Affirmative Action is Good for Asian Americans… and Everyone

Affirmative action policies continue to open doors to higher education to those who most need it, including members of the AAPI community

6/23/2016 Update: The U.S. Supreme Court upheld affirmative action in college admissions in Fisher v. University of Texas.

As of today, three leading Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) civil rights organizations, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF), and the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA) have filed three separate amicus briefs urging the Supreme Court to uphold affirmative action in the Fisher v. University of Texas case which is coming before the Court for the second time.

Together, the briefs represent over 160 groups in support of affirmative action policies, representing the vast diversity within AAPI communities, including Arab, Filipino, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Pacific Islander organizations.

As we saw earlier this year, opponents of race-conscious admissions policies like to use Asian Americans to attack the same affirmative action policies that have broadly benefited the AAPI community, as in the lawsuit against Harvard devised by conservative anti-affirmative action advocate Edward Blum. While the lawsuit was not initiated by Asian Americans, Blum went as far as to create a website seeking Asian students who might lend their names and faces to his case.

Particularly for newer immigrant families who are simply concerned with making sure their children have a fair shot at getting accepted to the schools they’ve worked hard to get into, it is easy to misunderstand race-conscious admission as another obstacle to entry, when it is an effective tool that has been employed for decades to promote equality. While discrimination may still be in play in college admissions, affirmative action is the wrong target.

Still, many Asian Americans seem to understand the benefit of such policies. In a 2014 survey by APIAVote and Advancing Justice|AAJC, 69 percent of Asian Americans were found to support affirmative action policies. Recent Harvard graduate Ivy Z. Yan and current Harvard senior Bernadette N. Lim put it frankly:

“Asian Americans are not your wedge. We support equal opportunity in higher education. We support affirmative action as a mechanism to accomplish that goal.”

The fact is that, contrary to popular belief, not all Asian Americans are faring the same. U.S. Census Bureau data shows the educational attainment of Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian and Vietnamese Americans is the lowest among Asian American ethnic groups: only 61 percent of Hmong Americans hold a high school degree, and only 12 percent of Laotian Americans have graduated from college.

Deeper digs into disaggregated data, like Advancing Justice’s recent Western Demographic report, reveal even more about the education and income disparities that exist within the Asian American and Pacific Islander population.

In her new book The Making of Asian America, Professor Erika Lee explores the “two Asian Americas,” one formed by the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act that made it possible for educated and skilled Asians to enter the country, and the other through centuries of systemic racism and forced migration. That second group is the one that is often overshadowed by the successes of the former, and ultimately overlooked.

But affirmative action policies don’t just help those who benefit directly from them. Learning alongside people with different backgrounds and perspectives, distinct journeys and contributions, benefits all students. It’s in everyone’s best interest to make sure talented and driven students from all backgrounds get a fair shot at a great education. And in our global economy and increasingly interconnected world, diversity in education is critical for preparing students of today to be leaders of tomorrow.

As Advancing Justice-LA Policy Director Betty Hung said regarding the complaint against Harvard, “Affirmative action policies help to level the playing field and to promote diverse university learning environments that are essential in our multiracial and multicultural society.”

Shouldn’t we all want that?



Working to empower Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to participate in our democracy and fighting for civil and human rights for all.

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