Affirmative action positions Asian Americans in identity purgatory

An Oct. 2018 lawsuit regarding Harvard’s alleged discriminatory admissions process against Asian-Americans garnered national media attention, bringing to light at least two issues in affirmative action and where Asians should stand on it.

In a country so concerned about polarizing colors like black and white or blue and red politics, Asian-Americans don’t always fit one political mold. Coinciding with the “model minority” stigma that’s been gaining more traction within the Asian community, Asian-Americans often are looked at as the minorities that get by in life the “right way.” Most people across the board view the Asian demographic as upper-middle class, and although there is some truth regarding this, it simply continues to perpetuate stereotypes while also failing to tell the narratives of underrepresented members within this group.

What most people don’t know is that Asian-Americans are the racial group with the largest and fastest-growing income disparity. Of course, the main reason as to how this occurred is by throwing together more than 40 ethnicities with backgrounds including the Indian subcontinent, East Asia and maritime and mainland Southeast Asia.

The broad umbrella term of what it means to be “Asian-American” encompasses hundreds of different languages into one category with a handful of factors as the only real similarities at best. This relates back to the Harvard case and affirmative action in the sense that it shows how thousands of applicants are affected because of only a couple of stereotypes.

Harvard conducted an internal investigation regarding their 2013 admissions process and found bias against their Asian-American applicants, and continued it by consistently rating these applicants in the lower tier when it came to personality rating. In other words, Asian-Americans were fighting an even steeper uphill battle to get into Harvard, all because the university rated their personality based off outdated, racist stereotypes of Asians being submissive and lacking personality outside of academics. If this notion were to hold true, this means that a lower-class Cambodian refugee would face the same odds as a middle-class Chinese American when it came to being admitted to Harvard, all due to a personality report conducted by this Ivy League institution.

Even if the case weren’t as drastic, a middle class Asian-American would still have a lower chance of getting into the university compared to their fellow minority counterparts, such as Hispanics or African-Americans. To make matters worse, an employee at Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research even wrote in a report that “Asian high achievers have lower rates of admission,” as if the group needed more obstacles to hurdle.

As for affirmative action, the reason why Asian-Americans are so torn on the issue is because there are too many people to include. Other than the obvious aspect of Asians being a diverse group based on geographic origin with varying socioeconomic backgrounds, Asians are identified as minorities but don’t necessarily reap the benefits of being one. Combine this aspect with the fact that Asian Americans are generally in favor of affirmative action, leaves their identity all the more confusing.

As stated earlier, Asians would either support minorities for enjoying the benefits that they themselves don’t get to see, or be viewed as tokenized puppets to white conservatives. Liberals cry out that Harvard is enacting illegal quotas by purposely not admitting more Asians, while conservatives use this as an attack on affirmative action backfiring against an already-oppressed demographic.

If America still wants to continue keeping track of demographics in the future, they should do it more accurately. In the meantime, it would be a step into the right direction to at least break down the geographical parts of Asia within their own groups, like East Asians being their own subcategory, for example. Also, the fact that Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) is even a term that seemingly combined the latter with the former at the last minute, does a huge disservice to the subregions of Oceania — and that’s only one of the many issues at hand.

There isn’t going to be one solution that will surely solve all our problems regarding race-based admissions. Although it may have started as a means of compensating for what happened to minorities in the past, affirmative action walks a fine line nowadays between assured diversity and state-sponsored racism.

Perhaps emphasizing socioeconomic status over race might balance out these discrepancies in the meantime, as there exist poor people of all colors. But affirmative action started it off with the supposed right intent in mind too, it’s all a matter of time before taking socioeconomic background into account accepts lower class applicants at the demise of their upper class counterparts.

Race-based admissions cause issues like these, where richer white kids and the poorer minorities thrive, pitting the Asian Americans against each other. In this ongoing battle of “who can stick out the most out of the middle class” often leads to these top-tier schools to only accept Asians who have nearly perfect test scores.

Asians with phenomenal academic records “settle” with second-tier schools if they don’t get into the premiere universities that they statistically qualify for. This is an issue considering who ends up getting into these top-tier schools – those from Hispanic or black backgrounds with scores that didn’t meet the standards Asian-Americans and whites are held to.

Affirmative action sheds light on what was once heralded as a restitutive measure for minorities in recognition of past injustices, to specific minorities like Asians being discriminated against. Perfect legislation will never exist, but improvements can always be made. Affirmative action is outdated and focus needs to shift on other more important factors like income and resources in communities that may have a lack thereof. If that proves to not be better in the long run, it would have at least tried to even things out short-term.

Being Asian-American can mean so many different things, regardless of your background. It could mean playing this middle role in a polarizing American racial climate that often pits the demographic group amongst themselves. Perhaps the definition of being Asian-American isn’t about fitting the mold of black or white America, or agreeing on one stance when it comes to affirmative action. Maybe being Asian-American is embracing the unique and diverse amount of people and their opinions in spite of this dated umbrella term. Maybe our country needs to reevaluate these racial categories and be more specific about the diversity of the world’s largest continent. We need to stop treating these classifications and terms as if it’s the priority, whether that be in casual conversation or in a high-stakes, academic setting.

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