Affirmative Action Revisited

I saw this short post on Time’s Detroit Blog today: Still Getting It Wrong on Affirmative Action. In it, blogger Darrell Dawsey comments about the recent news that civil rights groups in Michigan have brought an appeals case challenging the constitutionality of a rcent ballot measure banning the practice of affirmative action in Michigan state schools

Dawsey doesn’t get into the constitutionality of affirmative action in his post; rather, he complains about the persistent perception of affirmative action as merely a “race thing”. Dawsey writes:

Yes, I think affirmative action is a palatable, if mild, remedy to the ongoing discrimination that women and people of color face in Michigan and around the country. But this take isn’t about cheering the court’s decision to hear the challenge to race preferences or even affirmative action itself, for that matter. Rather, it’s about the implications of the persistent, narrow belief that affirmative action is just a set of “racial preferences” — when the truth is that the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action have been white women.

No, I’m not saying that  blacks, Latinos, Arab-Americans and Asian-Americans haven’t also benefited. (The University of Michigan, for instance, has 11 percent fewer minorities than in 2006, in part because affirmative action was outlawed.) But it’s the idea that these minorities, not white women, are disproportionately helped by affirmative action that inflames much of the opposition that we saw here three years ago.

I agree with Dawsey: affirmative action suffers a public relations problem. Affirmative action is frequently discussed in terms of race — both by proponents and opponents of the practice. Yet, the reality of affirmative action is far more nuanced: affirmative action not only is intended to benefit members of all underrepresented ethnic groups (Native Americans, and underrepresented Asians to name a few), but it also benefits applicants who come from other underrepresented backgrounds including class, gender, and faith.

The problem is the word “minority”, which in our society has become a codeword for “Black”. This is not only unfair, it is inaccurate: critics of “minority”-targeted initiatives present narrow-minded arguments that fail to accurately represent the full spectrum of people encompassed by the word “minority”. It paints reasonable and useful policies with a tinge of racial favoritism. And above all, it reinforces the notion of Blacks and Latinos as the bottom rung of our social hierarchy, rather than one of many underprivileged yet deserving minority groups.

That being said, I’m not sure that Dawsey gets it right with the point of his post. Dawsey argues that opponents of affirmative action, in colouring (pardon the pun) the debate as a “race thing”, are motivated by racial hatred in their opposition.

Many who voted against affirmative action had it in their heads that black people and other minorities were somehow getting something they didn’t “deserve” or were receiving “something for nothing.” Sure, some will howl that I’m wrong — that affirmative action opponents were driven solely by noble desires for “fairness” and “equality” — but I’m not. I’ve lived in Detroit much of my life. And I know well that even though many of us here consider it uncomfortable or impolite to discuss race when talking about why metro Detroit is what it is — and that includes its standing as one of the most segregated metropolitan areas in the U.S. —  intense racial hatred remains alive and well.

While racism is clearly alive and well in today’s America, I’m not sure what use there is in characterizing the majority of affirmative action’s detractors as seething racists. Clearly, there is a perception that underrepresented minorities are being accepted despite the appearance that they are “less qualified”, but I simply don’t believe that all or even most of affirmative action’s critics are primarily fueled by this misconception.

Affirmative action is a tough issue: neither side has a clear, moral (let alone legal) stance to advocate. Even proponents of affirmative action admit it is an imperfect (dare I say “band-aid”?) solution to a tough societal problem. To over-simplify the other side as racists does nothing to improve the quality of the debate on affirmative action, and turns the whole thing into finger-pointing and name-calling. 

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Anti-Asian Bias in College Admissions?: Part 1 – An improper comparison



This post is broken into two parts for the sake of length:

Since the implementation of affirmative action in the college admissions process, opponents of the policy have alleged anti-White and anti-Asian bias that reduces the chances of White and Asian high school students applying to elite colleges. Recently, a study conducted by Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade (published in the book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life) presented data that appear to support this notion.

First of all, I should point out that the primary data Espenshade analyzed were collected in 1997. But, it’s likely that the trends that Espenshade report remain in effect, since there have been no major changes to the college admissions process nationwide since then, nor have we seen significant changes in student demographics.

The “Scary Graph”: what does it mean?

Espenshade shows that middle class Asian students have a reduced probability of being accepted into private universities compared to students of other races (I re-created the graph below from page 7 of this presentation of Espenshade’s data, eliminating upper- and lower- class students, but the trends are roughly the same).


This graph looks pretty alarming until you consider the following applicant demographics, compared to national demographic information:


What this graph is showing you is that while Asian Americans are roughly 4% of the U.S. population, we represent nearly a quarter of all applicants to the institutions studied by Espenshade. For some universities, this can reach as high as 1/3 — and many of these applicants boast high SAT scores and high school GPAs. Many of these students also come from higher-income families compared to Black and Latino applicants, and therefore have access to better educational opportunities to help improve their scores. In addition, Espenshade’s data show that, compared to other races, Asian American applicants appear to preferentially apply to private institutions, which causes an even more dramatic increase in our applicant number.

Basically, the admissions percentage is low for Asians is at least in part because so many college applicants are Asian/Asian American. You can think of it this way: if 50 White students, 25 Asian students and 5 Black students are accepted to a college, but there are 100 White applicants, 75 Asian applicants and 10 Black applicants, your probability of being accepted based on race is as follows: 50% for Whites and Blacks, and only 33% for Asians — even if the absolute number of acceptances are still higher.

And certainly, we must remember that Espenshade’s study does not consider non-numerical aspects of applicant portfolios; admissions boards often favour applicants who have acceptable scores but who have also demonstrated a diversity of talents or interests, including music, athleticism, or art.

But what can’t be denied from Espenshade’s data is this: if you’re an Asian American high school student, you are competing against a lot of other, highly-talented White, Black and Asian American applicants and you have a lower probability of being accepted based on race compared to applicants of other races.

But does this mean there’s “anti-Asian bias”?

Searching for “anti-Asian bias”: an improper comparison

I caution against coming to the conclusion that Asian Americans are patently discriminated against in the college admissions process. Instead, I think what we’re seeing is the flip side of affirmative action: affirmative action argues that, all other factors being equal, an applicant who is a member of an underrepresented minority (whether race-based or class-based) will be preferred over a similar candidate who is not of an underrepresented minority.

And Asian Americans are anything but underrepresented in higher education. This columnist pulled racial demographics at Ivy League institutions from and found that at all of these colleges, which practice affirmative action in their admissions processes, Asian/Asian Americans are over-represented compared to our national demographics:


Clearly, college admissions board aren’t outright refusing Asian American applicants based solely on race. In fact, even with affirmative action in place, Asian Americans are four times better represented at elite universities compared to our national population.

What this also means, however, is that because Asian Americans are so well represented in higher education, there is no racial “preference” for Asian/Asian American applicants based solely on race (Espenshade’s data shows high probability of acceptance for lower-class Asian Americans, which hints that less well-represented Asian ethnicities who also tend to come from lower-income families are still beneficiaries of affirmative action). Thus, we cannot compare the probability of acceptance rates for Asian Americans against those of underrepresented minorities; with affirmative action in place, those probabilities will — by definition –be higher for Black, Latino and Native American applicants. It’s not that we’re being biased against in affirmative action practices, it’s simply that we’re not benefiting from affirmative action — nor should well-represented Asian ethnicities be beneficiaries of affirmative action.

Nonetheless, this kind of comparison is tempting, because it is fueled by the entitlement complex that those who are not underrepresented minorities tend to feel. An Asian American applicant, who scores highly on his or her SAT test expects to be accepted, but, when they do not get in compared to a Black or Hispanic Non-White applicant who does, they feel as if life’s unfair. How often have applicants to college (or law school, or medical school) complained that “less qualified” minorities are skating through the admissions process on the back of affirmative action policies?

The bottom line is that underrepresented minorities are not skating through the admissions process. Universities will only accept applicants that meet a certain minimum standard for GPA and SAT — so no student, be they Black, White or Asian, accepted into college is actually unqualified. Moreover, the characterization of lower-scoring applicants who are accepted into college based, in part, on affirmative action relies on the assumption that SAT scores directly correlate with success in college life: yet, studies on the effectiveness by which SAT scores predict college success remain conflicted on whether the SATs are truly a good indicator that an applicant is “qualified” for college life. In addition, critics of the standardized tests argue that the SAT and other tests are culturally biased, and that higher-class applicants fare better in part because they can pay for test-taking prep classes that help them achieve a higher score. In other words, someone who scores a perfect score on the SATs may not actually be “better qualified” than another applicant who scores lower. Moreover, scoring highly on the SATs does not guarantee acceptance into top schools; schools nowadays emphasize breadth as well as depth, and seek out applicants who do well academically while pursuing diverse, non-academic interests.

Because of unequal opportunities that unfairly disadvantage Black and Non-White Hispanic students in college admissions, affirmative action seeks to improve representation of these minorities in each incoming student body, by preferentially choosing the underrepresented minority student when compared to a student of similar standing who is not underrepresented. As far as I can tell, this is one of the few ways affirmative action is put into practice, based on the ruling by the Supreme Court  that found explicit racial quotas unconstitutional.

Thus, because neither Whites nor Asians are underrepresented on the campuses of elite universities (and thus don’t benefit from affirmative action), comparing acceptance rates for Asians against beneficiaries of affirmative action is an erroneous comparison specifically designed to whip up anti-affirmative action sentiment. It ignores the fact that Asian Americans remain, even with affirmative action, well-represented on college campuses. It uses “Scary Graphs” (like the first one in this post) to raise hysteria and resentment between Asian/Asian Americans and other racial minorities, ignoring the fact that with affirmative action in place, we know those acceptance rates will not be the same.

Instead, to determine if there is any “anti-Asian bias” in the admissions process, we should really be comparing the acceptance rates of Asian/Asian Americans against the other “non-beneficiary” group: Whites.

Continue to Part 2: In support of affirmative action

Anti-Asian Bias in College Admissions?: Part 2 – In support of affirmative action


This post is broken into two parts for the sake of length:

Searching for “anti-Asian bias”: evidence of its existence

Espenshade presents data showing that acceptance rates to public and private institutions are universally lower for Asian American applicants compared to White applicants. I have graphed the appropriate data from Table 3.3 of Espenshade’s study below:


These data are striking. Neither Whites nor Asians benefit from affirmative action, and Whites and Asians share similar class distributions. Yet, Asian applicants are roughly 10% less likely to be accepted to private colleges, and nearly 15% less likely to be accepted to public institutions, compared to their White counterparts. The decreased acceptance rate holds true despite the fact that Asians are far less likely than applicants of other races to apply to public institutions — yet, unlike with the Black and Latino populations where reduced applicant rates explains, at least in part, high acceptance rates, the same is not true for Asian/Asian American applicants.

By all rights, since neither White nor Asian applicants benefit from affirmative action, our acceptance rates should be about the same.

All else being equal the reduced applicant rates could be due to one or a combination of the following explanations:

  1. Asian applicants, on the whole, have poor “breadth” qualifications that reduce the quality of their applications, e.g. music, art, a second language, etc.
  2. Asian applicants tend to be first and second generation, whereas White and Black applicants tend to be third, fourth or higher generation Americans (see Table 3.6 on page 7), making Asian applicants less likely to benefit from high acceptance rates for legacy students (Table 3.1 on page 2).
  3. Asian applicants are more likely to be international, and do not benefit from higher “in-state” or “domestic” acceptance rates.
  4. There is a currently unaddressed anti-Asian bias in the admissions process.

Most of these possibilities are not addressed (or debunked) by Espenshade’s study. Thus, at this time, it’s possible to conclude that there is anti-Asian bias in the admissions process, but it’s not the kind of anti-Asian bias that has been used to launch attacks against affirmative action. Instead, Espenshade’s data suggests that there Asian/Asian American applicants might face unequal treatment, compared to White applicants, when applying for institutions of higher education.

Perhaps this manifests as admissions boards wanting to limit the size of their Asian American student population and therefore specifically choosing White applicants over similarly-qualified Asian applicants. Alternatively, perhaps we’re seeing a manifestation of an internalized (and institutionalized)  model minority myth which makes it more difficult for Asian applicants to demonstrate “breadth” qualifications (that are nonetheless present in the application) because we are being perceived by the admissions review board as math, science or engineering nerds. Regardless, the possibility that Espenshade’s data are uncovering evidence of anti-Asian bias in the admissions process to public and private colleges warrants further study.

In support of affirmative action

Studies like Espenshade’s have been used by right-wing conservatives to attack affirmative action. And certainly, Espenshade’s data show that acceptance rates are not the same between under-represented and well-represented racial groups. But the question remains: should those rates be equal?

Proponents of ending affirmative action argue that each applicant, regardless of race or class, should have the same acceptance rate as any other applicant. And this might make sense — if applications could really be equally judged across race and class. However, as I’ve mentioned, debate rages on as to whether so-called “standardized” tests are truly standardized, or if they suffer from cultural bias. Without a federalized public high school system, the meaning behind high school GPAs also vary from district to district, and from state to state. In other words, getting straight A’s in one school might not get you straight A’s in another. 

In addition, being from an upper-class background affords opportunities that lower-class applicants don’t have access to. Applicants from wealthy families can afford to enroll in expensive prep schools that specifically train students to get into college — even if they aren’t necessarily smarter than the poor kids who can’t afford private school tuitions. In addition, wealthy applicants can afford to pay the expensive application fees such that they can apply to multiple schools; poor students are limited to applying to schools with low application fees or to a fewer number of schools, reducing their chances of admittance.

Affirmative action is intended to address the disparities and unequal opportunities for applicants, and to make admission to higher education more accessible for disadvantaged applicants. But, more importantly, affirmative action policies exist to make a more diverse student body.

Consider this: in the state of California, where affirmative action practices have been out-lawed, the racial demographics in state colleges and universities have only become less representative of national demographics. Comparing students by race/ethnicity in the total UC system in 1993 against the same data collected in 2008 (Table 7k), we see that Asian American students now make up more than 40% of all undergraduate students, while the percentage of White, Black and Latino students decreased over that time period.


Not only are underrepresented minority groups languishing without affirmative action in place in the California school system, but students of well-represented racial/ethnic groups are also suffering due to these disproportionate student populations. Anti-affirmative action fundamentalists and fervent Asian American nationalists might applaud that nearly half of UC students are Asian American, but I propose that this actually diminishes the quality of education that our Asian American students have access to.

Academia is about developing a forum of discussion, argument and debate; where a free-flowing exchange of ideas can take place. This can only occur in a diverse populace where students are exposed to unique ideas originating from a multiplicity of different perspectives and backgrounds. When nearly half of all people that a student can meet in class come from a similar background, the student loses the opportunity to have his or her worldview challenge. Without that kind of an education, one must question how prepared these college students are to face a racially, ethnically, and economically diverse reality upon graduation. Perhaps more so than any other institution, colleges and universities need affirmative action in order to survive.


Getting into college isn’t easy; and it’s not supposed to be. We have to recognize that no one can — or should be allowed to — skate into college, and that the same difficulties and frustrations you feel with the admissions process of your favourite undergraduate institution are felt by high school students across the country, regardless of race, class or gender. When you get in, you feel on top of the world; but if you don’t, often you feel like the process was unfair and biased.

The argument against affirmative action in colleges is too-often made by groups who feel entitled to higher education, and who can’t abide by the fact that they should have to work for it (and to prove themselves) just like everyone else. And the classic “anti-Asian bias” argument that touts facts and figures comparing acceptance rates for Asian/Asian Americans against those of minority groups underrepresented in higher education only pits minority groups against one another while propping Asian Americans as the token “model minority”.

Rather than to blindly accept a charged, politically-motivated, and misleading interpretation of college admissions data (often collected in good faith by well-meaning scientists like Espenshade), it’s important to consider studies like those presented above carefully. I think there is evidence here that Asian Americans experience anti-Asian bias in the college admissions process. Nothing to date addresses the unequal acceptance rates between White and Asian students, despite a lack of difference in treatment by affirmative action policies, and despite similar application rates. More studies must be done to figure out what’s behind those disparate admissions probabilities.

But does that mean that Asian Americans aren’t benefiting from higher education? Hardly. Around the country, Asian Americans are better represented on college campuses than we are in the national population. And while some Asian ethnicities remain underrepresented, on the whole, our community is churning out well-educated degree-holders who are entering the skilled workforce en masse.

So, if you’re an Asian American high school student applying to college, remember the following: the admissions process will be difficult, but with decent grades and SAT scores, and with diverse interests in music, drama or another language, you’ll find a great college. Ask for help in preparing your application — clearly, there are lots of Asian Americans out there who have been through this process. And, above all, don’t limit yourself to the elite schools that are receiving tons of Asian American applicants: make sure to apply to a few less well-known or public schools, even just as a back-up.

Because here’s the final piece of advice I have, and it’s one that some people don’t want to vocalize: In the end, it’s not about what school you get into (or how you get in, whether by affirmative action, legacy, athletic scholarships, or if you speak six languages and are a world-renowned kazoo player) — it’s about how well you succeed once you get there.

The rest of it’s just getting your foot in the door. What happens after that is up to you.