The Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community has had a complicated relationship with affirmative action, resulting in very divided reactions to the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the Harvard and University of North Carolina (UNC) cases. For many of us in the AAPI community, we are mourning the Supreme Court’s decision to throw away 40 years of legal precedent that confirms the constitutionality and legality of race-conscious admissions in higher education, as the immediate impact will undoubtedly be less diverse student bodies. We will see our marginalized AAPI students, especially from some Pacific Islander and Southeast Asian communities, struggle even more educationally than they do already.
And yet there are other AAPIs celebrating the Court’s decision, as some of the most critical opponents of affirmative action have also come from the AAPI community. In the Harvard case, for instance, the Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. (SFFA), sued on behalf of several Asian American students, claiming Harvard deliberately discriminated against Asian American applicants because of their race and violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Alleging that race-conscious admissions practices discriminate against AAPIs has been a strategy by opponents of affirmative action to mobilize a subset of our community. Even in 2020, when California attempted to reinstitute affirmative action through a state ballot initiative called Proposition 16, groups like Asian American Coalition for Education and Silicon Valley Chinese Association Foundation were very vocal opponents against the law.
The reality is that the majority of Asian Americans support affirmative action, according to a 2023 study by the Pew Research Center and the 2022 Asian American Voter Survey. This is why in the Harvard case, our organization (Asian Americans Advancing Justice Southern California), and other AAPI and civil rights organizations, filed an amicus brief on behalf of Asian American Harvard students who, like most AAPI and other Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) students, feel the benefit from racially diverse campuses that affirmative action provide. Moreover, claiming that AAPI students’ coveted seats at universities are being taken away by other Black and Brown students limits the progress AAPI and other BIPOC communities have made to address systemic racism within education. This mentality creates a harmful wedge by pitting AAPIs against other communities of color—when we should be working together.
It’s true that certain subsets of the AAPI community are disproportionately well represented in higher education. According to a 2021 Pew Research Study, 54% of Asian Americans 25 and up have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to the 33% national average of all American students. But to say categorically that AAPIs will benefit from taking away affirmative action is a fallacy. It is important to remember that our community is not a monolith, and we have the highest disparities within any racial group when it comes to college attainment rates, as well as income levels. The Pew Study disaggregated ethnic data to show at the top end, Indians sat at 75% for college attainment rates while Bhutanese and Laotian were at 15% and 18%, respectively. Pacific Islanders face even greater educational challenges. In California, Marshallese and Tongans graduate at 11% and 14%, respectively, compared to 59% of Asian Americans, 47% of Whites, 28% of Blacks, and 15% of Latinx. When you penetrate the model minority myth that paints all AAPIs as academic well-achievers and you actually break down the data, you find that there are huge educational needs and barriers within some of our ethnic communities, particularly those from the Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander communities, that are improved through affirmative action.
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For example, University of Hawaii’s strategic plan commits to higher education opportunities for all, “especially those historically underrepresented including Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, Filipino, economically disadvantaged, first generation, LGBTQ+, rural and students with disabilities.” Plans like theirs create programs for the recruitment, retention, and completions rates of target student populations. Even in California’s K-12 system, investments have been made for increased access to college readiness courses and programing across the whole state but with an equity focus on students facing opportunity gaps. What’s more, at California’s university level, the Educational Opportunity Program, as well as the creation of student leadership organizations and ethnic centers, are all part of the strategies to increase recruitment, retention, and completion.
In fact, if admissions policies were based purely on test-scores, Asian American students would lose ground. According to a 2021 report by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, 1 in 5 Asian Americans currently enrolled in elite colleges would not be admitted. The report shows that Asian Americans are more likely to apply to highly selective colleges compared to other racial groups. With affirmative action, they get in. However, using just test scores, 21% would no longer qualify.
But despite the Supreme Court’s decision to slash race-conscious admissions practices in higher education, there are ways to mitigate some of the damage that will inevitably be done. States that will now be scrambling to identify new strategies to promote racially diverse student bodies can look to California’s playbook, as it is one of the eight states in the country that currently bans affirmative action.
In 1996, California passed through a state ballot initiative, Proposition 209, which ended affirmative action in the state. The number of underrepresented minority enrollments plummeted in all levels of higher education. Over the past 27 years, California has been able to reverse some of the effects by finding creative strategies to increase student diversity. One way schools can compensate for lower admissions is by focusing on retention through mentorship programs and affinity groups for their students of color to reduce college dropout rates.
Foundations and corporations have also mobilized to fill the gap to promote greater pathways to high education for BIPOC students by funding more scholarships, school enrichment programs, and other educational programs targeted towards underserved students of color. Community-led organizations and coalitions like California’s College for All Coalition, made up of AAPI, Latinx, Black, and white members in higher education, successfully advocates for state budget increases that especially help English language learners or foster children get into college. These students disproportionately come from Latinx and AAPI immigrant families or Black families.
Students of color need racial diversity on campuses now more than ever. Our community has been hit hard by the 11,000 reported incidents of anti-Asian hate during the pandemic, according to STOP AAPI HATE, AAPI students have found solidarity and allyship with other students of color. Throughout our nation’s history, communities of color have banded together in the fight for racial justice. In 1869, Frederick Douglass spoke out on behalf of Chinese immigrants about their efforts to become U.S. citizens and their rights to vote. In 1965, Filipino farm workers reached out to Latinos to embolden the Delano Grape Strike which led to a stronger labor movement. During World War II, the NAACP openly opposed the incarceration of Japanese Americans. Without a doubt, the Black civil rights movement paved the way to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 which changed the future of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the U.S.
In the wake of the Court’s tragic decision, the only way forward is for AAPIs, BIPOC communities, and our allies to continue to band together and fight educational inequality.
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