Asian Americans and Affirmative Action

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.
While it is common knowledge that Asian students face higher admissions standards than any other racial group, the most frequently cited problems for college—bound Asian—Americans are the invisible college admissions quotas applied to high schools whose student bodies have large numbers of Asians.  Because of the overabundance of high—performing Asian students, many educators and parents believe that top schools such as Stanford, Princeton and UC Berkeley willfully restrict the number of admits from high schools with an disproportionate number of Asian students.  It is alleged that these colleges surreptitiously favor students from schools in predominantly white, suburban areas in the admissions process.

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.
This criticism has prompted Asian—American college applicants to present themselves in ways considered to be atypical of Asian applicants.  For some, this means participation in activities such as varsity sports and theater arts, or concentrating on areas of study other than math and the sciences.  Many college admissions counselors routinely advise their Asian applicants to state their intent to major in the liberal arts or social sciences, and to participate in non—academic extracurricular activities regardless of their interest in these areas.

The Washington Post recently reported on Asian—American college applicants who have successfully applied these strategies:

Robert Shaw, an educational consultant based in Garden City, N.Y., was working with a very bright Chinese American student who feared the Ivy League would not notice her at New Jersey's Holmdel High, where 22 percent of the students were Asian American, and she was only in the top 20 percent of her high—scoring class.

So, Shaw said, she and her parents took his daring advice to change their address. They moved 10 miles north to Keyport, N.J., where the average SAT score was 300 points lower and there were almost no Asians. She also entered, at his suggestion, the Miss Teen New Jersey contest, not a typical activity for the budding scholar.

It worked, Shaw said. His client became class valedictorian, won the talent portion of the Miss Teen competition playing piano and got into Yale and MIT.

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:

Many applicants, though, say they omitted their ethnicity as a deliberate slap at a system they believe is rigged against them.

Tao Tan, a high school senior from Plainsboro, N.J., said he supports affirmative action "in theory." But when it comes to college admissions, he was convinced that too many of his competitors were "gouging the system" by highlighting tenuous family connections that might allow them to portray themselves as black or Hispanic.

Tan, 17, was convinced that admissions officers would hold him "to a higher standard" if he indicated he was Asian. So he didn't. "My name is not as Chinese as Chang or Lee," said Tan, who will attend Cornell University. "I picture them sitting in their offices scratching their heads: 'Is he African? Is he Asian?' "

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.
Under this scenario, the top—tier schools only admit a reduced number of Asian—American students whose overall admissions criteria are higher than the general pool of students. Second—tier schools are then compelled to choose between having more Asian students in their classes (under a color—blind standard), or using quotas to reach their 'diversity' goals. The second—tier schools will usually choose the latter, and so the effects cascade to the third—tier schools and so on down the undergraduate ladder. Thus, a quota to reduce the number of Asian students at the upper—tier of colleges has a net effect of moving all Asian students down a level in terms of college selectivity.
In their defense of quotas, some supporters of Affirmative Action have noted that Asian—American students have plenty of options available to them.  Among them are looking beyond the Ivy League and the upper—echelon of state universities such as the University of California and small colleges such as Amherst.  Often, they point out that the Midwest has many excellent small colleges such as Oberlin and Grinnell that appear to welcome Asian—American applicants.  Others such as Washington Post education columnist Jay Mathews tell Asian—Americans to look at the bright side of things while reminding us that life isn't always fair:

I am convinced that one reason why well—reasoned complaints have not led to massive demonstrations and legislative reform is that the students of Asian descent who are rejected by the Ivies get educations just as good in other colleges. College admissions cannot be fair for anyone when, as happens at some schools, there are ten applicants for every place in the freshman class.

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?