Capitol Alert

The next battle over affirmative action is about discrimination against Asian Americans

Nearly four years ago, the Asian American community rallied to defeat a proposal reversing California’s ban on the consideration of race in public university admissions.

The surge of activism from opponents, many of them fearful the measure would hurt their children’s chances of getting into the state’s most competitive schools, has helped push to the highest levels of national discourse a question rarely asked in previous decades of debate, and Supreme Court cases, over affirmative action:

Do race-conscious college admission policies disadvantage, or even discriminate against, Asian American students?

Advocates have found an ally in the Trump administration, which last year opened an inquiry into Harvard University based on their complaints that its practices violate federal civil rights law. A parallel lawsuit, backed by conservative legal strategist Edward Blum, targets Harvard and the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

The case against Harvard, and affirmative action more broadly, boils down to whether admissions officers are rejecting Asian American applicants, who have higher test scores on average, in favor of less qualified blacks and Latinos to achieve a desired level of racial diversity. It marks the latest front in a long-standing battle between supporters of affirmative action, who believe it is a necessary tool for promoting diversity in higher education, and critics who argue it is simply unfair.

“The whole country should no longer use student’s identities, a fact that they cannot control, to determine their futures,” said Yukong Zhao, president of the Asian American Coalition for Education, who organized the complaint against Harvard that prompted the Justice Department investigation.

The debate is particularly contentious in California, where Asian Americans are overrepresented at state universities. Voters in 1996 passed Proposition 209, prohibiting the University of California and California State University from considering an applicant’s race.

Critics of Harvard and other elite schools often compare their student bodies with UC Berkeley and UCLA, where a third or more of undergraduates are Asian American, to make the case that affirmative action policies amount to an illegal quota system.

But the state’s diverse Asian population – at more than 5 million, the largest in the country – also includes ethnic subgroups with unique struggles and low levels of college attainment. While 70 percent of Indians and 52 percent of Chinese in California who are at least 25 years old have a degree, only 16 percent of Cambodians, 13 percent of Hmong and 10 percent of Laotians do.

A Los Angeles-based civil rights group, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, has filed an argument in the Blum lawsuit defending Harvard’s admissions policy, arguing that the consideration of race benefits many Asian Americans as well. Lawyer Nicole Gon Ochi said she’s frustrated that the complaints don’t differentiate between affirmative action and possible anti-Asian biases in college admissions.

“We see this as just an easy way to use Asian Americans as a wedge,” Ochi said.

Zhao, an Orlando-based businessman who immigrated from China more than two decades ago, began his advocacy in 2014 after Democratic lawmakers in California introduced a state constitutional amendment to bring back race-conscious college admissions. Though it was ultimately shelved, Zhao was outraged by what he characterizes as a push for “racial balancing,” which he said is “totally against the American dream.” The solution for inequities in college admissions, he said, is improving poor K-12 schools and promoting a “pro-education culture” in minority communities.

That summer, Zhao began organizing more than 60 groups in a complaint against Harvard, alleging that the university suppresses the number of Asian American students it enrolls. The complaint was filed in May 2015, about six months after the Blum lawsuit made similar charges.

While Asian Americans make up about 6 percent of the U.S. population, they comprised 22 percent of students admitted to Harvard last year. That’s up from approximately 18 percent in 2006 and 16 percent in 1996 – though the Asian American population nearly doubled during that time. By contrast, Zhao notes, undergraduate enrollment at the California Institute of Technology, the private science- and engineering-oriented university in Pasadena that does not consider race in admissions, is 43 percent Asian American.

Harvard has stood by its “holistic” admissions, which like many universities, takes into account an applicant’s background and personal characteristics as well as their grades and test scores.

Zhao argues that Asian Americans are being used as scapegoats in an effort to correct historical wrongs they had nothing to do with. A 2016 survey conducted by Inside Higher Ed that found 39 percent of admissions directors at public universities and 42 percent at private universities believe some colleges are holding Asian American applicants to higher standards.

Advocates also point to a 2009 study by a Princeton University professor that concluded an Asian American applicant would need to score 140 points higher than a white applicant on the 1600-point SAT, 270 points higher than a Latino applicant and 450 points higher than a black applicant to have the same odds of being admitted to 10 elite colleges that he examined. (The professor has cautioned against using the study as a “smoking gun” for discrimination because it does not account for intangible factors like teacher recommendations.)

Ward Connerly, who pushed for UC to eliminate the consideration of race as a member of its governing board and became a leading proponent of Proposition 209, said the trends at Berkeley and UCLA demonstrate that Asian Americans take admissions standards more seriously and prepare themselves better for the competition of applying to college.

An African American born in Louisiana during the Jim Crow era, Connerly generated controversy with his strong stance against affirmative action. But he said he would support Proposition 209 again “in a heartbeat.”

“Is there blatant discrimination of the admissions people against blacks and Latinos? No,” he said. “The reality is that Asian kids were gumming up the works, if you will, and outperforming their numbers of what UC thought was the desirable mix for diversity purposes.”

But Ochi, the lawyer defending affirmative action, said opponents overlook the reasons why these “holistic” policies are necessary: While black and Latino students, who are increasingly segregated in the poorest schools, have lower standardized test scores on average, those exams provide only a limited indication of how an applicant will perform in college. And when so many students applying to elite universities have good scores, admissions officers need to look at other factors to make up their minds.

Even if you removed all black and Latino students from the applicant pool, Ochi notes, it would barely change the outcome for other applicants. A 2016 study by professors at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill determined that the odds of admission would only increase by 1 percent at Harvard and 5 percent at their own campus without any black and Latino applicants, because there are substantially fewer of them.

“It’s just really hard to get into these schools,” Ochi said.

The real barrier for Asian Americans, she argues, is “white selection advantage.” White students make up the vast majority of applicants to elite colleges; disproportionately receive special consideration for family legacy, major donations and athletics; and are admitted at the highest rates. That issue could be addressed without completely eliminating affirmative action, which Ochi said might hurt students like Thang Diep.

Diep, a junior at Harvard, moved to the United States from Vietnam when he was 8 and grew up in a working class family in the San Fernando Valley. He struggled learning English, and recalls the schoolyard teasing he faced because of his thick accent.

He said he hesitated to apply to Harvard because he didn’t think he would fit in and his SAT scores were lower than the average for admitted students. On a whim, he wrote his application a few days before it was due; he was shocked to be accepted.

Diep has thought a lot about what made him stand out to admissions officers. In addition to his extensive high school volunteering at a hospital and a skid row soup kitchen, he believes it benefited him that Harvard could consider his background and minority identities – Vietnamese, immigrant, gay – which he reflected on extensively in his application. Making diversity a goal, he said, “can help Asians who are not as privileged.”

Now he has joined Asian Americans Advancing Justice’s argument in the Blum lawsuit, supporting Harvard’s admissions policy. Diep said he wants to show “solidarity” with other communities of color that believe affirmative action has done good, and tell Asian Americans that it’s “OK to have an opinion and it’s OK to be radical and talk about these things.”

“You don’t have to be the model minority to fit in,” he said. “We’re not all the same.”

Alexei Koseff: 916-321-5236, @akoseff