August 3, 2005
Asian Americans and Affirmative ActionBy James Chen
As a civil rights activist and Republican Cabinet member, Arthur Fletcher had a long and distinguished career as an advisor to Republican Presidents from Richard Nixon to George H.W Bush. Fletcher, who died last month at the age of 80, was known as the 'Father of Affirmative Action' from his pioneering work as Assistant Secretary of Labor during the late 1960s.
As executive director of the United Negro College Fund in the mid—1970s, he was credited with coining the slogan, 'A mind is a terrible thing to waste.' For college—bound Asian—American students, it's a catchphase that serves as an ironic reminder of his Affirmative Action legacy.
In today's highly—competitive college admissions environment, many Asian—American students are discovering that Affirmative Action and other race—based quota systems are wreaking havoc on their higher education plans. For some time now, Asian—American students have been subject to discrimination in the college admissions process as selective schools try to limit their numbers under the guise of "diversity". These policies have far—reaching implications for Asian—American students, who are responding in creative and sometimes odd ways to get around these barriers.
In Northern California's Bay Area, this phenomenon is often referred to as the "Lowell effect", named after Lowell High School, a top—rated San Francisco high school whose students are predominantly Asian—American. Parents of college—bound children in nearby areas with large concentrations of Asian students such as Fremont and Alameda have also noticed this trend. In an effort to make their children stand out, some have responded by moving their families to predominantly white suburbs further inland or enrolling their children in lower—performing inner city schools whose students are mostly black and Hispanic.
Other roadblocks exist, not the least being the "Asian nerd" stereotype that persists on college campuses and in admissions offices. While some argue that the image of studious, piano—playing and mathematically—inclined Asian students is somewhat positive, the overall consensus among college admissions directors has been that Asian—American students are not as well—rounded as their non—Asian counterparts.
The Washington Post recently reported on Asian—American college applicants who have successfully applied these strategies:
However, there are limitations to these approaches, as the elite colleges appear to have set ceilings on overall Asian—American enrollment as well. Many Asian—American parents believe that their children are merely jockeying among themselves for the limited number of spaces allocated to them by college admissions officers. Other factors, most notably the declining number of white students choosing to study technical fields such as math, science and engineering, may also be working in tandem against them. According to Asian—American parents, the most noticeable effect of this shift has been the decrease the number of slots available to their children in non—technical fields.
Their reasoning goes like this: to compensate for lower numbers of white students studying math, science and engineering, colleges must accept more technically—inclined Asian students to take their place. But if the overall number of Asian—American students is capped at a certain level, then a relatively high percentage of Asians majoring in technical subjects needs to be offset by a correspondingly low percentage allowed to major in non—technical subjects. Paradoxically, ceilings on Asian—American enrollment may then actually perpetuate the 'Asian nerd' stereotype by prompting colleges to admit more Asian students majoring in technical subjects.
The net effect of demographics and racial quotas has been the academic 'ghettoization' of many select colleges and universities. An observer needs only to walk into an electrical engineering classroom at Michigan or UCLA to see this effect in real life.
As recent developments show, these trends in college admissions policies towards Asian—Americans have resulted in unintended consequences. In a backlash noted by the Washington Post, SAT takers and college applicants are increasingly refusing to identify themselves by race. A significant number of those who decline to state their race are Asian—American, according to the Washington Post:
With 'Decline to State Race' now a viable option, some Asian—Americans would seem to have a built—in advantage in the college admissions process. With the increase in racially—mixed marriages—a majority of American—born Asian women now choose to marry white men—a growing number of Asian—American applicants have European surnames which disguise their Asian heritage. With more than one—in—four Asian—American children of college age having one white parent, it stands to reason that a significant percentage of Asian/white mixed—race college applicants would either choose to classify themselves as 'white' or be identified as such for admissions purposes. Data from the 2000 US Census shows that roughly half of mixed—race Asian—white children identified themselves as 'white'.
Native—born Filipino—Americans would appear to have an even greater admissions advantage, as their Spanish—surnames may mislead college admissions offices into believing that they are Hispanic. Similarly, Chinese—American applicants with ethnically ambiguous surnames such as 'Young' or 'Shaw' or adoptees from Asia may increase their chances for admission merely by rendering hazy their ethnic origins.
As these examples make clear, Asian—Americans' attempts to circumvent quotas rely primarily on overturning demographic factors. But despite these efforts, evidence is mounting that the cumulative result of discriminatory quotas against Asians is powerful cascading—effect that results in Asian—American applicants having a higher standard for admission at all levels of college selectivity.
Still, asking some Indian—American kid from Fremont, California to spend 4 years in Kalamazoo (MI) or Valparaiso (IN), or at a nearby college where she is overqualified is small consolation to the tens of thousands of students negatively affected by Affirmative Action policies over the past 30 years. To judge by the current responses of Asian—American parents, this is neither a feasible solution—many do not feel comfortable sending their children to faraway schools in the Midwest—nor a desirable outcome.
When Arthur Fletcher set out to create a remedy for racial discrimination, he probably had no intention for his system of 'good faith efforts' towards the hiring of minority construction workers to result in systematic bias against Asian—American students. Although the Supreme Court has established that race can be used as a factor in admissions decisions (Grutter v. Bollinger), colleges will soon be forced to make even more difficult choices, such as whether to apply the 'One—Drop Rule' to the growing number of mixed—race Asians, or to continue relaxing entrance standards—such as abolishing use of the SAT—to maintain racial balance. Given that Asians are the second fastest—growing ethnic group in the America (behind Hispanics, according to Census 2000 data), those decisions should be coming sooner rather than later.
James Chen is proprietor of the blog Where Have you Gone, Joe DiMaggio?