Are Asian Americans Hurt by Affirmative Action?

by Kristy Phan

Applying to college is an important time for many students and their families. A college education is often seen as the way to a better life. It wouldn’t be surprising, then, to see students and families do all that they can to improve chances of admission to college. In light of studies showing that Asian Americans are discriminated against in the evaluation of college applications, one increasingly common piece of advice is that Asian/Asian American students should not identify their race on college applications. The possible reason for this discrimination is the perceived overrepresentation of Asian American students on college campuses and thus are no longer considered minorities who would benefit from affirmative action policies. If overrepresentation at college campuses no longer qualifies Asian Americans as minorities who would receive affirmative action considerations, then that may lead some to believe that Asian Americans would be hurt by affirmative action. This idea might also lead some Asian Americans to not support affirmative action and instead advocate for its repeal.

However, some researchers have argued against the idea that affirmative action does not benefit Asian Americans. I argue that affirmative action actually helps Asian Americans and that another phenomenon, negative action, explains discrimination against Asian Americans in college admissions. Negative action should be ended and not affirmative action. The idea that it hurts Asian Americans is mostly the creation of conservatives who want to roll back race-conscious, anti-racism policies.

First, we should define affirmative action and negative action. Affirmative action, in the context of education, considers race as a factor in admissions between candidates with similar qualifications. That is, a racial minority candidate will not be admitted solely based on race if they do not meet other standards. The idea that affirmative action admits people only based on race is untrue. Next, negative action, according to Jerry Kang, is when “a university denies admission to an Asian American who would have been admitted had the person been White.” William Kidder writes that universities use negative action to maintain interests such as “preserving the traditional White character of an elite institution or unwitting stereotyping of APA applicants in the admissions process” (Kidder 611). You can probably see how these are unfair ways of admitting students – that qualified Asian/Asian American students would be denied because the university wants to keep the university numerically, culturally, and politically white; or lets stereotypes override student qualifications. This is another example of how institutions are unfair against Asian Americans and other racialized minorities, and that White people’s interests continue to control how institutions are run.

This demonstrates that negative action, not affirmative action, hurts Asian Americans. This narrative was created by conservatives, mainly White, who are afraid of losing their historical advantages in education (and subsequently, many other privileges they earn through an education). Before, they framed affirmative action as minorities taking away spots from white people. To create a more compelling argument, these White conservatives frame Asian Americans, even as minorities, as hurt by affirmative action, and thus it should be repealed (Omi & Takagi 156). They chose Asian Americans as the minority group to use for arguments against affirmative action because they have historically been neither Black nor White. That is, their political positions change depend on the time period. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, anti-Asian sentiment was rampant. Asian immigrants were excluded from entering the United States. They were perceived to be inferior to the White American majority, occupying a similar position in the U.S. racial hierarchy as Blacks. But as we can see in more modern times, Asians are no longer seen this way. Today people see Asian Americans as no longer suffering from racism, even transcending it – which positions them more closely to White people. Giving historical context about how Asian Americans’ position has changed should illuminate the flexibility of racial categories and the power they give to groups of people. White conservatives, with the power they have held historically, chose to manipulate Asian Americans unstable position for their own interests and against everyone else.

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