a few notes on Asian Americans and affirmative action

Writing about affirmative action, as I did the other day, invites some tricky questions about race and socioeconomic equality. I want to take a moment and respond to a little pushback I received along those lines.

1. As Andrew Sullivan himself notes in that piece I was reacting to, despite widespread conservative insistence, Asian Americans are not consistently opposed to race-based affirmative action. As with most polling, the way you phrase the question makes a big difference. But in lots of polls, in healthy majorities, Asian Americans support race-based affirmative action.

2. I have no doubt that Asian Americans suffer from racism and oppression in this country. No doubt at all. However, they don’t suffer from systematic exclusion from American colleges in general or from elite colleges specifically. On the contrary: in both cases, Asian Americans represent a higher percentage of college students than they do the population writ large. And this was true in the UC system even before Prop 209, now commonly represented as a means to address terrible discrimination against Asian American students in California:

That graphic does demonstrate a system-wide inequality of access. But it’s not for Asian American students.

The story is similar with American Jewish students. Of course anti-Semitism is a real and prevalent phenomenon of American life. But it does not result in systematic exclusion of Jewish students from college, generally or in elite colleges. For this conversation, that’s the essential question: are affirmative action policies effectively excluding the groups that conservatives say they are? No. Even with these systems, we’ve hardly eliminated glaringly disproportionate outcomes in access to college. It’s bizarre to look at systems that result in dramatic under-representation of some groups and say that provisions intended to help those groups are unfair, particularly when those provisions are inadequate to the task.

3. Some would say that the point is not to look at racial groups as a whole but at the burden for any individual student– is it harder for an Asian American student to get into Harvard than for a black student? Again, I insist that you look at outcomes rather than just procedures. If the only thing in the world that determined whether you could get into college was the whims of admissions officers, then maybe I’d be opposed to affirmative action. But of course that’s not true. We know that poverty makes it harder for individual students to succeed academically. We know that having parents who didn’t go to college themselves makes it harder. In a world where parent income and parent education level are so stratified by race, why do these not amount to corruptions of a supposedly race-neutral system? It’s such a strangely deracinated, selective way to consider the question, and in a manner which results in the same old inequalities. Which suggests a certain resistance to reducing those inequalities.

4. These discussions always involve deeply unsophisticated discussions of the accuracy and fairness of our systems of educational assessment. They presume that standardized tests and grades can be objective and separated from socioeconomic context. But standardized tests, far from eliminating received advantage, typically multiply it. Their results are also subject to corruption and political influence. Ron Unz, published of The American Conservative and committed opponent of affirmative action, is a good example. He has written that China’s Gaokao system is some sort of meritocratic ideal, free from corruption or cheating, which is so wildly, willfully misinformed it should pretty much disqualify him from being taken seriously on this topic.

5. “Asian American” is of course a big, not-very-useful category. If we’re having a conversation about inequality of access for Asian Americans, we could talk about the Cambodian Americans and Laotian Americans who suffer on a variety of demographic and social metrics compare to Asian Americans writ large. But then I guess that’s not being “race neutral” in the way that affirmative action opponents mean.

6. It’s common to propose class-based affirmative action as an alternative. I’d support such a plan on pure political efficacy grounds, but only if it still results in increased equality of access for black and Hispanic students. If it doesn’t, then it’s not addressing the deep social problems that it was designed to address and can’t meaningfully reduce our centuries-old racial inequality. If it does function as a de facto system of racial affirmative action, do we think that will prevent the usual suspects from complaining, from filing law suits, from talking about institutional racism, etc? Please.

We’ve got massive racial inequality in this country. It’s not slowly getting better, no matter how much we may want to believe that’s true. We could address that directly, through reparations or through market socialism. People don’t want that. OK. We can try the piecemeal, indirect approach of affirmative action. People don’t want that either. We can try the same old failed ed reform efforts, which have failed again and again to solve racial inequality, and in so doing privatize our public education system and make the quality of life of our teachers far worse. Or people can stop pretending they care about racial inequality.

7. If we really want to worry about competition for scarce admissions for Asian Americans, we should worry about competition from international students from Asia, not from black and Hispanic students who get an affirmative action bump. Thanks to spiraling college costs, driven by the explosion in administrative costs and frivolous physical expansion (dorms, gyms, dining halls), the desire for more international students — and accompanying higher tuition and fees — is insatiable. If Asian American students are losing out to Asian international students, is that a condition that opponents of affirmative action should worry about? How about white domestic students? Is it OK to set explicit quotas of international students, as many colleges and universities do? If so, why? Why is it OK for a Chinese kid from Beijing to face higher standards than a kid of Chinese ancestry from San Luis Obispo? What makes a preference for domestic students ethical but a preference for a student body that reflects the diversity of our society writ large unethical?

I have no idea what the answers to these questions are, in large measure because opponents of affirmative action have such a selective and illogical attitude towards race and opportunity.