Regular readers of this blog will know that mental health, depression and suicide within the Asian American community is a topic I write frequently about. My interest in this issue originates from my activism at Cornell University, where a task force I helped urge the administration to put together ultimately found that 13 out of 21 on-campus suicides (or 61%) between 1996-2006 involved Asian American students. Consistent with trends observed in the population at-large, college-aged students are most at-risk for death by suicide within the Asian American community.
Cornell has a reputation as a school where the student suicide rate is unusually high, but it also has the reputation as a school where depression, anxiety and self-harm are a public health priority. Since the publication of that original report on Cornell’s Asian American suicide deaths, the administration put together the Asian & Asian American Center as one of several resources geared specifically to address our vulnerable community.
Sadly, at most elite universities, mental health resources languish and suicide rate is intolerably high. MIT is another school that has a reputation for a significant student suicide rate. In the 2014-2015 school year alone, six students have died by suicide, and a professor has also died from self-inflicted injuries.
Since the publication in 2009 of his influential study (with co-author Alexandria Walton Radford) on admission patterns in the country’s elite private universities (“No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal”), Princeton researcher Thomas J. Espenshade’s data have been an oft-cited resource for the anti-affirmative action Right. In his study, Espenshade compiled GPA and SAT test scores for selective private institutions of higher education, and compared them to admission rates by race. He reported that Asian American applicants appeared to be admitted at a lower rate than White, Black or Latino peers with comparable quantitative scores. He then extrapolated that into SAT scores, concluding that a hypothetical Asian American student would require a theoretical extra 140 points on the SAT score to achieve the same probability of admission as a White peer, and a theoretical extra 450 SAT points to achieve the same probability of admission as a Black peer.
This finding has found its way into scores of anti-affirmative action articles, amicus briefs, lawsuits, and civil rights complaints. Most recently, it was cited as major evidence of anti-Asian bias during college admissions in the lawsuit filed by Students for Fair Admissions against UNC and Harvard by lobbyist Edward Blum. Espenshade also features prominently in the administrative complaint filed to the Civil Rights Office of the Department of Justice by 60 mostly Chinese American groups last Friday against Harvard University.
Espenshade’s work is meticulous and appears to show some sort of disadvantage for Asian American applicants to certain selective private universities; but too often, it has also been overinterpreted, misinterpreted, and misreported. Espenshade’s work is not a direct reporting of SAT score disparities at the nation’s select universities. Asian American enrollees are not actually required to score 450 more SAT points than Black enrollees: at Harvard, the gap between average Black and Asian SAT scores is a mere 190 points on a 2400 point scale.
Furthermore, Espenshade’s findings may not be applicable to public universities, which are far less selective than private institutions. It is not clear that Espenshade considered other factors that will influence selectivity, including for example nation of origin. Correlation is not causation.
But finally, and most importantly, Espenshade’s data deliberately over-simplifies the college admissions process by excluding most of the criteria upon which admissions officers base admissions decisions. By considering only applicant GPA and SAT score, Espenshade necessarily places total (and determinative) weight on these two quantifiable metrics alone, and assumes that the over 900 other factors that admissions officers consider under holistic review are simply unimportant.
Duke University political science professor Jerry F. Hough — alumnus of Harvard University whose specialty is domestic identity formation at the intersection of American and Soviet politics — is in hot water. Over the weekend, Hough posted a racist 6-paragraph tirade on the New York Times website comparing supposedly self-defeating behaviours of the Black community (“they feel sorry for themselves”) to the model minority stereotype of Asian Americans, whom Hough praised for “work[ing] doubly hard” and our “desire for integration”.
The comment was posted in response to a Times editorial on how racism in Baltimore has featured in the New Racial Justice Movement.
Today, a group of between 40 and 50 Asian American organizations will hold two coordinated press conferences in Washington DC and in California to announce the filing of an administrative complaint to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and to the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Justice, alleging that Harvard University’s admission policies discriminates against Asian American applicants.
In response, a coalition of over 135 Asian American, Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander organizations — as well as hundreds of concerned AANHPI individuals — issued an open letter expressing support for affirmative action policies in higher education and launched the website AsianAmericanCivilRights.org. That letter reads in part:
Today, the two U.S. Civil Rights Commissioners on the US Commission on Civil Rights who are Asian American — Michael Yaki and Karen Narasaki — issued their own statement on today’s scheduled announcement of a formal civil rights complaint against Harvard.
Last year, California was poised to return affirmative action to the state’s institutions of higher education via a state constitutional amendment that would have reversed the devastating impact of the referendum, Proposition 209, which ended affirmative action in the state in the mid-1990’s and which had a devastating impact on underrepresented minority enrollment in California’s public university system for over a decade afterwards. The amendment to restore affirmative action in California would have passed with broad Black, Latino, and Asian American support if not for sudden, torrential political backlash emerging from within the state’s Chinese American community that in effect halted the amendment in its tracks.
This reaction was confounding in part because numerous surveys have now demonstrated that in general, more than two-thirds of the Asian American/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AANHPI) community supports affirmative action in higher education and professional sectors. This support occurs largely for two reasons: 1) many within the AANHPI community are still underrepresented on this nation’s college campuses, and 2) most AANHPI recognize the positive benefits that campus diversity efforts have historically provided and continue to provide for all students.
Yet, conservative lobbyists lost no time last year to infiltrate the vocal minority of Asian Americans who still oppose affirmative action, and those lobbyists have organized a series of new legal efforts to end affirmative action: late last year, Edward Blum — the mastermind behind Abigail Fisher’s Supreme Court case challenging the constitutionality of affirmative action — found some willing Asian American faces to launch a new series of lawsuits. This Friday, a group of over 50 Asian American organizations (which in particular still remains unknown) will hold a press conference at The National Press Club to announce their intention to file an administrative complaint to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice alleging that Harvard University’s admission policies discriminates against Asian Americans.
In their press release, this group claims that their scheduled complaint filing is “the largest action taken by Asian Americans for equal college admission rights in 20 years, joined by more than 50 Chinese, Indian, Korean and Pakistani organizations all over the nation”. This quote is disconcerting for a few reasons. First of all, it suggests that this group of Asian American anti-affirmative action activists presumes to speak for the entire Asian American community despite our demonstrated popular support for (not against) affirmative action; and second that it presumes to do so while failing to represent the voices of Southeast Asian Americans or our Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander allies.
In the last 48 hours, over 120 (and counting) groups (update: now 135+) that serve the AANHPI community around the nation have come together — along with hundreds of impassioned individuals — in a massive coalition to pen an open letter supporting affirmative action in higher education. Representing a broad cross-section of AANHPI civil rights leaders, this group reflects the AANHPI’s dedication to higher education access for all, and the important role that affirmative action programs play in educational justice.