The Department of Justice is threatening to sue Harvard for discrimination against Asian-Americans in application for admission. Austin Jia, an Asian-American student, had a near-perfect GPA and an impressive leadership record, but he was rejected while his classmates with lower test scores and poorer extracurriculars were admitted. The case is likely to reach the Supreme Court, and represents a recognition of the decades of Asian-American complaints of discrimination in college admissions. It is merely another demonstration of the failure of affirmative action.
Using education to level society is an admirable goal. But deciding a student’s admission by the color of his skin is lazy and simplistic. Race does not uniformly correspond to oppression. Though white people have historically enjoyed the most privilege in American society, to uniformly discriminate against them through affirmative action would be unfair. Not all white people are wealthy - though the poverty rate of white Americans is lower than their black and Hispanic counterparts, they are still the largest impoverished group in America. By only considering black or Hispanic students oppressed, college admissions officers fail to consider the plight of thousands of poor white students.
Additionally, not all white people have the same history: in fact many have faced similar oppression to other minorities. Jews, European immigrants, and Mestizo Latinos are all considered to be technically white, but have historically been denied jobs and education and viewed as inferior. These groups are doubly disadvantaged by affirmative action.
When applied to Asian Americans, affirmative action becomes even more regressive. Asian immigrants to the US are incredibly diverse, hailing from the “traditional” East Asian nations of China, Japan, and and Korea, as well as the Southeast Asian nations of Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Philippines. However, the US government arbitrarily lumps these distinct ethnicities under one ill-fitting label of Asian-American/Pacific Islander. Such homogenization is egregious given the stark contrasts in class and privilege that different Asian Americans face.
Certainly the children of wealthy and educated Asian-American families who recently emigrated from the highly developed nations of Japan, Korea, and Taiwan seem to deserve little help compared to poor African-American students from Chicago. But these upper-class Asians make up a minority of the Asian-American population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, immigrants from south central and southeastern Asia now form a combined 60.3% of all Asian immigrants, most of whom come from impoverished backgrounds in less-developed nations, such as Laos, Pakistan, and Cambodia. A study in New York City recently reported that immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos were much more likely to face economic hardship than immigrants from China and India, and wealth inequality among Asian-Americans is even more pronounced than among their white counterparts.
If the goal of affirmative action is to increase equality, wouldn’t it be better to selectively favor those from less-advantaged backgrounds rather than to broadly discriminate against all of these Asian immigrants? Even if colleges consider the first-generation status of poorer immigrants, they will inevitably select many upper-class Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Indian students for spots that might otherwise go to less-privileged southern Asians. This creates a vicious cycle - if Asians need to score 140 points higher than even white people, those who reach this threshold will necessarily be the members of the upper class who are able to attend elite private schools and afford private tutors instead of working late hours to support their family. This elite minority-within-a-minority will decrease diversity, explicitly excluding Asian students of lower classes who deserve an advantage in the system but instead receive a kick in the face.
The same bias exists within other minority communities. Those Latinos or Blacks who will surpass the admissions threshold are more likely to be wealthy, not the impoverished minorities that affirmative action proponents claim to help. This is why income diversity at Stanford and other Ivy Leagues is so low: regardless of any ethnic or racial diversity, the number of students in the top one percent of incomes exceeds the percentage of students in the bottom sixty percent. Many argue that considering income rather than race would harm elite universities' endowments, but affirmative action is simply an admissions policy. At least giving low-income students a better chance at difficult schools, even if their tax returns say they can’t pay for it, might grant them opportunities denied by race-based affirmative action.
If the intent of affirmative action is bridging income inequality, why rely on the indirect relationship between race and income, instead of income alone?
Even if the goal of affirmative action is not to bridge income gaps but to atone for previous racial wrongs, or compensate minorities for everyday racism, then it would still be wrong to disadvantage Asians in the college admissions process. Asian American suffering surely does not match slavery or the constant racial discrimination that black Americans have faced since its abolition. Yet Asians too have faced their share of racial violence. For four years during the Second World War, Japanese Americans were evicted from their homes and sent to detention camps; the internment was affirmed by the controversial Korematsu Supreme Court decision. Earlier, during the construction of the transcontinental railroad, the dehumanization of Chinese “coolie” workers met all the modern criteria of human trafficking. More recently, many Asian Americans were not allowed to become citizens until 1952, when the McCarran-Walter Act finally repealed the last remnants of the “free white persons” restriction of the 1790 Naturalization Act.
Yet despite this legacy of discrimination, the threshold for admissions test scores are unreasonably high for Asian applicants when compared with white applicants. Even if Asian Americans are somehow innately better at tests, as proponents of affirmative action seem to suggest, placing a ‘bamboo ceiling’ on the number of yearly Asian admits tells a racial minority that they are worth less than other groups.
Instead of uniformly condemning racial discrimination, proponents of affirmative action commodify previous historical offenses by arbitrarily deciding the extent of reparations for each. Tragedies such as the removal of Native Americans from indigenous soil, or the abomination of slavery, are assigned higher point values in the Oppression Olympics. Meanwhile other cases of racial injustice, such as Japanese internment or the coolie trade, rather than being compensated at all, are met with further legalized discrimination.
Proponents of affirmative action only seem to care about the oppressed races that constitute their political constituencies. Asians are not a major voting demographic and are generally unwilling to oppose affirmative action, while other minority groups are significantly more politically active. The only state with a significant Asian political constituency, California, outlawed affirmative action in public universities in 1996. On a national scale, there has been no similar mobilization against racism. Affirmative action proponents’ righteous claims of remedying racial injustice thus ring suspiciously hollow.
The persistence of failed race-based affirmative action only demonstrates that its proponents care more about being re-elected than genuinely helping the disadvantaged. Ensuring social equity over time is a worthy goal, and one that universities are crucial to achieving. But income, ethnic, and geographical differences are all better equipped to tackle opportunity gaps than race. Affirmative action, in its quest to bridge gaps, fosters doubt among minority students and resentment among majority students. It arbitrarily elevates some minorities, while leaving others in need of assistance. If politicians and universities truly care about fostering equality of opportunity, they should support all disadvantaged constituencies, not only those who vote for them.
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that Austin Jia is suing Harvard University. It should have read that the Department of Justice is threatening to sue Harvard.