Asian Americans Are Fighting For Our Own Educational Rights

REUTERS/Brian Snyder

Yunlei Yang Board Member, Asian American Coalition for Education
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A recent Justice Department’s internal memo triggered a wave of media debates. At issue here is a complaint jointly filed by 64 Asian-American organizations in May 2015, against Harvard University’s alleged discriminatory admissions process. More than two years later, Justice Department finally took on the issue.

It is a sad reality: 241 years after “all men are created equal” was enshrined into our country’s founding document, students of different races are still treated unequally in college admissions; over half a century has passed since Civil Rights Act of 1964 explicitly prohibited racial discrimination, universities still racially discriminate against Asian American applicants. This glaring discrepancy naturally grabbed the nation’s attention.

It is well-documented that Asian Americans are discriminated against in college admissions. Countless studies, reports, complaints and lawsuits provided solid evidences. One study found that in SAT tests with a total score of 1600 points, Asian Americans on average had to score 140 to 450 points more than other races to be “equally” considered; another revealed the hidden quota set by elite universities to cap Asian Americans’ enrollment. As Asian American parents, we witnessed firsthand the discrimination against our children in college admissions. Time and again, well qualified Asian American applicants were rejected by elite schools, while some of their non-Asian classmates were accepted to these same schools with much lower qualifications.

Yet against the overwhelming evidence of discrimination, some columnists argued that Asian Americans are actually benefited from race-based admissions, and their complaint against discrimination is “used” by conservatives to “protect the existing racial hierarchy — with white people at the top”, or to drive a wedge in the war on affirmative action. As a board member of Asian American Coalition for Education, which led the complaint against Harvard, I found these columnists so obsessed with the “whites” and “conservatives”, that they conveniently ignored Asian Americans’ own plight and struggle.

As a matter of fact, it is not just white conservatives who oppose race-based admissions, the vast majority of Americans do. A recent Gallup Poll found that 70% of Americans oppose colleges considering race in admissions. Hispanics oppose it by a 2:1 margin; and a majority of blacks also oppose it.

One argument of these columnists is that classroom diversity would benefit all students including Asian Americans. But how could Asian Americans possibly enjoy such benefits after being unfairly rejected by the schools? And it is absurd for these schools to think Asian Americans do not contribute to the diversity so they deserve discrimination. Also according to the Supreme Court, diversity is not a blank check for racial discrimination: race-based policy must withstand “Strict Scrutiny”, and race-neutral measures should be tried first to increase diversity. California’s experience proved that diversity can be indeed achieved without race-based policies.

Another viewpoint is that affirmative action benefited Asian American students in 1960s, so we should not complain today. This view lacks of historic context. Initially “Affirmative Action” meant prohibition of racial discrimination, as seen in President Kennedy’s Executive Order 11114. It was this ban of racial discrimination that uplifted Asian American community. Unfortunately, over time “Affirmative Action” has transformed to a synonym of race-based admissions, and is widely abused by universities to discriminate against Asian American applicants. It is illogical to use past prohibition of racial discrimination, to justify current widespread discrimination against Asian Americans.

The low enrollment rate of some Asian American subgroups such as Bhutanese and Burmese is often mentioned, to claim that affirmative action would also help Asian Americans if these groups are given preferable treatment. This is a classic “divide and conquer” tactic. No, some potential benefactors cannot mask or justify discrimination against the vast majority of Asian Americans. Those subgroups are part of Asian American family, and as such they are also heavily discriminated against in college admissions today. The right way to fight against discrimination is to seek equal treatment of each individual, rather than to seek their own preferable treatments. Instead of fighting against the common injustice, proponents of race-based admissions are further dividing people and driving Asian American communities to fight each other. Asian Americans should reject these toxic and divisive tactics.

After carefully examining the facts, we found no merits in the views that Asian Americans are used by the “whites.” After enduring decades of open and widespread discrimination in college admissions, Asian Americans finally woke up and started fighting for our equal educational rights. We are not used by anyone, instead we are standing on our own feet, fighting for our own rights.