‘Invisible’: Some Asian Americans say admissions decision is no victory
After Harvard University rejected Calvin Yang’s application, he joined the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against affirmative action in college admissions. When the Supreme Court sided with him Thursday, the 21-year-old rising junior at University of California Berkeley told reporters that the ruling was the start of “a new chapter in the saga of the history of Asian Americans in this country.” Mike Zhao of the Asian American Coalition for Education, echoed the idea, called the ruling “a sweet but long-fought victory for the Asian community.”
Attorneys for Students for Fair Admissions, which sued Harvard and the University of North Carolina, say the schools discriminate. They argued the schools turn away droves of Asian Americans with excellent grades and test scores, because admitting all the qualified applicants would leave their student bodies racially unbalanced.
But the decision has exposed a rift inside the Asian American community, parts of which say they benefit from affirmative action and support a tool that also helped African Americans and Latinos. In those quarters, the ruling drew anger, sadness and condemnation from those who say Asian Americans college applicants are often the marginalized students that race-conscious admissions were designed to help. Those include refugees who hail from Southeast Asia and their descendants, like those in the Hmong, Cambodian and Vietnamese communities.
Without race-conscious admissions, schools will have to rely more on grades, extra-curriculars and test scores, markers on which less-well-off Asian Americans don’t always stand out, they say. Several Asian American civil rights groups filed friend-of-the-court briefs defending race-conscious admissions policies.
“It’s very clear that Southeast Americans were absolutely made strategically to be invisible in this case,” said Quyen Dinh, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center. Dinh was a first generation college student from a low-income household, the daughter of refugees from Vietnam. “It really has been a challenge to paint a different picture of Asian American communities, including Asian Americans who still face so many barriers to obtaining our higher education, overcoming a trauma of war, of genocide, poverty [and] racism.”
A Washington Post analysis found that of the states that banned affirmative action, several saw a rise in Asian and White student representation on college campuses and a corresponding drop in the proportion of Latino and Black students. In California, where an affirmative action ban took effect in 1998, the analysis shows AAPI representation at UCLA and University of California Berkeley rose and remained high through the following decade. But the benefits have been unequal: Even as AAPI students remain overrepresented in the University of California system, certain groups — including Filipinos, Native Hawaiians and Guamanians — are underrepresented.
In a friend-of-the-court brief, Asian Americans Advancing Justice argued that race-conscious admissions is important for groups without access to many of the things that make higher-income Asian Americans competitive: weekend math classes, SAT tutors and top-flight public high schools.
“The relative prevalence of poverty among Southeast Asian Americans, for example, impairs their ability to invest resources in their children’s academic success to the same extent as wealthier communities,” they wrote. “Many in the Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander and Southeast Asian communities lack access to college preparatory resources which results in lower than average college completion rates.”
Critics of the decision also said diversity benefits everyone — not just students of color. Sarah Zhang, a 20-year-old rising junior at UNC-Chapel Hill who is interning on the Hill the summer, said she grew up in Bucks County, outside Philadelphia, the daughter of Chinese immigrants. She was frequently the only person of color in her classes at her high school, where Black students made up around 1 percent of the student body. So when she started looking at colleges, she intentionally sought out one with more racial diversity. UNC-Chapel Hill fit the bill.
“I wanted to apply to schools that were diverse and schools that would expose you to students’ perspectives that I hadn’t heard before,” said Zhang. Racial diversity, she said, is an asset to students of all races. When she learned her school was being sued by Asians who opposed race-conscious admissions policies, she founded, with other Asian American students, the Affirmative Action Coalition. “Itwas very frustrating to know that we were being used as a wedge in between races … especially in the time when I feel like there’s a lot of lack of solidarity between communities.”
By many measures, Asian Americans are considered successful as a whole, surpassing White Americans in median household income and college degree attainment. For that reason and many others, some hold them up as proof that racial minorities can succeed in the United States. This “model minority” notion has been used as a cudgel against Black Americans and Latinos who argue that systemic racism is holding them back.
Yet the “model minority” concept obscures a complicated picture. Immigrants from Asian countries arrive with vastly different experiences and resources, and thus have vastly different outcomes when it comes to household income and education.
Asian Americans are the most economically divided racial group, with a yawning gap separating the most affluent and the poorest of them.
Nearly one in five Hmong households and one in four Mongolian households fell below the poverty line, according to a Pew Research Center report that analyzed 2019 data. Compare that with Indian American households, where only 6 percent live in poverty. The same report found that more than half of Asian Americans ages 25 and older have bachelor’s degrees, compared with a third of all Americans. But among Cambodians, who include refugees and their descendants, an equal percentage never graduated high school. Vietnamese, Burmese, Thai, Chinese, Korean, and Mongolian communities also have higher rates of limited English proficiency.
Kelly Ji, a rising sophomore at Pomona College in California, was among those demonstrating outside the Supreme Court on Thursday. Ji, who is Chinese American, grew up in Montgomery County frequently hearing that affirmative action put Asian Americans at a disadvantage. She came to see things differently.
“It makes me sad to a degree because it’s so clear that the Asian American community is being co-opted for the like furtherance of white supremacy,” Ji said. “People aren’t realizing that they’re being taken advantage of and their identity is being taken advantage of.”
A Washington Post-Schar poll conducted last year showed about two-thirds of Asian Americans would back a ban on universities using race in admissions. But an equal number said they thought “programs designed to increase the racial diversity of students on college campuses” were good. More than 40 percent of Asian respondents also said they believe Asian, Black and Hispanic college applicants face “an unfair disadvantage.”
The Supreme Court decision Thursday held Harvard and the University of North Carolina’s use of race in admissions to be unconstitutional. Both schools used race as part of a holistic review of applicants and argued it was one of many factors considered. The decision bars race-conscious admissions across the country and threatens broader efforts to diversify student bodies.
Students for Fair Admissions assembled the lawsuit by recruiting Asian Americans who had been rejected by Harvard and the University of North Carolina. One of the original plaintiffs was the son of Chinese immigrants who got a perfect score on the ACT, excelled at one of the nation’s top high schools and played tennis.
Lee Pao Xiong, director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University in St. Paul, said many of the refugees who arrived beginning in the early 1980s had little or no formal education and few things to call their own, having fled their homes. They are unlike the highly educated immigrants who arrive from India or China to work in Silicon Valley.
If the decision does benefit the Asian American community at large, “we will be left out,” Xiong said.
Nyrene Monforte contributed to this report"