Affirmative action debate requires nuance

By Jessica Fan

Oakland, CA

This fall, millions of seniors across the country will decide which colleges to apply to and await the letters that will decide their fate. However, for some students, college-related stress goes beyond just SAT scores and GPA. 

One of the biggest stories this application season is the affirmative action controversy at Harvard College over Asian-American students. The college has been accused in a lawsuit of incorporating anti-Asian policies, and court proceedings are due to begin in October. In response to the accusations, Harvard has accused the organizers of the lawsuit, the Students for Fair Admissions, of being complicit in an effort to repeal affirmative action altogether. 

Whether or not the allegations against Harvard are true, Asian-American students are right to be concerned about admissions policies. As an Asian-American who comes from a low-income background, I believe that affirmative action policies are important. But when it comes to college admissions, we need to treat racial categories with greater nuance.

Affirmative action policies that benefit students of color facilitate more diverse educational experiences for everyone and ensure that voices that have long been buried by elitist admission processes can finally be seen and heard. Higher education is the foundation of a successful career, and communities of color—especially Black and Latino communities —have historically been denied that opportunity. Affirmative action provides people of color with a fair chance at education. 

One of the biggest problems with affirmative action policies, though, is the broad grouping of Asian-Americans. Within the Asian diaspora, there are different cultures and ethnicities that lead to very distinct experiences. You can’t compare the experiences of a third-generation Japanese-American whose family lived through internment camps to a first-generation Filipino immigrant who graduated almost illiterate in an underfunded school.

Disappointingly, the focus of the affirmative action debate has been dominated by the voices of wealthy Asian-Americans. Groups like The Orange Club, which was founded in Irvine, Calif., by a group of Chinese-Americans, rally the support of their community behind one single goal: to end affirmative action. The often-fractured community is banding together for the chance to support local Republican candidates who vow to overturn affirmative action. They fail to recognize the obstacles faced by non-Asian minority groups, and they fail at addressing the systemic problems within other parts of the Asian community—such as the extremely low graduation rate among low-income Filipino high school students or the large number of under-resourced schools in California with high populations of Asian students. 

But wealthy Asians are not the only ones at fault in this situation. Institutional supporters of affirmative action need to take into account a broad range of diversity, and devise new ways to ensure that their policies are upheld within the Asian community, perhaps going so far as to dissolve the “Asian” category altogether in favor for a more complex breakdown of what it means to be Asian.

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