My Black and Latinx Students Need Affirmative Action

My students face numerous obstacles inside and outside of school. Being scapegoated for taking seats should not be one of them, writes Yoo Eun Kim.

April 8, 2019

“Because of affirmative action, aren’t your poor students [black and Latinx] going to take away spots from the hardworking Asian students? How do you feel as an Asian American teacher?” A middle-aged Korean American woman asked the question.

I currently teach at a public school in Massachusetts where more than 90 percent of my students identify as black and/or Latinx, and around 70 percent qualify for a free or reduced-price lunch. Teaching and living in Chelsea, Mass., has exposed me to the challenges in and out of the classroom that youths of color face today.

For my students, it is hard to think about the future when today’s problems are so overwhelming -- “Ms. Kim, can you help me wash my uniform?” and “I am afraid of coming to school; I don’t want to get jumped.”

Many students worry that their parents may go to work and be deported. Others come to class tired and hungry, nodding off to sleep behind their books. Some work as grocery stockers or cart pushers to financially support their families. Many channel their frustration against the forces outside their control as outbursts or indifference toward school. These are days when I go to bed discouraged.

In light of the college admissions scandal and the resulting debates on meritocracy, some critics have attacked affirmative action in a misguided approach to make college admissions equitable, according to them. They fail to recognize the numerous socioeconomic stressors that prevent African American and Latinx students from navigating the path to college. The goal of affirmative action is to help students like mine, as it promotes education opportunities for socially marginalized groups that have experienced discrimination and exclusion from mainstream society throughout history. It offers my students a glimmering chance to gain financial and professional autonomy.

Numerous writers and commenters have proposed that colleges consider the socioeconomic background, rather than race, in the admissions process. However, research has shown that the push for socioeconomic affirmative action will not significantly increase the racial diversity among college students in the United States. According to Urban Institute researchers Chingos and Lee, “Race plays a unique role in American society that cannot be replaced by socioeconomic proxies, and race-based affirmative action is likely the most efficient path to achieving racial diversity.”

As an Asian American teacher who educates students of color from different backgrounds, I have been disappointed by Asian Americans who want to eliminate affirmative action. Their anger at black and Latinx students for supposedly taking away seats at prestigious colleges from Asian American students is misguided; according to a 2018 Atlantic article, “Even with race-conscious admissions, black and Latino students represent a small fraction of the student populations at the country’s most selective colleges -- 4 percent and 11 percent of elite research universities, respectively."

Communities of color and allies need to band together to fight against the context in which college admissions prefer legacies and the privileged such as Olivia Jade’s parents and dozens of others that were charged in a $25 million racketeering scheme to help children from wealthy families get into elite universities. To build an equitable admissions process, colleges need to stop its preferential treatment of legacies. (Yes, that means my family members will not be able to leverage their Dartmouth College, Stanford University and University of Virginia educations for their future children). Additionally, colleges need to re-evaluate their candidate evaluation process, as Harvard University’s has been accused to disadvantage Asian American students, according to the analysis of more than 160,000 student records.

To build a diverse campus, colleges need to provide protections for black/African American and Latinx/Hispanic applicants while revising the admissions process that assesses Asian American candidates. My students face numerous obstacles in and outside of school -- being scapegoated for taking seats should not be one of them.


Yoo Eun Kim is a member of the Teach for America Alumni Advisory Board and an math teacher at a public school.


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