This November election, California voters will be voting on Proposition 16, which would reverse a ballot measure passed in 1996 and bring affirmative action back to public schools and government work. Prop 16 has won the backing of 100+ prominent Asian organizations, such as the California API Legislative Caucus and Asian Americans Advancing Justice. But Prop 16 is also facing vocal resistance from some Asian American families, who fear the passing of the legislation will mean fewer spots for their children at University of California schools.
So… What is Affirmative Action?
The Legal Information Institute defines “affirmative action” as “a set of procedures designed to eliminate unlawful discrimination among applicants, remedy the results of such prior discrimination, and prevent such discrimination in the future.” In other words, affirmative action tries to address past, present, and/or future discrimination by improving opportunities for those who have been historically discriminated against.
The Relationship Between Affirmative Action and the Model Minority Myth
In 2019, a private advocacy group known as the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) accused Harvard of discriminating against Asian Americans by making race too large of a factor in its admissions process. SFFA argued that Asian Americans outscored white applicants in academic criteria (e.g. standardized testing), though less Asian Americans were admitted into Harvard because the school was discriminating against Asian Americans. To resolve this issue, the SFFA claimed that race should no longer be considered in the college admissions process.
While Harvard and other Ivy League universities are in the wrong for what SFFA and similar groups reason, SFFA’s arguments are flawed; they are weaponizing the model minority myth by emphasizing the academic superiority of Asian Americans and grouping all Asian Americans into a singular homogenous group. However, portraying the Asian American community this way only harms Asian Americans — especially those who do not fit into the model minority stereotype.
The Asian American community encompasses diverse backgrounds, experiences, and needs that are simply ignored by the group that sued Harvard. For one, research has shown that those of Southeast Asian descent found it harder to attain higher education or economic security than those of East Asian descent. Southeast Asian groups came to the U.S. to escape war and genocide in their home countries, which often resulted in resettlement challenges. In fact, according to the Pew Research Center in 2018, the gap between the top 10% of Asian American income earners and the bottom 10% nearly doubled between 1970 and 2016. Lumping all Asian Americans together into a high-achieving monolith does not capture an accurate picture of the entire group.
How Does Affirmative Action Affect Asian American Students?
Contrary to the model minority myth, many Asian American students can benefit from affirmative action.
For one, nearly half of California’s AAPI students — more than a quarter-million people — began their freshman year at a community college. Since community colleges are cheaper and accept any student with a high school diploma, they also serve many low-income, first-generation immigrant students, including Southeast Asian refugees and Pacific Islanders. After community college, students earn their associate degrees in two years and have a guaranteed transfer path to a school in the California State University or University of California system. Proposition 16 would help the most marginalized students graduate on time, transfer to a four-year university, and enter the workforce successfully.
Affirmative action can also help Asian American students by addressing inequalities within their communities. According to a study conducted by nonprofit advocacy group The Education Trust-West, many community colleges were forced to dilute or cancel race-conscious programs that addressed institutional barriers facing marginalized groups after California banned affirmative action in 1996. Affirmative action can spur race-informed initiatives such as targeted outreach to low-income children and adolescents as well as robust language support for limited English speakers.
We cannot conclude that affirmative action is the reason why qualified Asian American applicants are getting rejected by elite universities; race is only a mere factor in the college admissions process. What we can conclude, however, is that eliminating affirmative action will do a lot more harm than good to Asian Americans.
Moreover, colleges need to do more than simply admitting a diverse student body. Diversity alone does not create an inclusive environment that encourages and empowers marginalized students. The Instagram account @dearpwi documents numerous incidents of racist hostility and harassment toward students of colour attending predominantly white institutions. American colleges have yet to achieve full inclusion, but they do have ample opportunity to work toward achieving equity and diversity.