New Politics of Race at Berkeley

As Asian enrollment nears 50 percent of freshman class, ethnic groups on campus face new demographics and new issues.
September 23, 2005

When Fred Chang, a senior and president of Pi Alpha Phi, came to the University of California at Berkeley five years ago, he saw not one, but two Asian American fraternities -- Pi Alpha Phi and Lambda Phi Epsilon -- representing the only two nationally recognized Asian American fraternities in the nation. “You don’t see many schools with both,” Chang said. Only a handful of colleges in the nation outside of California have both.

He also took note of some of the 39 recognized student organizations aimed specifically at students interested in Asian topics -- groups such as theater-oriented Asians on Stage by Any Means Necessary and the networking-oriented Asian Business Association.

Berkeley has had a lot of Asian American students for years, but never so many as now. Last year,  according to the Office of Student Research, Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islander students made up just over 40 percent of the student body. This year’s freshman class was just under 48 percent Asian, a record high, according to admissions officials, who said that, once the final tally of registered students is completed, the number of Asian and white students on campus will be nearly the same.

In this year's freshman class, white enrollment is 31 percent, Latino enrollment 11 percent, and black enrollment 3 percent, with the remainder divided among "other" and those who did not identify their race or ethnicity.

Part of the reason for the increasing Asian percentages, according to Richard Black, associate vice chancellor for admissions and enrollment, is simply that Berkeley’s environs have a lot of Asian families. There may be more to it, though. Not only is Berkeley accepting Asian applicants at a higher rate -- 34 percent as opposed to 27 percent for the overall population in 2005 – but Asian students are choosing Berkeley more often, too. Of all Asian applicants accepted to the university, 49 percent chose to attend Berkeley, as compared to only 43 percent of students generally, Black said, a “modest indication that Asian students receive greater opportunities at Berkeley as compared to some other [ethnic groups].”

In other states, admissions officers might respond to percentages like that by changing their strategies, but there are strict limits to what can be done at Berkeley, since California voters barred the use of race in admissions decisions at public colleges.

Malcolm Manson, head of the Bay School, a private high school in San Francisco, said that while there might be more for Asian students at Berkeley, his college counselors don’t feel the need to sell it that way. “It’s not like an African American student going to Reed [College],” he said, in which case he would certainly make sure college advisers talked to the student about organizations on campus for African Americans.

Manson said there are so many different niches at Berkeley that he doesn’t think specific ethnic considerations are too important. “I don’t think people choose Berkeley because it’s a comfortable place for a particular group. Berkeley is so huge, you can create your own comfort.”

But perhaps Asian students want to join Asian fraternities and be in Asian clubs. Chang, for one, chose Pi Alpha Phi, simply because he had a friend there, and, as president, he wants to make the fraternity, which was founded by Asians who weren’t invited into other fraternities, more inclusive. He said membership has been cut in half in his time at Berkeley, and now there are only 16 brothers, all Asian American.

Chang said he doesn’t “really see the point” of having clubs that are exclusively Asian, and does not think Pi Alpha Phi can survive unless non-Asian students are recruited. Chang thinks that the increasing number of Asians will actually doom some exclusively Asian groups because students don’t feel the need to join a club to fit in. “Everyone tries to assimilate,” he said. “I don’t think there’s a future here in trying to hold on to [exclusively Asian] tradition.”

Chang said there’s even some backlash over Asian organizations. Lambda Phi Epsilon, the other Asian fraternity, no longer attends Interfraternity Council meetings because members didn’t feel welcome. “A lot of the mainstream fraternities throw events together,” he said, but “we’re not as welcome. People group us all together. I’ll hear them say, ‘Oh I hate getting fliered by the Asian frat,’ but we want to include them.”

Students from some of the underrepresented groups on campus have taken notice. Jacquelynn Thomas, a black third-year student who works in the Black Recruitment and Retention Center, is not thrilled that, of the 23,000 undergraduates on campus, the number of black students has been stagnant between 800 and 1,000 in recent years. Thomas did say, however, that she felt it is sometimes easier to be on a campus where the massive number of Asian students means there are fewer white students.

Last year, Thomas took part in a “Black Out” protest, where black students dressed in black and silently blocked hallways as their way of protesting their lack of a voice on campus. “Caucasian students were more vocal against us,” Thomas said. “Like the Berkeley Republicans, they’re a strong group, but it’s all Caucasian. It’s easier to cope [as a black student], the Asians are more apathetic, less hostile.”

Albert Wu, president of the Asian Political Association,  hopes to change that, at least the apathetic part. Wu agreed that Asian students are less likely than others to be politically involved on campus. “There’s a strong culture from immigrant families of not wanting to be involved in politics,” Wu said. “They want sciences, to get economically stable.” About half of all Berkeley’s Asian students are of Chinese ancestry. “In China, politicians aren’t very well respected. Doctors and scientists are revered. That’s why I’m named ‘Albert.’ ”

Wu said that the name of his organization limits the students it attracts, and he would like to have better integration. “Some Chinese students can come here and graduate without ever having talked to a non-Chinese person outside class.” He added that he is frequently made aware of subtle stereotyping on campus. “One professor will call me ‘Dr. Wu,’” said the business and history double-major. “He’ll say ‘Al-bert,’” as if it’s a Chinese name. There’s no way he’d do that to non-Asians. Sometimes people feel like they’re being understanding, but they’re being slightly prejudiced.”


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