Chun: Granular Affirmative Action

Treating racial groups as monoliths is antithetical to goals of affirmative action.

by Steven Chun | 8/18/17 2:10am

Elite universities are places of careful research and meticulous formulation, yet their admissions policies are a far cry from the principles they ought to represent. In the chaotic debate over affirmative action in college admissions, the methodology problem is painfully apparent. Affirmative action needs to be more granular — especially as it applies to Asian Americans.

This article is not a normative argument about affirmative action, but rather a necessary footnote about its methodology. Race-conscious policies have the potential to do a great deal of good, but they are limited by their lack of granularity.

The Department of Justice’s investigation into whether universities’ affirmative action policies discriminate against white applicants has triggered preemptive responses from the Asian American community. In the context of the 2015 complaint filed by 64 Asian American groups and the Department of Justice inquiry, Harvard Law professor Jeannie Suk Gersen writes, “The combination of the lawsuit and the potential federal civil rights inquiry signals that the treatment of Asians will frame the next phase of the legal debate over race-conscious admissions programs.” She argues that Asian Americans are not ammunition to be used against race-conscious admissions policies and that “continued use of affirmative action of the kind upheld by the Supreme Court is perfectly compatible with tackling the discrimination at issue.” This is important to remember, and the following logic is not intended to be ammunition against the entire idea of race-conscious admissions.

When I filled out my Common Application, I checked two boxes on the ethnicity question: white and Asian. The latter box lumped me in with fellow Chinese applicants as well as Japanese, Taiwanese, Bengali, Filipino, Pakistani, Laotian, Korean, Cambodian, Malaysian and more. These ethnic groups span both the top and bottom percentiles of median income in the United States, yet that box reduces them to a singular entity.

Asian, white, black and hispanic students are not monoliths, and treating them as such severely undermines the ethical and logical underpinnings of affirmative action. Just among Asian subgroups, Indian Americans earned a median household income of $100,547 in 2013, with Bangladeshi Americans earning a median of $51,331.

Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in Fisher vs. University of Texas at Austin, the landmark case regarding the University of Texas’s affirmative action admission policy, describes four objectives of affirmative action. First, it is intended to increase the scientifically-backed benefits of a diverse educational environment; second, encourage racial integration in American society; third, serve as reparations for historical wrongs; and fourth, act as a means of combating ongoing structural racial discrimination. These are worthy and noble goals.

Wealthy Asian subgroups make up a disproportionate percentage of elite universities — disqualifying them from the first justification — and many take their strong socioeconomic status to mean they do not qualify for the second. Wealthy Asian subgroups certainly qualify for the third and fourth justifications — the largest known mass lynching in American history was of 17 Chinese Americans in 1871 — but for many, only meeting two out of four goals means their exclusion from the benefits of affirmative action is justified.

However, for poorer Asian subgroups, like Cambodian, Vietnamese and Laotian Americans, not a single rationale holds. Their median household incomes are some of the lowest of any ethnic group; they all attain bachelor’s degrees at a rate of at least 10 percent less than whites; and they have suffered under discriminatory laws like People vs. Hall, in which the California Supreme Court ruled that Chinese Americans could not testify against white Americans. A socioeconomically struggling group with poor representation in higher education and historical and ongoing racial discrimination is the exact target population of affirmative action. To ignore this population is a failure; to hurt this population is ethically indefensible.

All of this is thrown out by the coarse granularity of college admissions. The fix is seemingly simple: use more categories. Ask more questions about someone’s background in college applications and use that data to make a better informed decision about the diversity an applicant brings to campus. Every descendant of a continent spanning 30 percent of the world’s landmass and containing over half of its population cannot be distilled into a singular experience or category. A wealthy Korean American student and a poor Cambodian student bring extremely different perspectives and backgrounds to a college campus, and Asian Americans are just one example — similar distinctions exist in every racial group.

I would love to see Dartmouth lead the charge in fixing what can only be described as a gross over-simplification of diversity and an abhorrent application of sound statistical principles. Our current policy of treating racial groups as monoliths hurts so many groups that it has become antithetical to the spirit of affirmative action. Race-conscious admissions policies have a great capacity to generate positive change; it is a shame to see them crippled by poor methodology.