My Understanding of Affirmative Action

In the novel Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison, the African American protagonist gets expelled from his university after showing the school’s white donor the reality of the slums. This crushes the narrator’s belief of carefully adhering to white supremacist rule and his dream of using education as a stepping stone to escape poverty is shattered. He is forced to move to the South, where he realizes he is invisible because of the way whites and blacks treat him.

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 As an Asian student, I cannot directly relate to the narrator in the context of race, but I can empathize as a student of color. Throughout the novel, the Invisible Man is concerned with being unseen because of his race. The wealthy white folks use the narrator as a charity case, while the blacks see him as another soldier eager to serve the new social order. He is shown the reality of being disposable and how people can never truly see him past his skin color.

At a school that is 65% Asian, I identify with what it means to be “just another Asian student” and often remain unseen because people group me with the masses, instead of seeing me as an individual. In Invisible Man, the political organization, the Brotherhood, attempt to force the Invisible Man to think and have the same beliefs as the organization. Similarly, society often forces the notion upon me that I should think and inherently have the same viewpoints as other Asians as well. The Invisible Man and I are both blind to other people because they see us as only our race, preventing others from completely understanding our identity. Instead, this forces individuals to resort to using stereotypes to complete our narrative and prevents others from acknowledging the racial tensions that empower minorities to share their experiences.

The process of applying to higher education institions illustrates to me, this conflict. I intend to apply to many colleges, and there is currently a lawsuit that highlights the inequality of the admissions process. Although affirmative action, the act of promoting the education and employment for those that have been historically discriminated against, suggest that a spot at this prestigious university is guaranteed to a student of color that excels academically, this is not the case. A third way of evaluating college admissions that is being considered in the application process is to holistically examine merit and race, in combination with disclosed extenuating circumstances, that could be widely used in the future to provide equity without resorting to stereotypes.

The application process at Harvard and many other Ivy Leagues in general have always been competitive. For Harvard’s class of 2021, the admittance rate was a meager 5.9%— out of the record number 42,742 students that applied, 2,056 got in and 40,686 were rejected. In recent years, the college has been praised for its consideration of students from diverse backgrounds due to the vast increase in Asian American and African American students accepted and applicants from low-income and first-generation backgrounds. In fact, the trend of Harvard admitting students from minority backgrounds really began to rise with the admittance of the class of 2018.

“The Class of 2018 reflects the excellence achieved by the students of an increasingly diverse America,” said William R. Fitzsimmons, Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid. “Attracting such students to the College is vital to Harvard’s mission of educating the future leaders of our nation.” However, while the percentages of white students admitted has been following a downward trend (2017, 61.7% white; 2021, 52.1% white) from the predominantly white institution, Asian activists have stated that the application process has been discriminatory towards Asians by pitting them against other minorities and having them compete for spots in the distinguished university (Harvard University Admissions and Financial Aid).

Thus, the alleged consistent discrimination against Asian American students has led Student for Fair Admissions (SFA), a coalition of students and parents that stand against racial preferences in the college application process, to sue Harvard University on November 2014. They claimed Harvard was in direct violation of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which made discrimination on account of race, color, religion, sex, or national origin, illegal. In particular, they wanted to highlight the policy of affirmative action from the Act that was passed to ensure equal representation in education and schools, but now has been used against Asian Americans by favoring other minorities and according to the rejected students “penalizing their high achievements as a group.”

During the trial, Fitzsimmons revealed that recruitment letters were only sent to African Americans that scored around 1100 while Asian Americans were sent one only if they scored 1350 for women and 1380 for men— at least a 250 point difference out of the total score of 1600 (Eustachewich). Fitzsimmons challenged the notion that this was racism by stating that this policy would “break the cycle” by targeting racial groups that normally wouldn’t consider applying. Every year, around 4,910 Asian American, 1,938 African American, 2,082 Hispanic American, and 8,685 white students apply to Harvard. Yet, Asian Americans have the lowest rate of acceptance of any racial groups from 1995 to 2013 in data revealed during the Harvard trial. Asian Americans had an acceptance rate of 8.1%, Hispanic American had an acceptance rate of 10.6%, 13.2% for African Americans, and 11.1% for white students (Yonah and McCafferty).

The university has also been criticized for lowering the SAT cut off scores for Hispanic and African American students. According to data released in court documents, Asian American students admitted to Harvard consistently had the highest SAT score and averaged 767 out of the sectional total score of 800 from 2000 to 2017. By comparison, white students had an average score of 745 (22 points difference), Hispanic American students had an average score 718 (49 points difference), and African Americans had an average score of 704 (63 points difference) (Yonah and McCafferty).

Furthermore, Harvard admission officers have been condemned for using harmful stereotypes to characterize Asian American students: “Oh, typical Asian student. Wants to be a doctor. Nothing special here.” was written in an applicant’s files (Li). Admission officers ranked Asian Americans low in personality traits and said Asian students lacked courage, a likeable personality, compassion, and were seen as less “widely respected.” This has drawn criticism from many Asian Americans who feel that the anti-Asian bias of Harvard exacerbates the stereotypes of Asian Americans being non-unique, meek, and replaceable in American society and the academic environment (Li). 

Harvard has garnered criticism from many Asian American activist groups for favoring other minority groups, thus making the lawsuit primarily focused on whether race should be completely eliminated from admission policies— a “race- blind” admission. The outcome of the court case has been closely watched by other universities because it could influence their own admission policies and has lead the Justice Department to open a full-on investigation on the admission policies of the most competitive schools in America, including Harvard (Adams).

When affirmative action was first passed in an executive order by President John F. Kennedy, it  was intended to address the inequalities for many minorities who were previously barred from job opportunities. Because they have traditionally been stereotyped to fit particular careers or interests, the policy was intended to encourage diversity and give minorities a chance to show their skills in job sectors where they were previously not represented.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 expanded on the executive order and prevented racial segregation in schools. This allowed students from disadvantaged backgrounds, often minorities, the opportunity to attend universities that previously made it difficult for them to do so. For example, SAT and ACT tests are required by universities. Yet, improvements are shown only when students retake it several times, which low-income students are unable to afford to do so (Gorgan). In addition, low-income students often do not have the privileges that wealthy students often seek— private tutors, test prep and extracurriculars, that can really make a difference in one’s application. Affirmative action attempted to understand student’s achievements based on their circumstances.

Critiques of a race-blind policy also state that university relying on test scores and grades are outdated because while it measures academic intelligence— it can never reveal life skills such as the resilience and challenge students have to go through. Accordingly to Parker Gorgan, staff columnist for the Crimson White: “The challenges faced by various socioeconomic statuses, which in America is highly correlated with race, does not indicate a difference in intellectual ability, but rather a difference in circumstances and, thereby, opportunities.” Low-income students that score lower on tests are not given the opportunity to show their true potential because of their economic circumstances, so solely looking at their test scores is not an accurate measure of their contribution to a class environment. In John Iceland’s book Poverty in America those that historically faced discrimination and segregation had the highest poverty rates and were less educated. Especially, because of America’s racist past, minorities are more likely to face low levels of education, employment, income, and chronic health problems. Affirmative action wanted to increase the opportunities for those who were underserved. 

According to statistics compiled by the New York Times, minority students accepted were vastly lower in schools that made the decision not to factor in an applicant’s race during the admission process, which did not correlate with the expanding number of minority high school graduates. In addition, proponents of affirmative action says that if Harvard admissions were race-blind, there would be a overwhelming Asian majority, which is what occurred when admission officers did not factor in race (Fessenden, Keller). The race-blind policy prevented schools from fully understanding the story of an individual and a key part of their identity, detracting from the purpose of a college application. 

Others have stated that the favoritism towards Hispanic Americans and African Americans, essentially downplays the struggles that Asians have faced. By perpetuating the idea that Asians are the “model minority” and have the same advantages whites have, the favoritism erases the discrimination that Asians have constantly had to fight against. For example, the “Oriental School” established for Chinese students (later Korean and Japanese students) in San Francisco 1859 was intended to segregate Asians from attending any other schools in San Francisco. The regulation was only formally redacted two years ago, in 2017, after almost 100 years have passed when San Francisco ended school segregation in 1871 (Fuchs).

By stating that Asians students are the model minority, people forget about the history of Anti-Asian sentiments, namely the Chinese Exclusion Act that prevented the immigration of Chinese laborers or the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. Favoritism of other minorities causes individuals to ignore attacks on Asians and downplay the seriousness of the situation. For example, in a 2017 report by BBC news, Chinese students in Columbia University were targeted and had their name tags ripped off in their dorms because their names sounded foreign and were hard to pronounce (Toomey). In 2018, Students at Washington University made anti-Asian remarks in a group chat: “Why are Asians invading our study room?” and “Fuck there’s one in my room too.”  (Whitford) The stereotype of Asians “taking over” has its roots in the “yellow peril” stereotype and invokes images of a foreign invasion. This continues the negative view that Asians Americans are un-American or foreign.

Whenever there is an overabundance of minorities at a school, they face issues of belonging. I have certainly faced it at Lowell High School where I am part of the student body that comprises of the school’s 65% Asian population. As reported by US News & World Report, the student body comprises of 15% white, 10% Hispanic, and 2% African American. When people say that Lowell has a large Asian population, they often say it in a demeaning way and blame Asians as the root cause for why there is not more diversity. They make the assumption that I benefited from the advantages in my home life, my parents are well off, and my space should be reserved for other minorities because they don’t have the same advantages that I do.

 However, I do not come from a wealthy background. In fact, my parents are non-English speaking immigrants. I am low income and first-gen, live in government subsidized housing, and am part of the free or reduced lunch program at school. I take the bus for four hours everyday just to get to and from school. I live in a neighborhood that has the highest crime rate and drug usage in the city. Yet, I do the best I can in striving towards a higher education for a better future for my family and did the best I could in my public middle school to get accepted to this school. But because people believe the model minority myth, Asians are often seen as not the intended recipient for affirmative action and I am unable to get the help I need to be successful. 

By categorizing Asians as a group that already has lots of privileges, admission officers are quick to make judgement and have a incomplete story of students. For example, in a report by New York Times, Southeast Asian communities have poverty rates equal to Black and Latino communities and many are strong supporters of affirmative action. Yet, they are not considered Asian most of the time and are reported to face more discrimination than other Asians in the United States and their political issues never receive widespread news coverage. The categorization of Asians being the “model minority” has easily been taken advantage of using affirmative action (Guan).

Many have also criticized affirmative action for essentially downplaying the academic efforts of a student because their race was a determining factor for admission. This was the argument in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) where Bakke, a white man, sued the UCs citing that he had been rejected at the University of Davis twice because of his race. Bakke contended that his merits in GPA and test scores were significantly higher than any minorities admitted during those two years he applied but the University had a affirmative action system that guaranteed admission for 16 “qualified minorities” out of a class of 100 students that prevented him from being accepted (Oyez).

The Supreme Court maintained that affirmative action was constitutional but quotas were illegal because it didn’t comply with the Fourteenth Amendment, which ensures that all individuals have equal rights, privileges, and protection. However, the Court stated that there is a reasonable way for race to be considered in admissions to ensure diversity and highlighted the efforts of Harvard’s “race-conscious” admissions where if the application team determined that a student’s race would enrich the diversity and experience of the class, then they would be selected over other candidates who may have higher academic scores (MBA Crystal Ball). The student would be able to provide viewpoints, perspectives, and stories that their peers may not necessarily be exposed to. This ensures that students are able to become leaders in an increasingly diverse society and participate in discussions as informed students.

More recently in the Fisher v. University of Texas (2013, 2016) case, the first court ruling cited that the University of Texas should strive for more race neutral alternatives to admissions after Fisher, a white student, was denied. However, the ruling was overturned in 2016 after the Supreme Court found that race played a small role in the “holistic” review of applicants. According to US News & World report, a closer look at UT’s admission policies found that even if race was considered, it was not the deciding factor in the outcome. Their approach evaluated other factors such as the the candidates community service and socioeconomic status as well (Camera).

 Other detractors for affirmative action state that it is unfair for students to be given an advantage based solely on their skin color rather than the obstacles and circumstances they have faced. This means that students who may not need the help of affirmative action are receiving it. In addition, the notion of giving favorability based on skin color has lead many to term affirmative action: “reverse discrimination” because it necessitates an illegal quota value instead of looking at merits and standards. 

Opponents of the affirmative action also criticize the diversity argument because it reinforces the stereotype that women and minorities can only thrive if given unfair advantages over others. This is highlighted in two of the Supreme Court judges differing opinions. Justice Sonia Sotomayor, the first Hispanic judge on the Supreme Court, supports affirmative action and has admitted that affirmative action helped her get into Princeton and Yale, while Justice Clarence Thomas, the second African-American judge on the Supreme Court, has said he always felt “inferior to white students” and wished he never revealed his race during his admission to Yale. Thomas has stated that the argument for affirmative action’s educational benefits is a “faddish theory and promotes segregation” (Barro).

Many opponents of affirmative action also state that it also is unhelpful because of the ‘mismatch theory’ which postulates minorities who are admitted because of affirmative action are unable to be on par with the expectations of the school and are often behind in comparison to their peers— in graduation rates, academic grades, and income. According to Inside Higher Ed, African American and Hispanics are 1.5 times more likely to dropout of college with links to affirmative action. In a 2005 study published by Inside Higher Ed, 52% of African American students at Yale were at the bottom tenth of their classes because many were unable to handle their course load (Tate).

In addition, many believe that minority gain from affirmative action but studies have shown that white women benefit the most and are amongst its fiercest opponents. According to the California Senate Government Organization Committee, the first two decades after affirmative action was passed, there was a rise in white women in careers, especially in managerial positions (Massie). White women comprised of 57,250 managerial positions compared to African Americans who had 10,500, Latinos 19,000, and Asian Americans 24,600. In a 2014 survey conducted by Cooperative Congressional Election Study, 70% of white women said they somewhat or strongly opposed affirmative action.

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My Understanding Of Affirmative Action. (2019, Aug 02). Retrieved October 6, 2022 , from
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