Supporting affirmative action as Asian Americans: Opinion

The following is the winning entry of the Asia Times essay contest on the issue of alleged discrimination against Asian Americans in the college admissions process. The writers will be awarded a cash prize of $300. AT extends its congratulations and best wishes to Mses. Yan and Lim. — The Editor

By Ivy Z. Yan and Bernadette N. Lim

In recent months, various Asian-American organizations have mobilized to take a stand on the role of race in Harvard’s admissions process. Among them, Harvard’s Asian American Brotherhood rejected the hypothetical use of racial quotas, should they exist in Harvard admissions. A few days later, 64 Asian-American groups across the nation filed an administrative complaint seeking to dismantle race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard University and charging the College with an “unlawful use of race.”

Both of these events coincide with the ongoing lawsuit against Harvard by Project on Fair Representation (POFR), which has employed Asian Americans as racial mascots for the anti-affirmative action debate. POFR’s lawyer Edward Blum, a veteran opponent of affirmative action, launched Harvard Not Fair and its two sister websites, UW Not Fair and UNC Not Fair, with stock images of Asian-Americans and bolded lines inquiring: “Were you denied admissions to Harvard/UW/UNC? It might be because you’re the wrong race.”

In response to these recent events, as two Asian American students at Harvard, we would like to add nuance to an oversimplified debate and question the assumption that consideration of race in admissions constitutes anti-Asian bias.

Affirmative action does not constitute racial quotas. Asian American commentator Jenn Fang explains how commonly cited admissions statistics used by affirmative action’s opponents, such as those by Thomas Epenshade, exaggerate evidence of anti-Asian bias. Rather, she suggests that Asian-Americans face a disadvantage when compared to white students, not other students of color, when applying to institutions of higher education. And, within the Asian American population, Espenshade’s data shows higher probability of acceptance for lower-class Asian Americans, which hints that underrepresented Asian ethnicities who also tend to come from lower-income families still benefit from affirmative action.

Asian Americans at Harvard University graduation ceremonies

Asian Americans at Harvard University graduation ceremonies

Current affirmative action policies consist of “race sensitive holistic admissions policies.” These policies only begin to level the playing field in a society where racial barriers continue to limit educational opportunities for students of color. Acknowledgment of race as a facet of identity and structure of inequality contributes to cross-racial understanding, empathetic learning, and reduction of stereotyping and isolation faced by minority students. Holistic admissions policies, which consider race as just one aspect of an applicant’s personal story, thus operate to admit a diverse study body across a range of social indices.

We stand in solidarity with black and Latin students who so frequently bear the brunt of criticism for policies such as affirmative action. We as Asian-Americans cannot buy into the rhetoric of college admissions as a zero-sum game among minority students. The United States is quickly becoming a country with a majority-minority population, but white students still comprise over 60 percent of the college student population.

We implore the Asian-American community at Harvard and beyond to take note of these nuances and think critically before pointing the finger at a policy that seeks to bring some measure of justice to higher education.

At the same time, we share concerns about how well affirmative action functions in providing opportunities to disadvantaged populations. Based on the evidence, we do not believe allegations that Harvard has instituted a racial quota against Asian Americans. However, we do agree that Harvard and other institutions of higher education must make their admissions processes more transparent.

In contrast, questions about how legacy preferences preserve inequality in Harvard’s admissions process demand answers. According to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, the acceptance rate for legacies has hovered around 30 percent, a number that is nearly six times the general acceptance rate.

We also wonder whether the admissions process takes the extreme disparities within our communities into consideration with regard to socioeconomic status and refugee condition. An enormous range of experiences can easily become smeared under the umbrella term “Asian American.” To ensure affirmative action does its job, Harvard must release disaggregated data on its admitted pool and ensure its admissions officers recognize the range of experiences of students of color.

Beyond admission of a diverse student body, Harvard must also ensure it provides a welcoming environment for students from marginalized backgrounds by supporting its still under-resourced ethnic studies programs, addressing the lack of culturally competent support services, and giving students of color a space on campus where they can meet and build community with one another.

For all the charges of racism that one could level at Harvard, an oversimplified call to eliminate the use of race in admissions should not be one of them.

Asian Americans are not your wedge. We support equal opportunity in higher education. We support affirmative action as a mechanism to accomplish that goal. And in the ongoing battle over Harvard’s admissions policies, we hope that communities of color can come together to make their voices heard on this campus.

Ivy Z. Yan and Bernadette N. Lim are members of the Harvard College classes of 2015 and 2016 respectively, as well as the Asian American Women’s Association and the Progressive Asian Pacific Islander Alliance.

Categories: AT Opinion

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  • Jack Temujin

    Blacks and Hispanics are being rewarded for being dumb while Asians are being penalized for being smart. This, of course coincides with US and NATO’s agenda of “Containing Asia”.

  • not fair

    1st: Harvard was built on prejudice–they came into existence, in part, based on the effects of slavery; Harvard the institution had slaves. 2nd: I think these naive Asians-Americans (AA) are being used for subverted purposes; for them to question affirmative action (aa) without considering the other races that need it, is, well, naive-puppet-on-a-string thinking. It’s like the Tantemin Square uprise in China that was mostly directed by China’s students studying in Columbia Univ., and living in the U.S., then and most likely now. You have to be fundamentally stupid to think with severe naivete under the guise of inexperienced youthful minds to consider overing throw the Communist Party by protesting! You have to be super naive to think that a western gov’t like the U.S. is not corrupt! Emotionally moving brain-storm ideology does better in novels than real life.

  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    As a Sri Lankan American the American culture is just beginning to recognize people from the Sub continent as “Asian”. The term “Asian American” generally implied people from East Asia. It did not include people from the subcontinent and still, in many places in the US, does not include people from “West Asia” or “Central Asia”. They fall under a different category even though all of us come from “Asia”

  • not fair

    Asians study hard, there is no doubt, but “smart”–I wouldn’t say they are smart. One can be smart but act stupidly; and one can be stupid but acts smartly. Smart vs. naviete: can you be a smart person while being naive? I say not. Most Oriental-Asians I met are quick to believe, this makes them subjective targets of others for purpose they know not. You cannot be smart if you are naive. Smart requires experience; it is experience that makes one smart.

  • not fair

    I agree the term “Asian” lack refined definition. They used to use the word “orientals” to represent the oriental Asians, but then there were some controversy, I don’t know what it was, with that word so they stopped using it. Now the oriental race Asians are lumped with the general Asian population of Asia. They even call Japanes Asians though they don’t even live on the Asian continent.

  • Mr. Bernard Wijeyasingha

    not fair
    Japan is part of the Asian continent just as Indonesia is or Sri Lanka. Do not get lost in islands not being part of a continent
    Mauritius is considered part of the African continent even though it is an island.
    Cyprus and the UK are part of the European continent even though they are islands.
    American terms for race becomes more warped when the word “Hispanic’ is used.
    Hispanics include people from Cuba as well as Haiti. One is of African decent and the other is of Spanish decent
    Argentina is considered a Hispanic nation even though her people are from Germany and Italy
    Africans are applied to those below the sub Saharan region and not to those from Algeria,or Morocco.

  • Jack Temujin

    Asians are not smart? Oriental Asians? LOL Ignorance and stupidity really must be bliss.

  • Bobserver

    The two authors are being disingenuous. Blacks or Hispanics need far lower SAT grades than Asians to get into the Ivies. Even then the the universities promoting diversity don’t seem to want to promote economic diversity tend to make the offers to Blacks and Hispanics from middle-class and higher backgrounds. And being sneaky, at this very moment, the Ivies are destroying student admissions data.
    If there is no racism and quotas against Asians then make the “holistic” criteria transparent. Let parents and students know what the requirements for entry to the Ivies be with a weighting scale made known. Then instigate an initial blind application process where a potential student applicant can use their social security number, age, grades, extra-curricula activities but initially shield their surname, race, etc. Then from these either select those for an offer or grant interviews to confirm suitability All admissions data to be kept on a rolling 30 year period (generational). Then have periodic independent review of all the applications, admissions checked against the requirements. The transparency and oversight will allow for genuine meritocracy for university entrance.

  • Sumi Allen

    Affirmative Action is racist- and I’m confirming it with these 2013 California STAR exams for high school Juniors by race. White people, aka. “status quo” are very threatened because they screwed around instead of learning integrated math and algebra. They did it to themselves…

    Asian STAR scores 2013 – most percentage in this group weighed most at the top.

    Blacks STAR scores 2013- more than 30% of sophomores and juniors performed less than basic on math/algebra scores but the majority of scores here says they gravitated towards the center, or average.

    Over 40% of Hispanics scored less than basic proficiency on the STAR 2013 exams.
    And language is no excuse. I’ve had Ohio State Calculus TAs teach us College Business Algebra through numbers only as he spoke fluent Japanese and understood absolutely no English (we had to pass the exams anyways).

    Caucasians are scoring WITH Hispanics. Juniors in high school are 40% BELOW PROFICIENCY at integrated math and algebra.

  • Sumi Allen

    Instead of discriminating against people who earned their academic creds, Caucasians (esp in California?) should stop doing drugs in class and apply themselves in school? Business won’t thrive on nepotism- and Asians are facing undeserved consequences that won’t fix anything.

  • Sumi Allen

    Yin and Lam- YOU are going to go with affirmative action by sacrificing YOUR job and shelter for their benefit. I was sacrificed for it, I suffered financial hardships- I did nothing wrong and I don’t have a trust fund to fall back on you stupid psycho twisted @$$holes.

  • Sumi Allen


    93 million are no longer in the work force and the garbage government in the U.S. is aiding and abetting generational theft.

    Oh btw, public school teachers are not allowed to give a latino any grade less than a “C”. And jobs are only gotten by what? Nepotism? Asian immigrants haven’t brought enough jobs or investments to create jobs to have any influence- so you’re really maliciously killing welfare for people who actually earned our potential in society.

    Yin and Lam, are nasty vile backstabbing thieves. Please don’t speak on behalf of all Asians.

  • Roland W

    an “uncle tom” asian who supports the discrimination against his /her own race won an essay contest sponsored by non-asians. I’m laughing at the “credibility’ of this essay.

  • Roland W

    your comment is not only ignorant, but racist. Asians are not smart? an asians are naive?? what race are you?