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The Carletonian

Asian-Americans in Higher Education: A Perspective on Affirmative Action

When the words Asian-American and education are combined in any way, a familiarly stereotypical image of a hardworking, intelligent and high-achieving student may come to mind. This is exactly the image evoked in the discourse of the affirmative action debate, which has firmly placed Asian-Americans at center stage. Anti-affirmative action activists allege that efforts by universities to diversify their campuses have come at the expense of Asian-Americans—according to their narrative, Asian-Americans are so dominant academically that certain universities have started to implement soft quotas through unfairly high expectations. 

On January 24, the Supreme Court agreed to take on two cases that challenge the constitutionality of affirmative action and race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. In the case against the University of North Carolina, plaintiffs argued that the policies discriminate against white and Asian applicants by giving preference to Black, Hispanic and Native American ones. The Harvard case also makes accusations of discrimination against Asian-American students due to its subjective standards that gauge traits like likability, courage and kindness. 

On the surface, these arguments seem to be advocating for Asian-American interests. However, to say that no bias against Asian-American candidates was involved at all in admissions processes would seem to be a naïve statement. After all, while there are cultural ideas that portray Asians in a positive light, there are also perceived traits that cause plenty of harm. Asian-Americans are often assumed to be quiet and submissive, aligning with an unpopular “nerd” or “geek” image. College admissions advisors have openly admitted that they work with Asian-American students to seem less “Asian” on their applications, such as by encouraging them not to write about their passions for violin or math in order to avoid subscribing to existing stereotypes. While excelling at a musical instrument may make, say, a white candidate more compelling, an Asian student doing the same may earn them the labels of being “boring” or “typical” instead. 

Yet, as an Asian-American student myself, I hold significant reservations about the idea that affirmative action is truly our enemy. Namely, the rhetoric surrounding the Asian-Americans within these arguments rarely addresses the heterogeneity of Asian-American experiences in higher education. Sure, aggregated statistics show that Asian-Americans graduate from college at the highest rate compared to other racial and ethnic groups and score higher on the SAT/ACT; however, these oversimplified statistics fail to capture the variation among different Asian-American subgroups. For example, while Indian Americans, Mongolian Americans and Taiwanese Americans have college attendance rates at around 85 percent, Bhutanese Americans and Burmese Americans attend college at 15 percent and 34 percent, respectively. These disparities can be attributed to the fact that Asian-Americans face the highest wealth disparity of any racial group within the United States—according to a report from the Pew Research Center, Asian-Americans in the top 10 percent of the income distribution earned up to 10.7 times as much as Asian-Americans in the poorest 10 percent.

Thus, abolishing affirmative action would not seem to benefit Asian-American communities. It would significantly disadvantage socioeconomically underprivileged Asian-Americans who do not have access to test-prep resources or high-quality extracurricular opportunities. Moreover, eliminating race-conscious admissions would inhibit Asian-American applicants—and all applicants in general—from conveying any part of their identity that relates to their race, which can include cultural heritage or immigrant upbringing. While some have argued that emphasizing socio-economic status instead could help remedy this issue, it would still prevent applicants from articulating the intersectionality of their experiences. Of course, affirmative action admissions policies possess flaws that can come at the detriment of Asian-American students and are not sufficient as a standalone solution to systemic barriers to higher education. With that said, abolishing affirmative action entirely seems to be counter-productive. These policies, along with reforms, can still be used as indispensable assets to marginalized groups, which include less well-off Asian-American groups and communities. 

Ultimately, the rhetoric employed by anti–affirmative action activists continues to implicitly peddle the model minority myth—a widespread perception of universal success among Asian-Americans. By only spotlighting high-achieving and successful Asian-American students, it furthers the perception that Asian-Americans are monolithically well-off. This overgeneralization is often used as a way to downplay the role of racism in the struggles of other communities. In fact, the Model Minority Myth has historically been used as a racial wedge between Asian and Black Americans. By asserting that the anti-Asian discrimination within admissions is a direct result of preferential treatment to Black, Hispanic and Native American students, it only further pits Asian-Americans against other people of color. By creating a false scapegoat, this also shifts accountability away from the predominantly-white college admissions officers, conveniently overlooking the fact that many of the harmful stereotypes surrounding Asian-Americans—such as Yellow Peril—originated as tools for white supremacy.

The Model Minority Myth rhetoric also results in the neglect of existing issues of marginalization that Asian communities still face, especially those within the educational sphere. Due to false perceptions that they are destined for success, less academic support and counseling opportunities may be given to struggling or underachieving Asian-American students. More importantly, the Model Minority Myth also creates key misconceptions surrounding Asian-American representation in the academic world. For example, a Hmong American PhD student was rejected for a fellowship after being told by a committee that she did not fulfill the “Racial/Ethnic Underrepresentation” criteria—yet, according to the Center for American Progress, only 14 percent of Hmong Americans have a bachelor’s degree or higher. As a result, policies such as the data disaggregation of statistics regarding Asian-American populations are incredibly important to address the diverse needs of different subgroups, which can vary significantly. 

With the release of Carleton’s IDE draft plan, it is also important to keep in mind the true meaning of “underrepresentation” on our campus as it pertains to Asian-American populations. For example, there are only four Hmong students at Carleton, which is a ridiculously small number considering that Minnesota is believed to have the largest Hmong population in America. In the formulation of strategies that aim to make our institution more equitable, it is imperative that we highlight the inherent variety of voices within the Asian-American student body and ensure that particularly underrepresented subgroups—such as Hmong students—are not drowned out in the conversation.

At the end of the day, it is likely that the Supreme Court’s decision will rule against race-conscious affirmative action policies due to a strong conservative majority. If the case ruling results in the complete abolishing of those policies, it may not be the victory for Asian-Americans that some may portray it to be. 

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