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December 17, 2002

Asian Americans and Affirmative Action

Michelle Dulak made important points in the comments (#2) of my affirmative action post, emphasizing the complication of discrimination against asian americans.

Your examples are literally "black and white." Where do other ethnic groups fit in? It really does matter, because there has been great injustice against Asian immigrants in this country, and there is still racial prejudice against them in places, but God knows no one is thinking of giving *them* preference in university admissions. Well, why not? What the Chinese suffered in late-19th-c. China wasn't slavery, but it was definitely comparable to Jim Crow.
Yet Michelle notes that asian americans because of their relative success occasionally find themselves losing out due to affirmative action. How does this square with affirmative action redressing past injustice?

I'm moving comments I made in the comments section to this post area. When I was working with groups fighting for affirmative action in the University of California system back in the mid-90s, there were many asian americans in the leadership of that struggle, so these issues were discussed front and center.

The situation of asian americans is complicated given the horrendous history of racism against them in America, partly because this is matched by an asian migration to the United States that a generation ago was dominated by highly educated Asian professionals. And asian americans have benefitted significantly from affirmative action in hiring and employment.

I wrote about this issue during the whole battle for affirmative action in the mid-1990s. See here. The key section notes:

ASIANS, IMMIGRATION AND CLASS ANALYSIS

One of the most divisive elements of anti-AA strategy was to pit an Asian "model minority" against blacks and latinos in a zero-sum scamble for the ever shrinking resources of University education. But Asian community leaders, from Mabel Teng of San Francisco's Board of Supervisors to campus Asian Pacific Islanders representatives, spoke strongly for affirmative action at the Regent's meeting. Jeff Chang, a student leader from UCLA, noted in an article that 60% of UCLA Asian American students had avowed support for affirmative action.

The conservative Regents sought to pit the image of struggling Asian immigrants who pull themselves up by their bootstraps against the image of african-americans from Beverly Hills benefitting from preferences. But as many Asian leaders noted at the Regents meeting, Asian Americans have benefitted from affirmative action in hiring and contracting and that the "glass ceiling" of racism is real for all people of color regardless of income.

Immigration policy and affirmative action also highlight the complexity of simple class analysis based only on incomes--the measure the Regents focused their new policy upon. Even when they immigrated to the US with few funds, the 1965-1975 wave of Asian immigrants to the US consisted largely of highly educated professionals. To this day, Asian immigrants average a higher level of educational attainment than native-born citizens, giving their children an educational boost regardless of income. In the image of the "boot-strap" Asian immigrant is the assumption that a person's class position in their home country disappears when the immigrate to the US, but educational patterns show that class position from abroad is being replicated in the US. Thea Lee of Dollars & Sense has written of the way that many Asian Americans have been able to bypass discrimination by banks through the tradition of informal financial lending pools by families and aquaintenances available to new immigrants. This is a key point highighted by new reports in the weeks following the Regents' vote showing continual discrimination in lending by banks to African Americans and Latinos.

I would note in passing that the Thea Lee cited back then is now the chief economic analyst for the AFL-CIO on international economic issues.

You might check out the complications of affirmation action and asians in this article from the Asian American Times Online. There is an intersting fact sheet on "Myths of Asians as a model minority" here.

This all highlights the multifaceted problems of racism, from access to jobs, cultural capital, financial capital and so on. Does AA as applied occasionally effect asian students negatively? Probably (although such are usually corrected over time as you note), but the whole array of language outreach and other related programs that groups like Chinese for Affirmative Action highlight also benefit asian-americans significantly.

But Michelle's comments on the purpose of affirmative action-- either historical redress or absolute proportional representation -- ignore what I said. Affirmative action is about attempting equal opportunity TODAY given the complicated imperfect reality we face. It is complicated in university admissions comparing the potential of a black child of a factory worker to the white child of a lawyer compared to the asian child of a hotel busboy who was also a university teacher back in China.

Now, you can ignore the personal, financial and cultural effects of those family backgrounds on each child and pretend their high school achievements happened in a vacuum, but that is not "equality" in any meaningful sense. The potential of each student does not exist in some scientific-seeming "score" based on grades or SATs; those are merely a guide that are meaningful only in that larger personal context.

Now, a better solution is to expand good K-12 and higher education for all students, so education is no longer a rationed resource. With open admissions, some students will fail no doubt, but none would be barred from trying. But as long as education is rationed and getting into particular colleges is used to track people into highly stratified economic opportunities, affirmative action in going to be one necessary component in assuring some degree of fairness in that educational rationing process.

Posted by Nathan at December 17, 2002 07:24 AM

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Comments

Nathan,

Hmmm. I'll have to consider this a little before I respond in detail; just want to point out for anyone that might be confused by the quoted text above that I meant "late-19th-c. *San Francisco*, not "late-19th-c. China." Sorry!

Posted by: Michelle Dulak at December 17, 2002 11:29 AM

Nathan,

Okay, I'm off the clock now & able to respond. To take last things first, I'm afraid education is *always* going to be a "rationed resource" -- at least in the sense you cite : "getting into particular colleges [ . . . ] used to track people into highly stratified economic opportunities."

You mention open admissions. Right now there are open admissions to community colleges all over the country, and (in practice) open admissions to most state universities as well. If you want education, you can get it, for not much money. (The cost of college is a real concern, and I would like to see better funding, but that's not the main issue here.)

The question isn't "Can X get an education?," but "Can X get a prestige degree?" I can only speak anecdotally here, but in my experience AA advocates are keener on getting a cut of the "prestige degree" pie than on getting the best education for the largest number of minority students. If I suggest that all UC freshman slots be awarded by lottery among UC-eligible students, for example, people are appalled. They want Berkeley still to be "the best," UCLA "the next best," and so on. What would be the point of getting lots of minorities into Berkeley if getting into Berkeley were as easy as getting into Irvine?

I'm exaggerating here, but only a bit.

[More to follow]

Posted by: Michelle Dulak at December 17, 2002 08:01 PM

Now, Asian-American students. I take your point about very well-educated Asian immigrants whose income doesn't necessarily reflect the advantages their children have. Though if I were a liberal and thinking about education policy I'd Stop Right There -- if immigrant kids in poor but well-educated families (and probably stuck in poor schools -- I assume that poor immigrant Asians would settle where housing is cheap and use public schools) out-perform white kids with better schools and higher family incomes, are higher incomes and better schools for all going to even things out?

As far as admission criteria go, I don't see why "parents' educational level" shouldn't be in there next to "household income." But Nathan's original point was that above and beyond all the quantifiable factors in a student's resume was the fact of racial prejudice. Well, OK; all I was trying to point out is that Asian-American students also suffer racial prejudice, and no one is inclined therefore to give them a nudge up.

Posted by: Michelle Dulak at December 17, 2002 09:15 PM

And the diciest aspect of the whole "Asian" question is that Asian-American students by and large work their butts off in a way that their fellow-students-of-other-ethnicities don't. What do you call that? "Cultural capital"? (In which case it's presumptively unfair that they have it and others don't.) Or just good discipline? (In which case we should follow their example, without envy.)


Posted by: Michelle Dulak at December 17, 2002 09:28 PM

Having had a rather lengthy email debate with the folks at Tapped yesterday, I thought I'd throw something into this ring as well. To Michelle's last comment: Why is it "presumtively unfair," for Asians to have cultural capital? Having said that, it might be helpful to interrogate a little further this question of Asians and affirmative action - in particular since most opponents of affirmative action would have admissions departments rely exclusively on test scores and GPA. Now, if colleges actually did that, what do you think the entering class at Berkeley would look like? Well, statistically speaking, Asians outperform every other ethnic group on standardized tests - which means, your entering class would be almost exclusively Asian. Kind of puts a different spin on the argument.

Posted by: Mark at December 18, 2002 09:05 AM

Actually Michelle, I think your idea of lottery admissions into the best schools by those making a basic qualification is not a bad one. It would put even more pressure by the public to make sure more people were admitted to increase the chance of making the lottery.

Although my favorite alternative is one from Dubya's own state (although he was not responsible). Texas decided to admit the top 10% of students FROM EACH HIGH SCHOOL into top universities. The idea being that it is hard to compare students between schools, given the disparities we all know exist, but it is far fairer to compare achievement between students within schools. It also of course, given the economic and racial segregation of our school systems, automatically encourages greater racial and economic diversity in the university systems.

Now-- on the specific issue of asian americans. One thing to note is that "asian americans" has to be broken up between relatively privileged sections of the community like the Japanese and Chinese (although less so with recent immigration) versus the less privileged sectors like the Vietnamese and Hmong, with nationalities like the Filipinos somewhat in the middle. UC actually gave Filipinos affirmative action support until the mid-1980s.

But the reality is that while there is prejudice against asian americans, it is more of the "model minority" glass ceiling kind of limits, not the "no blacks allowed" and "there's goes the neighborhood" kind of bigotry. While anti-asian bigotry was once almost as bad as anti-black hate, it's just not true in modern America. And it's hard to argue that the media and schools give the same "you're dumb" messages to Asian students as they give to black and latino students.

"Discipline" is a nice quality but it's easier to have when you have greater assurance that it will be rewarded with a job interview. Note the original article I posted-- I didn't highlight this paragraph but it's chilling:

[The report's] most alarming finding is that the likelihood of being called for an interview rises sharply with an applicant's credentials like experience and honors for those with white-sounding names, but much less for those with black-sounding names. A grave concern is that this phenomenon may be damping the incentives for blacks to acquire job skills, producing a self-fulfilling prophecy that perpetuates prejudice and misallocates resources.
Really-- think about it. If working hard does not increase the chance of getting jobs for black applicants, "lack of discipline" is actually rational behavior.

That's not an issue of cultural capital but racist refusal in society to reward hard work by black students. It's easy and understandable for the Asian American community to feel "hey we work hard, why don't they", but if society is rewarding asian students for their hard work, but not black students, the issue is far more complicated and sinister.

Posted by: Nathan Newman at December 18, 2002 10:16 AM

Nathan,

Sorry, I didn't even realize you'd posted this til now -- thought you had taken the whole puppy up onto the front page.

I like the "Top 10%" idea, generally. (I notice that you mention it was used in Texas but that Dubya wasn't responsible -- but it was also used in Florida, and Dubya's brother Jeb *was* responsible -- didn't you notice?)

Anyway, there are both practical problems and political pressures against these plans. The practical problems have mainly to do with students who, however much they have excelled in their high school environments, may not be prepared to do college-level work. This is the sort of thing that really could be fixed by uniformly good K-12 education (I'm with you there), but for the moment it's going to be a problem.

The political situation is even more interesting. Just look at the opposition to Jeb Bush's plan. This is a setup that will get *more* black students into Florida's public universities than there were under affirmative action. But the main beneficiaries are kids (black, white, other) in lousy semi-rural schools, and the people who lose out most spectacularly are black kids in affluent suburban schools, who suddenly have to be in the top X percent *of their school*, rather than their racial category, to get in. Black kids may do well under the Florida plan (and it certainly seems more just to me than ordinary affirmative action), but the kids of black activists might not.

Posted by: Michelle Dulak at December 18, 2002 03:43 PM

I read about the one Florida plan. It was originally the top 10%, then I believe it was the top 20%. The number of minorities did not go down presumably because they were using a larger field but in the beginning , the enrollment at the flagship institution dropped (from 820 to 480 or something like that.) The number increased the next year after they had more targeting recruiting as well as an essay component that made it easier to find minorities. I also believe there were other components that are more helpful. What I got from that is in order to get a select group, you have to select for that group.

What people who proposed these things want you to know is that 1)they assume Black people cannot achieve and 2) they do not want them at their prestigious institutions. Look at the courtcases. They all involve flagship institutions. There would be courtcases like this for smaller state schools if the same "problem" existed. It also shows you that public universities, much like public primary and sceondary schools, are not equal.

Furthermore, for the program to really be effective, all public schools have to be fairly equivalent. Since they are not, affluent black children go to more competitive schools. More competitive schools tend to be smaller and the ten percent marker is smaller. You are rarely going to find an instance where all the top ten percent is black, so you have eliminated one subsection of black people. While it's great for the poorer kids to get into school and I think it is wonderful, if their schools are not equipped enough to prepare them for college, there's not ultimately being served and certain affirmative action opponents can crow about the inferiority of black kids. While I can acknowledge the flaws with affirmative action, I have a hard time scrapping it, because the assumption of the most vocal critics are vile.

Posted by: mds at December 18, 2002 09:09 PM

MDS,

You know, I raised most of your objections in my own post, but your tone is a little different. ;-)

The "flagship institution" thing is bogus. Hell, _Bakke_ was about UC/Davis. If UC has a flagship medical school it's surely UCSF. But the main reason these suits are brought against "flagship" schools is that it's there that admissions are most competitive and that racial preferences make most difference. The lower the rank of the school, the smaller the score gap to be bridged.

"Furthermore, for the program to really be effective, all public schools have to be fairly equivalent."

Horsepucky. The reason the program is necessary in the first place is that all public schools are *not* equivalent, and kids stuck in the lousy ones have no realistic chance at college whatever their "potential" may be.

"Since they are not, affluent black children go to more competitive schools. More competitive schools tend to be smaller and the ten percent marker is smaller."

I can't make head or tail of this. What has the size of the school got to do with anything? Affluent black kids are going to go to good suburban schools, where they will be a minority of the student population. That will remain true whether the affluent suburban schools are large or small.

As to the insinuation that the people proposing plans like this just want to see poorly-prepared black kids fail so that they can go "BWOO-HA-HA" over a pile of transcripts covered with F's -- man, get a grip. The whole point of affirmative action in education was to get kids with potential into places they could realize it. That's the point of these X% plans. They recognize that kids don't have equal environments, and reward the ones who do best in their own circumstances. That's the best proxy for "potential" that anyone's been able to find.

Posted by: Michelle Dulak at December 18, 2002 10:54 PM

To Mark, whom I've neglected to answer (sorry!)

"Why is it "presumptively unfair," for Asians to have cultural capital?"

Not what I said! I said that it might be unfair if one group had "cultural capital" *and others didn't*. The question is really whether we ought to compensate for differences in "cultural capital" between groups.

In a college admissions context where we are trying, ostensibly, to "level the playing field," any group having any sort of "capital" in disproportionate amounts is *potentially* a problem. Suppose feckless white kids are competing against Chinese-American kids who study four hours a night because their parents make them do it. Is the Chinese-American kids' better performance an indication of greater merit, or just an accident of birth (because the same kids born into a different culture would not have worked as hard)?

"Having said that, it might be helpful to interrogate a little further this question of Asians and affirmative action - in particular since most opponents of affirmative action would have admissions departments rely exclusively on test scores and GPA. Now, if colleges actually did that, what do you think the entering class at Berkeley would look like? Well, statistically speaking, Asians outperform every other ethnic group on standardized tests - which means, your entering class would be almost exclusively Asian. Kind of puts a different spin on the argument."

Does it really? Who's the bloody racist, then? You, or me? (Hint: *one* of us is upset at the prospect of Berkeley being taken over by The Slanty-Eyed People. It isn't me.)

Posted by: Michelle Dulak at December 19, 2002 12:40 AM

Michelle: I agree that it's unfair for one group to have "more" cultural capital than another. That being said, I think cultural capital is a "thing" that admissions teams look at. Among other things. Yes, race/ethicity is often used as a proxy for that capital. And I'm not going to say that whites don't have any cultural capital - it's just a different flavor, and in many parts of the country is so taken for granted that it's ignored.

Now, should the "feckless white kid" have points taken off because he didn't study in high school? I'm not going to spend too much time on the stereotyping of Chinese-American kids who's parents demand that they study umpteen hours a day. That being said, take away race, and who should gets the spot? The kid who worked his butt off to get into college, or the kid who sailed in with an average academic background?

The trick is to see what else is there.

College admissions is a complicated business - at least in the institutions where affirmative action is even an issue - which is primarily the premier, i.e., ivy-league and the like (the Berkeleys, the Yales, the Williams, etc.). These are places where most of the applicants already have outstanding SAT scores, 4.0 GPAs, etc. So how to you pick your students. If you begin with the premise that the make-up of your student body influences collge experience (and therefore the more diverse your student body, the better the experience) then you have to scratch below the surface and figure out what else is going on there. And yes, race and income are proxies for a lot of things. But they're also looking for artisits, and musicians, and computer geeks, and poets, etc., etc. When you have 20,000 applicants, and can only accept 2,000, what else are you going to do?

I don't have an issue with Asians in higher education. You may want to check with some of the anti-affirmative action folks in California though. If you run the numbers (something that they clearly haven't done) that's what ends up happening with race-blind admissions. And quite frankly, if you look at the data Asians are in fact "taking over" to use your words. Harvard's class of 2006 is 18% Asian American. Berkeley's class of 2006 is 45% Asian. Berkeley's class of 1999 (freshmen entering in 1995) was 37% Asian American. If that's not "taking over" I don't know what is. The fact of the matter is that I'm concerned about any group in particular "taking over," in particular because the point of affirmative action is/was to (as you put it) level the playing field to compensate for the fact that for a couple hundred years white had taken over. And we're operating like they didn't have an obligation to let anyone else into the party.

But that's enough out of me for now. I guess the "bloody racist" tag kinda got me riled. . .

OK, the post is getting longer than it needs to be - especially for a "comment,"

Posted by: Mark at December 19, 2002 09:14 AM

More to Michelle:

This in reference to your comments about the opposition to Bush's One Florida Plan. I think you need to check your background on the opposition to the plan. It's the same as the opposition in California when they proposed a similar idea (and the Texas plan, but not so much). That being that the plans don't account for the fact that affirmative action is only a factor in elite schools. These 10% plans end up creating stratified high ed systems. If you look at the data in California, shortly after the passage of Prop 209, the "lower-end" tier of UC schools (I'm thinking in particular, Irvine) got all the minorities, and Berkeley's diversity dropped like a stone. You're going to get the same thing happening in Florida - to a certain extent - because the requirement is only that the students get into "one" of the state schools. Because of the competition getting into the top schools - especially based on test scores and GPA - is still going to be tight, and the schools at the lower tier already have what's close to open admissions anyway.

The opposition, in other words, was that Bush's plan did not address the fundamental issue: ensuring that you continue to have diversity at the elite institutions.

Posted by: Mark at December 19, 2002 09:25 AM

Dear Mark,

Now I really do *have* to run. But one last point:

"The opposition, in other words, was that Bush's plan did not address the fundamental issue: ensuring that you continue to have diversity at the elite institutions."

Fine. Want diversity at the elite schools? Like I said earlier, just assign slots in all public universities by lot. Let Random Student X have exactly the same chance of being allotted to Irvine as to Berkeley.

But like I also said earlier, this isn't what the AA folks want; they want there to be identifiably "elite" schools and they want particular minorities to get a particular cut of the prestige.

[Note: If this post happens twice, SORRY. I hit "Preview"; hitting "post" now.]

Posted by: Michelle Dulak at December 19, 2002 07:21 PM

You're right. Proponents of affirmative action want to ensure that particular students of color get a piece of the prestige. Isn't that what America is all about? And you're right, if you turn this all into a lottery, the Berkeleys of the world WILL lose their prestige. Now, we can debate the issue of simply having elite institutions. But that's a different discussion. Let's assume that there are always going to be elite institutions. Let's also agree that affirmative action REALLY only affects those institutions. Then, clearly, the proponents of affirmative action are going to be pushing for access to those elite schools. Right?

With Bush's plan, you don't address the core issues that affirmative action has tried to address - which is creating a mechanism for uderrepresented minorities to have access to the best schools. Your idea address some of the weaknesses in the Bush plan, but by going down that road, you decreased the "cache" of the elite schools. And if you don't have elite schools, you don't really need affirmative action, do you?

What am I missing?

Posted by: Mark at December 20, 2002 07:34 AM

Dear Mark,

I fear you and I are the only people reading this thread and the other one by this time, so maybe I ought to be taking this to email. But can't let this pass:

"Isn't that what America is all about?"

No.

Now, why exactly would erasing the grade-and-test-score gap between Berkeley and, say, Davis destroy Berkeley's quality as an elite institution? Or, to put it differently, what makes Berkeley elite? The faculty? The facilities? The students? Or just the selectivity?

I don't think the level of *teaching* varies in the UC system nearly as much as the reputations of the various schools suggest. The facilities (esp. the libraries) differ more, but these days you can pretty quickly get any book in any library in the system transferred to another one if you need it.

The biggest difference is in the academic quality of the other students, and this is where things get dicey for your argument, because Berkeley's reputation for "selectivity" is based on precisely those biased, unreliable, deceptively "hard" measures like grades and test scores that proponents of affirmative action are always saying don't measure anything in particular. It's difficult to argue simultaneously that a black student whose academic record on paper could not get him into UC/Berkeley nonetheless can handle the work there because these paper credentials don't mean squat, *and* that surrounding that student with white and Asian students with identical (meaningless) paper credentials will destroy the value of his education. It's even more difficult to hold both these positions and *also* argue that the kids that the top X% plans would admit, kids who in many cases really did excel in bad circumstances, don't belong in the UC system (say) at all, because . . . well, their test scores aren't up to snuff. (Their grades are; that's what the top X% rewards, grades.) Well, do SATs mean something concrete about a student's likely success in college, or don't they?

Faced with the choice between getting a higher absolute number of black kids into a state university system, and getting a greater number of (mainly upper-middle-class) black kids into "prestige" schools, and the latter wins every single time on the Left. It's not about getting deserving but disadvantaged kids an education; it's about getting the right number of black kids (whatever their background, whatever their advantages) a ritzy diploma. Sorry, but this disgusts me.

Posted by: Michelle Dulak at December 20, 2002 02:37 PM

Mark,

(Actually backing up a bit here and responding to an earlier post -- I promise not to do this again).

"I agree that it's unfair for one group to have "more" cultural capital than another. That being said, I think cultural capital is a "thing" that admissions teams look at. Among other things. Yes, race/ethicity is often used as a proxy for that capital."

No, no, no, you and I are talking about different things. What I meant by "cultural capital" in my earlier post was "that-which-makes-one-get-good-grades-and-have-good-test-scores." The proxies for it are good grades and good test scores. Race and ethnicity are *not* proxies for it, at least not in the admissions process.

Look, we have a situation in which a random Chinese-American or Korean-American or Japanese-American kid in California has *several times* the chance of a random white kid in California of getting into Berkeley. The question is why?

I suggest that maybe the Asian-American kids are just working a hell of a lot harder, and you respond, "I'm not going to spend too much time on the stereotyping of Chinese-American kids who's parents demand that they study umpteen hours a day."

Fine, then; find the impeccable explanation that involves no stereotyping. They're just smarter by birth? [Hush!] They make more money? [Yes, but not by nearly enough to explain the discrepancy.] They bribe the admissions officials each year to falsify all the records? They hack the admmissions computers once a year? They have a secret Mind Ray that controls the hands of the typists sending out the admissions notices?

Look, "Asian cultures value education and discipline more than white American culture does" is not only the least insulting explanation, but the only one that does not come straight out of Tinfoil Hat Land.

Posted by: Michelle Dulak at December 20, 2002 08:53 PM

Going backwards (sound familiar):

Fine, then; find the impeccable explanation that involves no stereotyping.

OK. The standardized tests that everyone takes to get into college - SAT for example - is written so as to advantage certain racial groups. Check out "the Structure of Success in American, by Nicholas Lemann, a nice little history of the SAT (http://www.theatlantic.com/issues/95sep/ets/grtsort1.htm).

Which takes me to this. . .

What I meant by "cultural capital" in my earlier post was "that-which-makes-one-get-good-grades-and-have-good-test-scores." The proxies for it are good grades and good test scores. Race and ethnicity are *not* proxies for it, at least not in the admissions process.

Go back to Lemann, and remember this little tidbut: test scores are racially differentiated no matter how you try to slice the data (i.e., controlling for income, gender, neighborhood - the only exception being wealth, and that's another conversation as well). Furthermore, there is still some question as to the predictive vaule of GPA and test scores. GPA continues to be a bad measurement, and as for test scores, even ETS will tell you that the SAT if it can predict anything, can only predict how the student will do in the first year.

And since when do grades and test scores indicate success?

That's enough out of me. . .

Posted by: Mark at December 23, 2002 01:37 PM

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