Striking Down Affirmative Action Hurts All of Us

judge signing on the papers

Every spring I relive the fever dream of the college admissions cycle.

“Didn’t you hear?” My mom will tell me of one of her students or an Auntie’s kid. Someone had gotten into Yale. 

As the eldest daughter of two immigrants, I felt their anxiety around a quality education –  further multiplied by the fact that both my parents were math teachers. And for my senior year of high school, it seemed my entire future was hinged upon our standardized test scores and the number of Advanced Placement classes we were taking.

It wasn’t just in my family; all the  Asian American students living in the bubble of the San Gabriel Valley seemed to believe in this American dream as well. Our parents were all vying to get us into the country’s top schools as a means to secure our economic futures. 

So when I wasn’t accepted into any of the liberal arts private schools I had applied for, I was crushed. Other parents and students at my predominantly Asian American high school weren’t shy about vocalizing their suspicions. “Asian students have a harder time getting into college,” they would say. “We have to score higher.”

And to some extent, they’re not wrong. Asian American student admits typically score about a 1226 on the SAT — 131 points higher than the average for white students and 303 points higher than the average for Black students. For many Asian American parents, the reason for this disparity was affirmative action. At times, the resentment was barely veiled. They believed unqualified Black students were being admitted at the expense of their own academically high-achieving children. 

But this assumption implies that higher education is a zero-sum game. For them, if some students get a boost because of their ethnic background,  others must lose out because of their ethnic background. It’s a reductive assumption that comes from a scarcity mindset. 

Why are we as Asian Americans so enamored by gatekept institutions like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford?

I ended up attending Cal State Long Beach, one of the 23 public universities in the California State University system. I quickly found out that “big name” schools were just that — only names. At my public university, I was one of nearly 37,000 students, but I never felt lost in the way that my friends were falling behind at top-tier research universities where they only ever interacted with the graduate teaching assistant in a weed-out class of 200 students. 

In undergrad, I was a research assistant on one of the biggest basic needs studies of college students. An earlier study in 2016 showed that one in ten CSU students was experiencing a level of housing insecurity while one in five didn’t have enough food to eat. Broken down, this lack of basic needs has a direct correlation with students’ academic performance. 

Most of the students at CSULB – including many Asian American students – came from families that weren’t well off.  Pew Research in 2018 found that income equality is rising most rapidly amongst Asian Americans. At CSULB, most of us had to work throughout college to pay for our bills. Too often, we had to make the difficult choice between studying for a test the next day or working an eight-hour shift to make sure rent was paid. So many of us were academically brilliant, but a lot of us didn’t have a trust fund footing the bill. Not all of us could afford to focus only on school. There were only 24 hours a day and seven days a week.  At CSULB, many of my professors understood and supported us as we struggled to navigate the economic factors that were impacting our education.

Having to navigate this delicate balance between school and work as an undergraduate student, I came to acutely realize how having freedom from financial struggle translates directly into better test scores – how well I did on standardized tests was directly related to how many prep classes my parents could afford to send me to. The same is especially true for many Asian American families who are undocumented, refugees, or recent immigrants. Our families’ circumstances have always dictated our access to opportunities in this country. 

I remember my parents dropping five grand over the summer to send me to SAT prep while I was taking free classes online through Khan Academy. Later, I scored a 30 on my first ACT and was reluctant to make my parents pay for further tests. Meanwhile, some students can afford to take those same tests almost a dozen times until they get the high scores they were looking for. 

It does no good for students at an Ivy League institution (or at any school) to be surrounded by only those they perceive as having matriculated through their own merit. They never have a chance to really experience how life is more complicated than that. They never have to learn that for many people in the world, structural barriers are real. 

It does no good for students at an Ivy League institution (or at any school) to be surrounded by only those they perceive as having matriculated through their own merit. They never have a chance to really experience how life is more complicated than that. They never have to learn that for many people in the world, structural barriers are real. 

Yesterday,  the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action based on a lawsuit challenging Harvard and the University of North Carolina’s admissions process. For the foreseeable future,  race can no longer be directly considered in higher education admissions. (Editors’ Note: A carve-out was made for indirect considerations of race as it impacts an applicant’s life experiences.)

Eliminating affirmative action deprives colleges and universities sof a  meaningful way to exercise their commitment to serve a diverse student body. This commitment is not just lip service: it actively improves the quality of higher education. Studies show, for example, that learning is best in a diverse classroom. And while affirmative action was always an imperfect tool to ensure campus diversity while offering redress for historical wrongs that barred Native and Black communities from higher education, for many decades it helped to open doors for many Black and Native students. What does the future look like if these students are no longer our peers? 

We’ve already seen that 25 years after California banned affirmative action in 1996 with Proposition 209, it immediately caused a huge drop in the enrollment of Black and Latino students at public higher education institutions in the state. Since then, California public universities have struggled to diversify their student bodies. They have spent hundreds of millions on recruitment, and yet their classrooms still are inaccessible to many. 

For academically high-achieving Asian American students, the options are endless, and not just with regard to a coveted seat at Harvard. Yet, studies show that as much as these elite institutions pride themselves on their progress toward inclusivity, they don’t do nearly as much to help low-income students. Instead, state schools like CSU-Los Angeles and City College of New York are the best at improving their graduates’ income quantiles, because they admit more economically-disadvantaged students in the first place.

This begs the question:  why are we as Asian Americans so enamored by gatekept institutions like Harvard, MIT, and Stanford? I can’t help but think as immigrants and children of immigrants, we’ve bought into the myth of meritocracy. We cling to the neoliberal façade that somehow hard work will save us from the economic instability of late-stage capitalism. This desperately rugged individualism is perhaps the only way some Asian Americans can cope with the reality that the American dream is accessible to only some in this country. In truth, studies show Asian Americans can’t “achieve” our way out of racism. We quickly hit the so-called “bamboo ceiling” in job promotions

Even in the recent battle around affirmative action, model minority stereotypes of Asian Americans have been actively used to justify the hurt and erasure of students of many marginalized racial backgrounds, including many Asian Americans. An affirmative action ban flattens the nuanced experiences of Asian American students. A gap looms between East Asian and Southeast Asian students when we look at college admissions. Consider that 78% of Chinese Americans are enrolled in college, while comparably that number is only 23% for Burmese students.

The truth is that 70% of Asian Americans support affirmative action, but the vocal minority that is against affirmative action is being used to drive a wedge between aligning our community’s interests with other people of color. 

We do not live in a race-neutral world. We are more than just a score on a standardized test. Who we are and how we came to be here have indelibly shaped what kind of resources each of us has access to. Asian Americans are no different – and we deserve to be able to present the full complexity of our lived experiences in the admissions process. 

Jireh (they/them) is a queer Asian American writer and filmmaker born and raised in the San Gabriel Valley. Their words on L.A. appear in The Guardian, The Washington Post, Teen Vogue, NPR, The L.A. Times and more.

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