The 21 June issue of Inside Higher Ed reports on two articles that “challenge some conventional wisdom about affirmative action in higher education.”
The article about Asian Americans comes amid many reports that they are the group that most benefits from the elimination of affirmative action. That supposition is important for several reasons, both practical and political. On a practical level, it counters the idea that colleges will be all white in a post-affirmative action era. Politically, these projections have been used repeatedly by critics of affirmative action, arguing that they are not “anti-minority” and to appeal for Asian support in referendums. One of the most dramatic studies on this issue came last year, when two Princeton University researchers analyzed data from elite colleges and projected that, without affirmative action, four of every five slots lost by black and Latino students would go to Asian Americans.
In “Negative Action Versus Affirmative Action: Asian Pacific Americans Are Still Caught in the Crossfire,” William C. Kidder takes issue with the Princeton study and similar findings by other scholars. It’s not that the demographic shift seen by the Princeton researchers wouldn’t take place in an admissions system that’s truly race-neutral, says Kidder, a senior policy analyst at the University of California at Davis. Rather, it’s the question of why those slots would go to Asian applicants.
The reason, he says, isn’t the elimination of affirmative action, but the widespread use of “negative action,” under which colleges appear to hold Asian American applicants to higher standards than they hold other applicants. Using the available data from the Princeton study — and not all of it is available — Kidder argues that the vast majority of the gains that Asian American applicants would see come from the elimination of “negative action,” not the opening up of slots currently used for affirmative action. Based on the data used by the Princeton study, Kidder argues that negative action is the equivalent of losing 50 points on the SAT….
Tracking enrollment patterns from 1993, when all of the law schools had affirmative action, to 2004 — when they all did not — and then to 2005, when Texas restored it, his results were surprising. Without affirmative action, the share of Asian American enrollments dropped at two of the law schools and increased only marginally at three of the schools — even though people assume Asian American enrollments will go way up without affirmative action. Kidder notes that during the time period studied, the percentage of Asian Americans applying to law school increased 50 percent, so the pool should have created the opportunity for major increases.
What does this all mean? Kidder argues that all the references to growing Asian enrollments in a post-affirmative action world encourage a return to the “yellow peril” fear of people from Asia taking over. More broadly, he thinks Asian Americans in particular aren’t getting accurate information about the real cause of their perceived difficulties getting into competitive colleges. Their obstacle, he says, isn’t affirmative action, but the discrimination Asian Americans experience by being held to higher standards than anyone else. He says that the differential standards appear to be growing and are similar in some ways to the way some Ivy League institutions limited Jewish enrollments in the first half of the 20th century.