By Janelle Wong
As a college professor, I study the Asian American experience and teach students about the exclusion of Chinese Americans historically and the everyday racism they continue to confront today. I not only convey this history to my students, I also teach my son, age 10, about the racial hostilities that have colored the Asian American experience in the United States, from the racial mobs that attacked Chinese immigrants in my own hometown of Yuba City-Marysville, CA, in 1886 to the racially-motivated murder of Vincent Chin, which occurred when I was 10 years old myself.
As a Chinese American parent of two young children, I can relate to the aspirations that other Asian Americans have for their children. So I have followed closely a debate about whether Asian Americans support affirmative action. This debate, both within and outside of the Asian American community, was sparked by the release of new data on the topic in a recent Field Poll (Times Op-Ed 9/25/14) showing a majority of Asian Americans in California support affirmative action (Pasadena Star 10/4/2014). The debate turns on the wording of survey questions, but more broadly on whether considering race and in higher education admissions policies disadvantages Asian Americans (LA Times Op-Ed 10/1/2014).
In my view, too much of the debate over race-conscious college admissions policies centers on a very narrow conception of “disadvantage” and an even narrower conception of who constitutes the Asian American community. Hmong, Cambodian, and Bhutanese Americans, all Asian in origin and all underrepresented in higher education, certainly benefit under affirmative action policies. But more importantly, contemporary affirmative action policies do not create a cap on admission slots for any Asian Americans. The Supreme Court long ago declared that no admissions policy can create quotas for any group. It also made clear that race can only be used as one of an array of other factors in college and university admissions. The modern race-conscious affirmative action policies currently under consideration do not change these legal principles. For example, a proposed policy in California simply lifts the ban on using race as one of many other factors that can be considered together, holistically, in admissions.
A stance against race-conscious admissions policies may hurt the educational experience of our Asian American children in ways that are unanticipated by opponents of affirmative action. Opponents of affirmative action in college admissions are seen as narrowly self-interested. Asian Americans who oppose affirmative action are condemned as hoarders of privilege who do not care about any group but their own. I don’t want that for my children as they learn to live and try to contribute to a multicultural nation. An important advantage of admissions policies that consider race is that they help to create a more inclusive and just educational system for all of us. Surely that will be an advantage, not a disadvantage, for my Chinese American children.
Many Asian American parents, elected representatives, and advocacy groups believe that racial inequality in our colleges and universities should be addressed by increasing funding to the worst performing K-12 schools, creating incentives to attract better teachers to the these schools, directing more tax dollars to higher education to open more seats, and admitting more low-income students, regardless of race, into our colleges and universities. I, too, strongly support all of these measures. We can and should take more than one approach to addressing educational disparities, because even with class-based affirmative action in place, we still see tremendous racial disparities in university acceptance rates.
We all want to improve the educational system for our children. But banning any consideration of race in university admission policies will not accomplish that goal and may very well disadvantage us in the long run.
Janelle Wong is Director of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Maryland, College Park and co-author of Asian American Political Participation: Emerging Constituents and Their Political Identities