Recently, a lawsuit against Harvard University has brought national attention to the issue of affirmative action. While the lawsuit has spurred contentious debate between proponents and opponents, there is a lack of coverage regarding the application of affirmative action. Regardless of whether affirmative action is just or not, I find that the status quo application is inconsistent and leaves much to be desired.
There are many justifications for affirmative action, the most prevalent being that it addresses structural disadvantages attributable to race. As President Andrew Johnson famously noted, you cannot start someone behind another person in a race and call it a fair competition. Personally, I find this justification fairly compelling; as an Asian American, I have been afforded certain privileges that African American students may not enjoy (i.e. when dealing with authority figures such as police).
However, while this standard may justify why certain groups (i.e. non-Asian minorities) are entitled to certain reparations within the application system, it doesn’t justify Asians being placed at the top of the spectrum i.e. having to consistently score higher than Caucasians. Among all SAT ranges, Asians have the lowest admission rates.
Very few to no scholars would argue that being white is a racial disadvantage in America, and fewer would argue that Asians enjoy a lesser degree of stereotyping than Caucasians. So, if we applied this standard, then we ought to hold Caucasians to the highest standard, followed by Asians/other minority groups instead of Asians, then Caucasians, and finally other minority groups.
Many have attempted to counter this argument by introducing a second standard, that of diversity. They argue that there educational merit to attending school with students from diverse cultural backgrounds.
I agree with the above statement but what this statement fails to differentiate is inter- and intra- diversity. Inter is diversity between groups (Asian versus American, etc.) and intra within groups (i.e. not all Asians are the same). I believe that distinguishing based on race is neither sufficient nor effective in achieving true diversity.
For instance, assume there are two groups: group A contains two students who both went to private boarding schools, are from stable, well off households, and have had their fair share of opportunities while group B contains one student just like the two described in group A and another who is the child of immigrant parents, came to America when they were extremely young, and often had to work after school to support the household instead of participating in extracurriculars. For the sake of example, pretend the racial distribution in group A is an American and an African American student and that both students in group B are Asian Americans.
Is group A truly more diverse than group B? If diversity is defined strictly as “skin tone,” sure. But if diversity is not skin deep and defined by unique life experiences instead, group B would seem to be more truly diverse.
Opponents will counter, “what about cultural differences between groups. Surely, race is relevant especially if we want to ensure cultural as opposed to academic diversity.” However, even if we adopt the aim of cultural diversity, the argument for inter diversity remains problematic. For example, there are many Asian American families who have been in the United States for generations and identify more with Western Culture than Asian. Similarly, there are many Caucasian families who have lived overseas and engrained themselves in a culture that many wouldn’t have expected them to identify with.
When considering cultural diversity, wouldn’t it make more sense to judge applicants from what culture they actually grew up with as opposed to the one they’re socially stereotyped into?
Finally, I also don’t think schools will become overrun with Asian students if we just let a few more in. Currently Asians constitute around 15-20% of a typical student body. If we increased their representation by 10% there would be many more Asians certainly, but they would still be a minority group.
This brings up the last issue, that of overrepresentation, which argues that Asians are a significantly larger part of the student body than they are of the population.
While this may be a valid concern, I don’t think this is due to race. While Asians are often objectified as “human calculators,” among other things, I don’t believe that anyone actually thinks that Asians are born with an innate ability to do calculus. Similarity, I don’t think anyone seriously believes that someone got into college solely because they are Asian and not due to other factors such as hard work.
Personally, I don’t know why Asians score higher. Maybe it’s the culture, which places a high emphasis on education. Maybe it’s something else.
But I think there are more nuanced ways to categorize students than just race. For instance, students could be divided into income groups as well as race. I’m speculating here, but maybe first generation, low income Asians are underrepresented whereas high income Asians who have U.S. citizenship are overrepresented. If all the subsets of a racial group are categorized together, then we allow those overrepresented within groups to mask those underrepresented.
If we do decide that affirmative action is the most egalitarian policy, then at the very least, we ought to rethink how we implement it.
 Princeton professor Thomas Espenshade and his collaborator Alexandria Radford in their 2009 book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal.