Asian American Group Files Anti-Affirmative Action Complaint Against Yale, Dartmouth, Brown: What You Need To Know

Yale Law School (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Yale Law School (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I can’t believe we’re dealing with this again.

Less than a year after the Department of Education dismissed a frivolous administrative complaint filed by the Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE) against Harvard University, the AACE has now announced it will file a nearly identical administrative complaint against  Yale University, Brown University and Dartmouth College. In their  complaint against Harvard, AACE alleged — absent any significant evidence — that race-conscious affirmative action discriminates against Asian American applicants.

This work bolsters efforts by conservative partisan and lobbyist Edward Blum, who has made a career out of opposing civil rights measures for people of colour. Blum is best known as the architect of the Fisher v. University of Texas Supreme Court cases, which is the Right’s latest campaign to invalidate affirmative action in higher education. Outside of his interest in ending race-conscious affirmative action, Blum has backed numerous Supreme Court cases to reverse portions of the Voting Rights Act and to silence voters of colour. In the recently defeated  Evenwel v. Abbott Supreme Court case, Blum and his fellow litigators argued that districts should be drawn so as to disenfranchise thousands of non-voting citizens, who are predominantly young people and people of colour. (AAAJ-AAJC talks about how Evenwel v. Abbott would have resulted in the disenfranchisement of numerous AAPIs).

Edward Blum is clearly no ally of the AAPI community. So, one must wonder why some Asian Americans would support his causes.

AACE’s complaint against Harvard was dismissed by the Department of Education last year on the grounds that it was too similar to a lawsuit filed by Blum against Harvard and the University of North Carolina. In reality, “too similar” is an understatement: I pointed out last year that not only did AACE clearly coordinate the timing of their complaint to coincide with Blum’s pending lawsuit, but the AACE’s complaint contained language virtually identical to that found in Blum’s legal filing.

Stymied in their filing against Harvard, AACE has now turned their attention to Yale, Dartmouth and Brown. In a summary of their pending administrative complaint, dated November of last year but published to the AACE website last week, AACE references most of their same talking points. Again, there is the tired misinterpretation of the Espenshade study. Again, there is reference to the work of conservative lobbyist Ron Unz, who is also known for launching numerous hostile campaigns targeting California’s undocumented population. Again, the lawsuit cites the widely debunked Mismatch Theory research of Richard Sander. Again, the lawsuit makes the scurrilous and inflammatory comparison between race-conscious affirmative action — a policy designed to correct the effects of institutional racism and which historically and currently benefits Asian Americans among other people of colour — and Chinese Exclusion or Japanese American incarceration, a parallel so ahistorical as to be offensive.

Unfortunately, AACE’s anti-affirmative action efforts have succeeded in garnering significant mainstream media attention to the exclusion of the majority of Asian Americans who actually support race-consicous affirmative action. Instead, mainstream media typically writes about these administrative complaints in a way that flattens and ignores the politics and lived experiences of the actual AAPI community.

So, if you are a reporter who has arrived at this post as part of your research on Asian Americans who oppose affirmative action, here’s what you need to know.

The AAPI Community is Ethnically Diverse, and Should Not Be Treated as a Monolith

The AACE consists of over 100 civil rights organizations, and the vast majority are Chinese American. Most AAPIs are not Chinese American. The AAPI community is the fastest-growing community of colour in the United States, and we currently make up more than 5% of the population. Only 1 in 5 of AAPIs are Chinese American.

We are not all the same.
We are not all the same.

This is important because on this — as well as many other issues — the vast majority of mainstream outlets have failed to solicit the opinion (or even mention) non-Chinese AAPIs, many of whom experience disparities in higher education access that would clearly qualify these AAPIs for additional consideration under race-conscious affirmative action policies.

High school and bachelor’s degree attainment rates are far below the national average for many Southeast Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, and most of these communities remain profoundly underrepresented in our nation’s colleges and universities. Yet, rather than to advocate for struggling AAPIs, Asian American groups associated with anti-affirmative action efforts have gone on the record to actively oppose data disaggregation efforts in California that would reveal the institutional obstacles faced by Southeast Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders; this despite the fact that many Southeast Asian American groups have declared the data disaggregation fight one of the leading civil rights issues facing AAPIs today. The Southeast Asian Resource Action Center (SEARAC) highlights data disaggregation as the first necessary step in implementing state and federal policies to better serve these profoundly marginalized groups.

Complaints Against Affirmative Action Do Not Represent the Majority Opinion of the AAPI Community

Surveys repeatedly show that 60-70% of AAPIs — including 60-70% of Chinese Americans — support, not oppose, affirmative action.

In a study conducted by AAPIData, and sponsored by APIAVote and AAAJ-AAJC, researchers found that the vast majority of surveyed AAPIs support affirmative action. (Photo credit: AAPIData, AAAJ-AAJC, APIAVote)
In a study conducted by AAPIData, and sponsored by APIAVote and AAAJ-AAJC, researchers found that the vast majority of AAPIs surveyed in 2012 support affirmative action. (Photo credit: AAPIData, AAAJ-AAJC, APIAVote)

An updated survey released today by the same group of researchers shows that a majority of AAPIs, including 60-70% of Filipino American, Japanese American, and Vietnamese Americans continue to support affirmative action, although support has decreased among Chinese Americans, suggesting that the last few years’ anti-affirmative action messaging has had an impact on members of this ethnic group.

In fact, more than 135 (and counting) national AAPI civil rights organizations whose work span virtually all ethnic identities counted within the AAPI umbrella have come out in support of affirmative action and in opposition to Blum’s efforts to co-opt our community for his conservative agenda.

I’m not saying that either side “speaks for” the AAPI community; none of us do. Rather, it is imperative that journalists write in a manner that reflects the nuanced ideological diversity within the AAPI community. One can not — or at least, should not — write about one side of this debate within the AAPI community without also writing about the other.

The Complaint’s Interpretation of Data Opposing Affirmative Action is Flawed

Given that this second administrative complaint is clearly part of a larger partisan effort to advance a conservative agenda, it can no longer be allowed to stand immune to journalistic criticism.

The complaint against Harvard, Yale, and other schools cites Espenshade & Radford’s 2009 writing, summarizing it as showing that Asian Americans must score on average 450 more SAT points than Black students. They write:

Asian-Americans have the lowest acceptance rate for each SAT test score bracket, having to score on average approximately 140 point higher than a White student, 270 points higher than a Hispanic student and 450 points higher than a Black student on the SAT, in order to gain admission.

This is, quite simply, not what Espenshade’s data show. Espenshade studied applicants’ probability of admission into highly selective colleges and universities without considering non-numerical applicant factors, and then — and this is important — artificially translated his results into an SAT score. His choice to do so helped market his study to a lay audience, but it also opened the door to sweeping misinterpretation.

In fact, Asian American students do not need on average 140 more SAT points than White students, and 450 more SAT points than Black students to garner admittance to a highly selective university such as Yale or Harvard. In  2015, Asian Americans admitted to Harvard on average scored only 92 points higher than White students and on average only 250 points higher than Black students on the 2400 point scale. This is a far smaller range than the 140-450 point spread reported by Espenshade on the 1600 point scale, and all above the 2120-point baseline Harvard recommends for competitive applicants. The reason for this disparity is simple: Espenshade was not reporting actual differences in SAT score (his data are reported in units of “SAT point equivalents”) nor was he considering the vast majority of criteria currently used by universities to make admissions decisions. Indeed, Espenshade himself rejects the conclusion that his data are proof of racial discrimination against Asian American applicants.

All this is mentioned, of course, without also discussing the fact that the SAT is a poor indicator of student merit or success, that it is highly biased against lower-income students and students of colour, and that nonetheless a 100-point difference in SAT score correlates to only about 1/10th of a GPA point in first-year courses.

The complaints against Harvard and Yale also suggest that Asian Americans are the most underrepresented racial group at Ivy League schools relative to our applicant numbers. They cite an infamously misleading 2012 graphic generated by Unz for the New York Times as showing that Yale’s enrollment of Asian Americans peaked in 1993 at 16.8% and is progressively falling since that year.

A widely circulated graphic created by Ron Unz for the New York Times in 2012, which selectively presents admission data to suggest stagnation or regression in AAPI enrollment. In fact, displayed years appear to be chosen to reinforce this point, and dual y-axes are scaled to emphasize this misinterpretation. (Photo credit: Ron Unz / NYTimes)
A widely circulated graphic created by Ron Unz for the New York Times in 2012, which selectively presents admission data to suggest stagnation or regression in AAPI enrollment at institutions of higher education. In fact, displayed years appear to be chosen to reinforce this point, and dual y-axes are scaled to further emphasize this misinterpretation. (Photo credit: Ron Unz / NYTimes)

The graphic, in fact, shows that Yale’s Asian American enrollment in 1993 was more than 20% of the total admitted student population. While 1993 is clearly an anomalous year for Yale, in fact Asian American enrollment has been steadily rising since 1998, when Asian Americans represented about 11% of admitted students. Unz reported that in 2011, Asian Americans were 16.8% of admitted students. Today, Asian Americans are 18.5% of the student body at Yale, a 10% growth rate in less than five years.

Despite the fact that even the most conservative admittance numbers for AAPIs result in our community being represented on Ivy League campuses at rates three-fold greater than the size of our national population, AACE insists that our students are underrepresented relative to our applicant numbers. We must pause to treat this charge with skepticism. AACE made this claim against Harvard, yet it turns out that Harvard’s admission rate of Asian American students (21% of those admitted are Asian American) is exactly equal to Asian American application rates (21% of applicants are Asian American) to the school. While the data aren’t available for other schools, with regard to Harvard, the group is clearly wrong on this point.

Asian Americans will not be the Wedge

The AAPI community is at a watershed moment in our political evolution. As we grow in size, the political diversity of our pan-ethnic identity is bubbling to the surface. That diversity, in and of itself, is a good thing: no group of people should be treated as a monolith, and I don’t begrudge any AAPI individual or civil rights group for doing community organizing work around civic engagement and civil rights, as they interpret those issues. I don’t have to agree with those who oppose affirmative action to laud the grassroots efforts of these organizers to energize and engage members of our community.

That being said, AAPIs must confront perspectives that emerge from within our community that seek to erase members of the AAPI coalition, or that appear to be at odds with larger racial justice efforts. When those who oppose affirmative action appear before the California State Legislature to actively lobby against data disaggregation — an important civil rights issue for Southeast Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders — we have to wonder about whom these groups can really claim to represent within the AAPI diaspora, and whether their work can continue to go unchallenged by the rest of us.

In 1966, sociologist William Petersen introduced ideas in an op-ed for the New York Times that would germinate into the modern Model Minority Myth. The fact that Petersen’s writing appeared in the New York Times — which also published the work of Ron Unz in 2012 to reinforce model minority stereotypes with regard to affirmative action — reveals the complicity of mainstream media in creating and perpetuating the Model Minority Myth, in part by failing to honestly report the nuance of the AAPI community; now is the time for mainstream journalists to correct that complicity by finally including those of us who would complicate the mainstream’s model minority narrative of our community.

In his op-ed, Petersen highlighted the apparent economic and cultural successes of the Japanese American community in “overcoming” racial discrimination, and contrasted these achievements against the behaviour of those whom he dubbed America’s “problem minorities.” What becomes clear from this work is that the Model Minority Myth which would emerge from this and other writing is an overt reaction to the Civil Rights Movement that co-opts Asian Americans to suppress Black liberation. Asian Americans are positioned as a wedge against Black uplift, and this occurs regardless of who Asian Americans are or whether or not we embrace this treatment.

It is incumbent that AAPIs work to dismantle model minority stereotypes, not reinforce them or their origins in anti-blackness. When some of us demand leniency for former NYPD police officer Peter Liang for shooting and killing unarmed civilian Akai Gurley, we undermine #BlackLivesMatter. When some of us file motions to challenge affirmative action, we reinforce the appropriation of our identity to service the Model Minority Myth.

I reject the anti-affirmative action position on its face. There is plenty of work to be done around issues of AAPI racial justice. Educational and economic disparities paint a stark picture for Southeast Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. Numerous public health issues disproportionately affect AAPIs. Implicit biases create a “bamboo ceiling” that limits employment and promotion opportunities for AAPIs. The Right’s campaign to end reproductive rights currently targets immigrant women of colour, including many AAPI women. The State Department routinely profiles and harasses Chinese American scientists and analysts, oftentimes ruining their careers.

AAPIs face myriad injustices in today’s America. Ivy League universities, including Yale, are not without their own issues of institutionalized racial violence and bias. But, barring further and more compelling data, we cannot conclude that Asian Americans are subject to widespread racial discrimination at Ivy League universities due to affirmative action. Indeed, the evidence routinely shows the opposite: that affirmative action supports anti-racism efforts by improving access to higher education for underprivileged students of colour, and that its absence hurts AAPI students and all students of colour.

I believe in education for all, and I refuse to be a wedge for conservative efforts to suppress people of colour, including other AAPIs. It’s time for mainstream journalists to reflect the fullness of the AAPI politic on this and all issues.

#IAmNotYourWedge #Edu4All 

Read More:

Update (5/25/2016): This post has now been cross-posted at Angry Asian Man.

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  • Casey

    Erhm you do realize your own Wikipedia link tells you that Ron Unz opposed Prop 187 which would have denied public services to illegal immigrants in California, right? Obviously this doesn’t discredit the rest of your post, but it is still a pretty egregious error to have.

  • Oh, hmm, that was clumsily written. Ron Unz is a well-known opponent of California’s undocumented population, and has written extensively about his numerous efforts to manipulate ballot measures as attacks on the lives of undocumented workers. He supports the denial of social services and state money to undocumented families and students. He opposed bilingual education. He famously supported a minimum wage hike, with the intention of eliminating the low-wage jobs that often support undocumented families. He writes about his opposition to Prop 187 as being based not against the intended outcome of the measure, but in how it would be put into effect — he opposed creating more government oversight in order to enforce denial of services to undocumented workers.

    I agree that my writing was a bit clumsy on this. I’ve clarified it somewhat. Thank you!

  • Great post, thank you!

  • K L

    It’s one thing to support affirmative action and another to claim we are not discriminated against in the admissions process. Asian Americans need to decouple the two issues. Otherwise it’s just two self righteous groups shouting at each other.

  • Colin128

    This is why blogs like reappropriate don’t have credibility. Yes we need disaggregation data to highlight the help Southeast Asian students need. That doesn’t negate the fact there IS discrimination in college admissions – even this blog acknowledges Asian American students need 100higher points than white students for the same chance. Asian Americans always get screwed over by this country’s admissions system and I’m tired of apologist Asian Americans always downplaying issues for Asian Americans in favor for black or feminist rights first. Those are all important too, but in no other activist group do you see people in there who actively care more about OTHER activist-group issues more. Asian Americans honestly have the lowest power/leverage and are the most vulnerable/weakest in US media, judicial system, and politics, and it’s because of all the APOLOGISTS.

    AngryAsianMan and 8Asians are actually blogs representing Asian Americans. Reappropriate is a special interest blog that puts Asian Americans 2nd/3rd, and this post (among many others too) only serves to further confirm that. Certain viewpoints expressed in this blog are only a few degrees away from being Asian American versions of Stacey Dash (albeit not as crazy as Michelle Malkin levels)….

  • Please do not spam the site with copypasta.

    Also, ironically, Phil asked me if he could cross-post this post on AngryAsianMan yesterday. Post has been updated to reflect this.

  • pzed

    “Asian Americans need to decouple the two issues.”

    How would you propose doing this? Jenn is firmly in the “shoot her own race in the foot” category when it comes to admissions, and I’m in the “don’t be a mule for other races” category. It seems to me that any process of reducing Asian discrimination in the admissions process will necessarily reduce the presence of other groups including (but not limited to) URMs.

    What Jenn doesn’t often note (maybe ever?) is that while URM numbers can go down when Asian numbers go up, the white numbers can go down much more than URM numbers. So hey, if you don’t like white patriarchy, how better can you reduce their numbers than by squeezing them out of elite education? There may be a few casualties in the form of lower URM representation, but sometimes collateral damage is the price you pay for progress.

  • MelaninManson

    There are two problems with this argument, Pzed.

    1) You can’t assert and/or imply fault with affirmative action as currently practiced in the United States because of a supposed negative impact on Asian Americans as an unintended consequence, however erroneous, and then propose a solution that you believe will reduce acceptances for underrepresented minority students as an unintended consequence. Squeezing URM out of elite educational opportunities is not progress, especially if you believe that Asian Americans are squeezed out of selective clleges and universities because of affirmative action.

    2) Jenn doesn’t view selective college and university admissions with the race tribalist perspective you hold, Pzed. This is not a failure of her argument. Anti-affirmative action forces in the Asian American community like yourself most often support race tribalism, and interpret the educational attainment of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean American students as success for Asian Americans generally. This obscures the very real concerns students from other Asian American backgrounds have about their life prospects, as it obscures affirmative action’s assistance of those communities.

    In general, the anti-affirmative action argument you present is ahistorical, tribalist, and woefully contradictory, Pzed. Great job!

  • trer24

    Id love to see anti affirmative action AAs re-focus their outrage on legacy admits rather than affirmative action. That problem is always conveniently ignored.

  • Ironically, anti-affirmative action Asian Americans often don’t just ignore legacy admissions; some actively defend the practice despite studies showing that Asian Americans are disproportionately affected negatively by legacy admissions.

  • Guest

    good post, Jen. Always learn something new here : )

  • Thanks!

  • pzed

    Hey, I’m totally with you on that. Let everyone’s admission be based on academics and academics alone. Reduce legacies, affirmative action, athletic admits, reduced or no SES considerations. Admit first on academics and then work the rest out financially if they can’t afford it.

  • pzed

    1. “You can’t assert and/or imply fault…” Sure I can, just as Jenn and you can say differently. AA favors URMs that squeezes Asians out based on race. Anti-AAs like me favor more academic admissions that squeeze URMs and sometimes whites out because Academics. Your skin color doesn’t tell me you can handle college material. Your excellent academic achievement however might provide a clue.

    2. I’m pretty proud to be tribalist, and you are too. You’ve picked a different tribe than I have, but make no mistake that you’ve picked a tribe. If you don’t identify with Appalachian whites just as much as you identify with URMs, then you’ve got a tribe. Sorry to break it to you.

  • MelaninManson

    Except you assume that underrepresented minority students and some White students cannot handle work at selected colleges and universities. This is a faulty assumption. The real problem with your anti-affirmative action stance is that you assume failure in non-Asian students. Your tribalism in favor of Asian Americans like yourself promotes ‘me-first’ public policy. Pzed, you prefer a system that prizes Asian American upward mobility at the expense of other groups.

    In contrast, African American affirmative action proponents support the policy in large measure because affirmative action offers a measure of educational opportunity that would not exist without the policy’s proscriptions, as history reminds us. Affirmative action is not a specific, race conscious policy designed to improve African American upward mobility at the expense of other groups. At best, affirmative action allows a select few underrepresented minorities a slim chance to compete with the world’s best and brightest.

    You are mistaken, Pzed, to assume that we are all tribalists. We are not. Current college admission policies practiced by selective colleges and universities allow Appalachian Whites and urban Blacks the opportunity to improve their lot in college. I support this. You oppose these current admission policies, because they make use of affirmative action, a policy that you believe harms Asian Americans, all evidence to the contrary. What’s interesting is that your ‘collateral damage’ remark makes clear that you most desire specific outcomes from higher education policy, namely the acceptance of massive numbers of Asian American students into selective colleges and universities.

    I’d simply prefer that selective colleges and universities did not overlook talented students based on immutable characteristics like race. In some locales, this desire for openness will result in increased underrepresented minority enrollment; in other places, not so much. In essence, I make a broad process argument. In contrast, you seek to force admissions results to appeal to your narrow political sensibilities, Pzed.

    I think you should reexamine your position.

  • pzed

    “Affirmative action is not a specific, race conscious policy designed to improve African American upward mobility at the expense of other groups.”

    No that’s exactly what it is. Exactly.

    “What’s interesting is that your ‘collateral damage’ remark makes clear that you most desire specific outcomes from higher education policy, namely the acceptance of massive numbers of Asian American students into selective colleges and universities.”

    So what? I do desire specific outcomes, just as you do. We just want different outcomes in the groups we choose to support. In my view, academic achievement should be what gets people in, I expect this to result in more Asians. In your view, skin color is what gets people in and you’d expect more URMs. We are not so different you and I.

  • K L

    If a journalist is making this claim then I would like to see data.

  • There’s some academic scholarship on this, but this is a good pop-writing synthesis:

  • “Affirmative action is not a specific, race conscious policy designed to improve African American upward mobility at the expense of other groups.”

    No that’s exactly what it is. Exactly.

    Actually, no. This comment betrays a profound ignorance of the history of affirmative action, as well as its contemporary usage.

    Affirmative action was implemented as public policy designed in recognition of the impact of previous discriminatory policies that had institutionalized socioeconomic disparities. The idea was to reverse those socioeconomic disparities by creating access to historically exclusive institutions of higher education, with the understanding that a publicly-funded secondary education should be a right accessible to all tax-paying citizens, not just those of the right gender or race.

    This latter point is of supreme importance. Prior to affirmative action, higher education was not just limited to Whites. It was limited to White men. Institution of affirmative action opened the doors of our secondary schools to women, and White women have been its greatest benefactors.

    Less well recognizes are the fact that prior to affirmative action, Asians and Asian Americans were counted among those underrepresented minorities. We were also among affirmative action’s earliest direct benefactors. If White women are affirmative action’s greatest success story, East Asian Americans are among its second. Without affirmative action, no racial minority would find college campuses accessible, because affirmative action paved the way for the kind of holistic review that opened the institution up to anyone besides those privileged enough to attend pipeline high schools and receive the high test scores that colleges previously considered for entry. Pzed,if you have a college degree (also something I will neither assume is true, nor assume is not true), you have that college degree thanks to the political changes brought upon by the implementation of affirmative action.

    Today, affirmative action doesn’t just benefit the Black community. In many schools, underrepresented minority groups who receive additional consideration include Southeast Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and anyone regardless of race who hail from out of state or a lower-income background. Forgetting for a minute how quickly you are willing to kick Southeast Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders from your self-professed tribe, affirmative action’s influence is a benefit to many East Asian Americans, whom you profess to be the only ones you care about. I have shown that the elimination of affirmative action in California has had almost zero impact on overall Asian American enrollment in UC schools; meanwhile, the proportion of Southeast Asian Americans (specifically Filipino Americans) at those schools has dropped precipitously.

    Opposing affirmative action is not “shooting the Asian American community in the foot”. On the contrary, the data clearly demonstrate that to support affirmative action is to advocate for the elimination of a policy that benefits thousands of Asian American applicants to access higher education in favour of supporting the enrollment of more White students, who already clearly have robust access to higher education. Even if you’re coming from a tribalist (I’d call it Asian nationalism, personally) point of view, this is some piss-poor tribalism — even by your own framing, it is your own tribe that is negatively affected by your own position.

    I’m going to let someone else tackle the other implicit thinking of your comment: that you assume that Black and Brown students are automatically less intelligent and less deserving of a secondary education than Asian students. I will, however, remind you of this original post’s teaching of the history of the Model Minority Myth as a tool of anti-blackness. If you’re cool with supporting model minority stereotypes of Asian Americans with recognition that this is also directly coupled with anti-Black racism, then that’s your choice. But we should at least all be honest about what you’re saying here.

  • K L

    “The Harvard lawsuit does critique legacy admissions and recognizes that removing such preferences can help bolster diversity.”

    The article seems to contradict the claim. I also see the words “ignore” but no mentions of defending legacy.

  • Cchomp

    Id love to see pro affirmative action AAs re-focus their outrage on
    legacy admits rather than affirmative action. That problem is always
    conveniently ignored. We all know how much time Jenn puts in on this subject that she “can’t believe she’s dealing with again”.