racism.
The numerical lottery of college admissions that use criteria such as SAT, GPA, and recommendation letters are not insular to systemic racism.
“The grades you get are influenced by the teacher you have and the SAT is racially based and classist. When you are looking at those numbers on paper, it is not necessarily reflective of the person and impact that they are making on the community…. It is more a reflection of the circumstances you were born into,” Isiuwa Omoigui ‘23, a sophomore at Yale said.
Omoigui notes this is in addition to the access wealthy white students have to elite private tutoring, college counseling, networking, Dean’s List admittance, and more that further dissolves the idea of an objective meritocracy.
Black Students at Yale highlighted this in their open letter in response to the DOJ in August: “From slavery to segregation, to the prison industrial complex, Black people have yet to see any semblance of equality in the United States, all of which define the context in which we seek higher education.”
Anti-affirmative action groups and the DOJ arbitrarily construct college admissions as entirely separated from the consequences of racist redlining maps that continue to segregate schools today or the school-to-prison pipeline for Black and Latinx students.
“Being wealthy and being connected is how you get into elite colleges regardless of your merit. It goes beyond Yale,” said Omoigui. “Race has always been in mind when judging merit. We can’t fall into this myth that we live in a post-racial society”.
Groups that are against race-conscious admissions argue that using race as a factor for admissions is unfair for Asian American and white students. For example, the CAAA compares the admission statistics of Harvard and Caltech to argue that removing race in admissions would result in the admission of certain groups, particularly white and Asian students. Caltech, which does not use race-conscious admission, in 2017 had an student population of 32.5 percent white, 24.8 percent Asian, 7.55 percent Hispanic or Latino, 4.56 percent Two or More Races, 0.938 percent Black or African American, 0.0447 percent American Indian or Alaska Native, and zero percent Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islanders. This is in contrast of Harvard’s enrolled student population which is is 41.8 percent white, 13.5 percent Asian, 8.19 percent Hispanic or Latino, 5.35 percent Black or African American, 3.79 percent Two or More Races, 0.174 percent American Indian or Alaska Native, and 0.119 percent Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islanders.
While on its face there is a discrepancy between Asian admissions at Harvard and Caltech, poor representation of Black and Latinx students at both Harvard and Caltech makes it difficult to believe claims that they unfairly benefit from race-conscious admissions. If anything, despite race-conscious admissions, the low enrollment of Black students at both Caltech and Harvard underscores the deep historic educational inequality and the ways in which admissions criteria are inherently racially biased.
Similarly, the DOJ’s lawsuit against Yale presents “Race Neutral Alternatives” such as emphasizing the socio-economic status of applicants and eliminating favorable policies towards legacies, children of donors, and other special interest applicants. Although these alternatives should be adopted, they follow the logic that certain groups such as low-income students face additional structural hurdles when applying to college, while certain groups such as legacy students carry greater privileges. Therefore, the only explanation as to the rejection of race as a hurdle is that this is an actively racist choice by the current administration.
Painting white people as the victims of progress towards racial equality is not a new concept, and neither is pitting communities of color against each other to evade dismantling white privilege. Historical contextualization of the model minority myth and Asian American history in the US allows us to understand how Asian social mobility has been inextricably linked with anti-Blackness.
Chang argues that affirmative action does not have to be framed as a competition among students of color: “Ideally there is a university where there is no discrimination against Asian Americans and also affirmative action where we are thinking about race in the affirmative and using it as a criteria. That university, I would argue, has a lot less white students. There could be a lot of Asian Americans at the school as well as other students of color.”
Unfair treatment of Asian American applicants during the admissions process does not occur in tandem with unfair acceptance of Black students and is a narrative constructed by white folks to maintain dominance at elite colleges.
Unfortunately, this is not to say that no Asian Americans disagrees with race-conscious admissions, as showcased by the founding of AACE and CAAA. Chang partly attributes the rise in vocal conservative Asian American groups to the 1965 Immigration Act that expedited the influx of East and South Asian Americans pursuing graduate degrees and high-skilled labor jobs. Given Kim’s racial triangulation theory and the conditional racialization of Asian Americans, Chang is not surprised that some Asian Americans are caught in this “pursuit of whiteness.”
While it may be easy to vilify the small vocal conservative minority, this mindset is historically and culturally rooted. “It’s the Asian American achievement paradox,” said Chang. “It’s because in Asian countries, education is very rigid and based on test scores, especially places like China, Taiwan, Korea. We bring these ideologies to the US and say ok how do I make this work for me and my family. I don’t fault them for it. Everyone is trying to better their own lives, but people get too caught up on [test scores and admission to elite colleges].”
Asian Americans may have been historically co-opted by white elites to enforce racial dominance, but some Asian Americans today have embraced this to reap the benefits of the model minority discourse. Today, the vocal activists of Asian anti-affirmative groups have reclaimed a sense of personal agency in their pursuit of meritocracy and very much believe in their opinions, but their activism is also a reproduction of their own racialized position and history in the US.
Race-blind admission will not resolve discrimination against Asian Americans, both within the college admissions process as well as within the college experience in general. Ngyuen and Chang highlight in their paper that past research has demonstrated, “Asian American students who attend highly selective institutions, where affirmative action is not used in admissions and Asian Americans constitute the majority of the student population, also experience high levels of racism and racialization, and are not free from racial incidents. ”
Discrimination and racism towards Asian Americans occur in various forms within universities and in the US, beyond affirmative action. The recent anti-Asian sentiment from the COVID-19 pandemic indicates how Asian Americans will always be at risk of being painted as foreigners. Ultimately Chang advocates for “collaboration and solidarity between communities of color. Asian Americans should support a policy like race-conscious admission because ultimately it’s helping to protect against racial discrimination.”
Today, there are also many Asian American activists working in support of race-conscious admissions in higher education. For example, Californians in November will have the opportunity to vote to repeal Proposition 209, a 1996 initiative that had banned racial preferences in admission to public universities in California. Nguyen, along with co-authors Michael Omi and Jason Chan, write in their book chapter “Panethnicity and Ethnic Heterogeneity: The Politics of Mulping and Disaggregating Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Educational Policy,” that AAPI advocacy groups have been fighting to gain recognition for Asian as a fuller and more nuanced category. This would require specific policies to target specific group needs and interests within the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. A 2015 bill that would have required Californian public colleges to collect and report detailed demographic information on AAPI by specific ethnic group was vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown who believed that “dividing people into ethnic or other subcategories may yield more information, but not necessarily greater wisdom about what actions should follow.”
The lumping together of Asian Americans came in part by white Americans grouping Asian Americans, but also emerged during the late 1960s civil rights era. Primarily Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino affirmed their common identity as Asian Americans to strategically engage in social and political discourse and create a collaborative political consciousness. Today, this panethnic grouping can serve as both a powerful tool of solidarity, but also a dangerous monolithic tokenism that ignores profound historical, cultural, and linguistic differences between diverse ethnic groups.
A report released by the American Center for Progress and AAPI Data finds that although there is a high level of educational attainment among Asian Americans, there are significant differences across national origin groups that are glossed over. For example, Southeast Asian American populations have the lowest levels of college education attainment, as fewer than 15 percent of Cambodians, Hmong, and Laotians have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared to 72 percent of Asian Indians, 57 percent of Sri Lankans, and 53 percent of Chinese Americans.
This highlights how Southeast Asian history and racialization is significantly different than that of East and South Asians, leading to wide disparities within the Asian American community. A 2019 study by a team of researchers from UCLA, University of Washington, and Lewis & Clark College found significant variations in discipline patterns amongst AAPI subgroups, especially for Pacific Islanders, when disaggregating the data. Black students were 3.35 times more likely than their white peers to experience exclusionary discipline. Native American students were 2.24 times more likely and Latinx students were 1.50 times more likely than white students to be disciplined. AAPIs, when aggregated, do not disproportionately experience discipline, having the lowest risk of discipline of any racial group. However, upon disaggregation, Pacific Islanders were nearly 2 times more likely to be disciplined than white students, and Cambodian students were 3.30 times more likely to be disciplined. While more statistical differences can be listed here, the study demonstrates that this statistical ethnic discipline gap calls for further research to explore the factors of educational outcomes for Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asian students in the US that will ultimately lead to target resources to support these communities.
At Yale, many students, including Saket Malhotra ‘23, are fighting to dismantle these harmful and arbitrary groupings through projects like Data Disaggregation. Under the Asian American Students Alliance at Yale, the Data Disaggregation Task Force argues that the complex stories behind Asian Americans that are overshadowed by the model minority myth leave behind many ethnic racial groups.
“The goal is to get Yale to release disaggregated admission data that is by both specific ethnicity and financial income. For example, for Asians, it would release Indian instead of Asian, and for other groups like white, they would release admission data for Lebanese who are counted as white,” said Malhotra. He notes that while individuals can experience the wide disparity in representation of different Asian ethnic groups on campus, a quantitative recognition of this difference would better allow for students and the University to create more targeted opportunities and outreach.
While Yale denounced the DOJ’s lawsuit and firmly stood by its use of race-conscious admissions to promote diversity, Yale must also listen to the voices of BIPOC activists on campus who have demanded further actions towards dismantling white privilege and structural inequalities.
Over 20 AACC affiliated campus organizations co-signed and released a statement rejecting the DOJ’s claim of “discrimination” against Asian and white applicants at Yale. The statement argues that diversity at Yale goes beyond simple numeric representation and racial justice goes beyond the fight for race-conscious admissions: “Yale insists on Affirmative Action while perpetuating injustice, and in doing so uses Affirmative Action as a symbolic gesture to hide from the concrete change it must make as well.”
The statement lists five concrete demands for Yale including creating equitable admission policies, increasing financial support for ethnic studies curricula, ending exploitative financial practices in New Haven, disbanding the Yale Police Department, acknowledging MENA as a distinct group, and establishing a MENA cultural center, and more.
Dismantling racism towards Asian Americans is inextricably coupled with dismantling anti-Blackness and forms of racism within other POC communities. Asian Americans must advocate in solidarity with other BIPOC and reject attempts to divide such as the dismantling of race-conscious admissions. Additionally, the University must support specific policies that affirm BIPOC and FGLI students on campus beyond denouncing race-blind admissions.
The debate over affirmative action, when focused on the simple question of the existence of discrimination, misses the point. Schooling, education, and higher educational institutions are centrally implicated in the formation and legitimization of whiteness, and thus must also be a site of change and resistance for students to continue to challenge structural inequities.