The dichotomy of Asian Americans in relevance to affirmative action, the policy of actively favoring members of discriminated races through educational and employment opportunities, is especially unique in today’s political climate. Conservatives generally detest affirmative action because it is naturally designed to benefit minorities; however, such affirmative action policies have also been connected to the capping and discriminating against Asian Americans––one of the most politically liberal minorities in US history.
This debate was recently reinvigorated when the Trump administration reopened and began investigating a 2014 allegation made by a group of Asian Americans dismissed by the Obama administration. This allegation claimed that Harvard was engaging in “unlawful discriminatory admissions.” Such admissions were alleged to cap high-achieving Asian Americans and thus set them at a higher standard than other races, a practice that the group claimed violated Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. The investigation, which began last October, continues to this day, and according to CNN, the lawsuit could go to trial in Boston as early as this summer. Thus, we must ask ourselves a question: as Asians headed for life in America, should we embrace or reject the concept of affirmative action?
The answer to this question seems clear––at least at first. There are distinct problems in the way that colleges consider Asians and Asian Americans that cannot be ignored. Colleges seem to hold a mantra that suggests we project our self-identities by, in part, proving that we are not like other Asians. Simultaneously, Asians need to score significantly higher than blacks or whites to be considered for the same applicant pool. This type of rhetoric and system cuts dangerously close to intentional racial prejudice.
Still, while there are tangible problems to the current system, we must also fend off the blanket perception that “affirmative action” is intrinsically harmful. There are overlooked reasons for why affirmative action is necessary in the US, along with potential benefits for even Asian Americans in the long run.
First of all, whether we like to admit it or not, racial balancing is important to society. The US rests on a principle of cultural diversity, and as the cornerstone of education, its colleges should reflect that. In Caltech, where state law bans racial preferences, Asian enrollment is at 43 percent––a percentage that inexorably exceeds the percentage of Asian Americans in California, let alone all of America. While this is great news for Asians, in the big picture, this figure is disproportionate and fails to accurately represent the diversity of the US.
Furthermore, it is important to realize that talks of affirmative action are not only relevant to higher education. As judicial reviews begin to rule in favor of affirmative action in colleges, talks of affirmative action policy have started to include the workplace. Unlike in colleges, Asians are severely underrepresented in workplace leadership positions. A recent study of Silicon Valley’s tech industry showed that while Asian Americans make up 27.2 percent of the professionals in tech, they comprise only 13.9 percent of executives. Essentially, Asian Americans are facing a “bamboo ceiling,” which prevents them from rising to the top, much like many other minorities. In such cases, affirmative action for leadership positions could potentially be significantly beneficial.
Many Asians in America and internationally may initially be relieved that someone, even if it’s the Trump administration, is finally fighting for them in the educational field. Still, we must ask ourselves whether the administration is investigating Harvard because it genuinely cares about the wellbeing of Asian Americans in society, or whether they are simply using Asian Americans as a prop to break down a liberal institution.
As an international Asian American student, I sympathize wholeheartedly with the perspective that Asians are ostracized in an academic environment. We must be mindful, however, of where the problem truly lies, where our so-called handicaps are actually a boon, and where our unique situation is simply being used as a prop to further an ulterior motive.