Asian-American Applicants and Competing Rationales for Affirmative Action in Higher Education

The Daily Princetonian has an article on possible discrimination against Asian-American applicants:

Asian applicants may face discrimination in the admission process at many elite universities, according to data from a recent study conducted by sociology professor Thomas Espenshade GS ’72.

According to the data, not all races are considered equal in the college admissions game. Of students applying to private colleges in 1997, African-American applicants with SAT scores of 1150 had the same chances of being accepted as white applicants with 1460s and Asian applicants with perfect 1600s.

The results of the study come three years after Jian Li, a rejected Princeton applicant, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. He alleged in the complaint that he had been discriminated against based on his race when he was denied admission to the University.

Espenshade noted that he did not initially use the word “discrimination” when discussing the results of his study. Though he found a 140-point SAT score discrepancy between accepted white and Asian students, he did not have access to what he called “soft variables,” like extracurriculars and teacher recommendations.

This is not a new issue. Almost twenty years ago, I attended a high school with a large Asian-American population, and many of my Asian classmates worried even back then that their racial background would be a disadvantage in competing for admission to elite universities. Back in the 1990s, a University of California official famously remarked that a race-blind admissions policy at his institution would be unacceptable because it would lead to a student body dominated by Asians [unfortunately, I cannot find an online link to this quote; if readers can find it, please e-mail me]. An admissions policy that seeks to ensure that each racial or ethnic group is represented in rough proportion to their percentage of the general population is likely to disadvantage groups such as Asian-Americans, whose academic credentials lead them to be “overrepresented” in a system with race-blind admissions.

The Asian-American case also highlights the contradiction between the compensatory justice and diversity rationales for affirmative action in admissions; I previously wrote about the tensions between the two here and here. If the goal of affirmative action is to compensate minority groups who have been victimized by discrimination for the injustices they have suffered, many Asian-American groups deserve not only equal treatment but racial preferences. Chinese and Japanese-Americans, for example, were victimized by extensive state-sponsored discrimination – culminating in the internment of some 150,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II, despite the fact that none were ever proven to be enemy spies, and very few showed any signs of disloyalty. It’s true, of course, that these groups are relatively affluent today. But that fact has little relevance to issues of compensatory justice. If you steal from someone and they later strike it rich, that does not diminish the validity of their claims for compensation. Numerous Japanese-Americans lost their property and livelihoods as a result of the World War II internments. Even if they or their descendants are well off today, they could be doing still better if fully compensated for their unjust losses. This analysis implicitly assumes that today’s Asian-Americans are worse off than they otherwise would be as a result of the discrimination suffered by their ancestors. But that assumption is very similar to the one that underlies the compensatory justice rationale for affirmative action for African-American and Latino applicants, most of whom also did not directly experience the bulk of the historic racial injustices suffered by their respective groups.

If, on the other hand, the goal of affirmative action is to promote “diversity” for the sake of ensuring that each ethnic group is represented by a “critical mass” in the student body sufficient to educate other students about their culture, then the lack of affirmative action for Asian-Americans becomes more understandable. Because of their impressive academic credentials, a critical mass of Asian students can be achieved even without affirmative action preferences. However, this conclusion may be overstated. “Asians” are not a monolithic group. Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Filipinos, Vietnamese, and Cambodians all have very different cultures. Indeed, immigrants from one part of India or China often have different cultures and speak different languages from those hailing from other parts of the same nation. Treating them all as an undifferentiated mass of “Asian-Americans” is a bit like saying that Norwegians, Italians, and Bulgarians are basically the same because they are “Europeans.” If diversity is really the goal, university administrators should do away with the artificial “Asian-American” category altogether and start considering each group separately. They should do the same for the many groups usually lumped together as “white” or “Hispanic.” A university that already has a critical mass of native-born-WASPS might well not have a critical mass of Utah Mormons or Eastern European immigrants.

Obviously, I am well aware that the Supreme Court, in its 2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger ruled that diversity is a permissible objective for the use of racial preferences in admissions, while compensatory justice is not. In my view, the Court got things backwards. At least in principle, I think it may be justifiable to use racial classifications to compensate large-scale injustices, while I am much more skeptical of the diversity rationale. In this post, however, I want to focus on the ways in which the Asian-American case highlights the tensions between the two theories. Both defenders and critics of affirmative action often assume that the two rationales for it are largely interchangeable and mutually reinforcing. In reality, they have radically different implications for admissions policy.

UPDATE: Since the issue of affirmative action nearly always attracts far more heat than light and often leads to ad hominem attacks on motives, I suppose I should note that I do not intend this post as some kind of indirect attack on the legality of affirmative action. Indeed, I think that private universities such as Princeton should be free to engage in whatever kind of affirmative action they want. With respect to public universities, I think the constraints should be tighter, but I agree with the Court’s ruling in Grutter to the extent that I don’t think all AA at public institutions is necessarily unconstitutional. That said, I don’t have much to say about the general pros and cons of affirmative action that has not already been said umpteen times by others. The more narrow point discussed in the post, however, is one that hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, which is why I have raised it in several blog posts, including this one.