The Generational Divide on Affirmative Action

Those studying Asian American attitudes about the Harvard case should look at the split between younger and older Chinese Americans, write OiYan Poon and Janelle Wong.

February 25, 2019
 
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An organization called Students for Fair Admissions, led by conservative activist Edward Blum, is suing Harvard University for discrimination against Asian Americans. A federal judge recently heard closing arguments.

Media attention has focused on Asian Americans who contend that affirmative action and race-conscious admissions work to disadvantage Asian American students. Chinese Americans are the largest Asian American group in the U.S., though they constitute only about 25 percent of all Asian Americans. Chinese Americans have also been among the most vocal opponents of race-conscious admissions in recent years. And polling shows that while other Asian American groups remain steadfast in their support of affirmative action, support among Chinese Americans has declined.

Recent survey data reveal a surprising divide among Chinese Americans in terms of their views on college admissions, however. Younger Chinese Americans, particularly those of college-going age, are much more likely to support affirmative action than their parents’ generation. For example, among Chinese American (both U.S.-born and foreign-born) respondents in the 2016 Collaborative Multiracial Post-Election Survey, 68 percent of those of college age (18-24) said affirmative action programs designed to increase numbers of underrepresented minorities were a “good thing” versus “bad thing,” compared to just 46 percent of those over age 35. That is, those who are most directly affected by admissions policies -- young adults of college age -- are more open to affirmative action than those who are well beyond their college-going years.

How do we explain this ironic pattern? Maybe younger Chinese Americans understand something about affirmative action that older Chinese Americans do not.

They might recognize that the case against Harvard is not about discrimination against Asian Americans. It is about ending affirmative action for good in the U.S.

Younger Chinese Americans might also resist the idea that higher test scores signal higher levels of academic merit, as Blum and his allies suggest. Decades of research in higher education show that test scores are a really good indicator of parents’ education and family wealth, but as a predictor of college success? Not so much. It makes sense that younger people do not want to see an admissions system that privileges parents’ education and economic advantages.

Young Chinese Americans have witnessed firsthand the rise of Black Lives Matter and the development of an immigrant rights movement led by their undocumented peers who came to the U.S. as young children. As such, they may be unwilling to get behind admissions criteria that perpetuate the massive racial and ethnic inequalities in our K-12 system.

Yes, some young Chinese Americans might encounter counselors and interviewers who assume that they prefer math to political activism, but there is no strong, empirical evidence that this affects Asian American college admissions rates. What research does show is that these same evaluators are also likely to assume that Asian American students are academically gifted and deserve to be placed in specialized academic programs. These beliefs help, not hurt, Chinese American students when they apply to college.

Their black and Latino classmates will also likely face bias, and, in fact, the most robust research on implicit bias shows that these students will certainly be penalized by stereotypes that they are not intelligent, are criminals and are lazy. Even if their academic performance is as strong as that of their white and Asian American peers, black and Latino students are more likely to be assigned lower grades and will be excluded at a higher rate from programs for gifted students. Removing race from consideration in college admissions does little to confront any of these biases among teachers, counselors and admissions officers.

Finally, perhaps younger Chinese Americans likely realize that to be successful in the U.S. one does not need to attend one of a handful of Ivy League universities. There are hundreds of excellent institutions of higher education in our country that present Asian American and other students with strong educational experiences and pathways of mobility.

Chinese American parents want the best for their children. But young Chinese Americans, those most likely to be affected directly by college admissions policies, seem to get that the real secret to success does not rest on ending affirmative action.

Bio

OiYan Poon is assistant professor of higher education leadership and director of the Center for Racial Justice in Education and Research at Colorado State University. Janelle Wong is professor of Asian American studies and American studies at the University of Maryland at College Park.

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