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Diversity among Asians divides them on affirmative action

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    Rowers paddled down the Charles River, in March 2017, past the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass. A federal judge in Boston is scheduled to hear closing arguments, today, in a highly publicized lawsuit alleging that elite Harvard discriminates against Asian-Americans.

A federal judge in Boston is scheduled to hear closing arguments today in a highly publicized lawsuit alleging that elite Harvard discriminates against Asian-Americans.

Much of the spotlight has been on affluent Chinese-Americans with stellar academic scores who say the college rejects Asians in favor of lesser-qualified applicants. They say factoring in race hurts Asian-Americans.

But others in the Asian community say that a race-blind process relying solely on academic scores would also hurt Asian-Americans. Southeast Asians, for example, who largely came over as refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, are under-represented in higher education.

“The narrative right now is very focused on a very specific segment within the Asian-American community that does not represent the larger Asian-American community,” said Quyen Dinh, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.

The center signed on to a “friend of the court” brief by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, siding with Harvard’s use of what the university calls a “holistic” review of an applicant.

The case brought by Students for Fair Admissions could wind up before a newly re-constituted and more conservative U.S. Supreme Court, which only narrowly re-affirmed the use of race in college admissions two years ago.

Here are some of the issues surrounding Asian-Americans and affirmative action:


There are at least 18 million people in the U.S. who are of Asian descent from about 20 countries. Asian-Americans are about 6 percent of the U.S. population, but make up nearly 23 percent of this year’s freshman class at Harvard, 22 percent of the same class at Princeton, and are the fastest growing minority in the country.

Chinese-Americans are the largest sub-group with at least 4.3 million people, followed by Indian-Americans at 4 million and Filipino-Americans at 3 million.

Chinese started migrating to the country in the 19th century as labor for the growing West. More recent waves include refugees from Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, as well as highly skilled workers from China and India.

The term “Asian-American” was coined by young civil rights activists marching alongside Latinos and African Americans for social justice in the 1960s.

Ellen D. Wu, a history professor and director of the Asian American Studies Program at Indiana University in Bloomington, says that political identity has now evolved largely into a demographic designation for “a very diverse group.”


Students for Fair Admissions filed the lawsuit against Harvard in 2014. Actively supporting it is the Asian American Coalition for Education, which filed federal complaints in 2015 alleging discrimination. The coalition’s president is Yukong Zhao, a corporate strategist who immigrated to the U.S. from China in 1992 to pursue a master’s degree in business.

Zhao is part of a new generation of wealthier Chinese immigrants who are active on social media and opposed to affirmative action.

Conservative strategist Edward Blum, who is president of Students for Fair Admissions, was behind the last affirmative action admissions case, which accused the University of Texas of discriminating against white students. Blum lost that case at the U.S. Supreme Court.


Depends on who you ask.

Julie J. Park, author of “Race on Campus: Debunking Myths with Data” and past consultant to Harvard in the lawsuit, says under-represented Asians such as Cambodians and Hmong can get a boost from a review that goes beyond test scores. The same goes for lower-income Asian-Americans whose grades may not reflect their potential. Park also says colleges want students with different backgrounds so Asian-Americans may be more coveted in fields or colleges with few Asians. It depends on the situation.

Students for Fair Admissions, on the other hand, argues the system in place at Harvard puts unfair weight on race, primarily at the expense of academically talented Asian Americans. It also alleges that Harvard intentionally uses a vague “personal rating” to reject Asian-American applicants in favor of students from other racial backgrounds.

Supporters of affirmative action say it’s possible that Harvard is biased against Asian-Americans, but that doesn’t mean race-conscious policies should be scrapped.


The stereotype of Asian-Americans as hard-working, educated and free of societal problems started in the 1960s. Wu, the history professor, says it was a way for whites to establish a racial order that was defined, most importantly, by not being black.

Asian-Americans were also responsible for perpetuating the myth, she said, adding that the “consequences of that have long functioned to justify anti-black racism and anti-black policies.”


Overall, the numbers look good for Asian-Americans. Their household median income is $83,000, compared with $60,000 for the U.S. More than 50 percent have a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared with 32 percent for the country, according to the 2017 American Community Survey put out by the U.S. Census Bureau.

But there are large disparities within the group.

For example, while 75 percent of Indians held a bachelor’s degree or higher, only 16 percent of Laotians and 20 percent of Cambodians had done so. Among Chinese, the figure is 55 percent.

Indian households have the highest median income at $114,000 while at the other end are Burmese households, at $40,000. About 6 percent of Filipino individuals live in poverty, compared with 21 percent of Nepalese and 31 percent of Burmese.

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