Two weeks ago, the University became embroiled in a dispute regarding the confidentiality of using affirmative action in the admissions process, a practice that a conservative interest group, Students for Fair Admissions, is portraying as a civil rights violation against Asian applicants. The University filed a lawsuit in order to block the release of documents relating to a civil rights complaint that SFA filed a year ago with the Department of Justice, alleging anti-Asian bias in the University’s college admissions process. SFA argued that the University was depressing Asian admission rates. In its view, even though the number of Asian applicants had increased, the percentage of Asian undergraduates at Princeton remained constant.
Animosity towards affirmative action is nothing new to our Asian and Asian-American communities, though Asians may not feel comfortable expressing that in front of other minority groups. Our Asian communities put hard work on a pedestal, as if anything but automatic gratification is an injustice. It might seem like it is “easier” for other minority groups to get into a university, while Asians might have to put in more effort for the same acceptance. In fact, it seems like Black, Latinx, and Native American students “steal” spots from equally or more qualified Asians. Maybe you don’t mean to harbor so much animosity, but you feel pushed to do so because you just want your shot at the American Dream: a secure future and better life through a college education.
AASA sees why affirmative action can seem like an indirect attack on the Asian community or a race quota in college admissions. But affirmative action is the wrong target for your anger. There is a pervasive, pernicious media narrative that affirmative action harms Asians. But that’s simply not the case.
We need to dispel the idea that universities that consider affirmative action in their admissions policies harm Asians. The policy is not to exclude Asians from getting a Princeton education, as was the case with the explicit quota that Princeton used to keep the Jewish student population under 4 percent in the early 20th century. The Jewish quota was a negative action, intending to keep Jewish students out. Affirmative action is a positive policy, meant to include minority groups who historically have not had the same educational opportunities due to socioeconomic disadvantages, among other issues. We also need to recognize that affirmative action, though it may be unfair, is definitely not a civil rights violation. A rejection from Princeton University is not the same as disenfranchisement, so let us not conflate the two.
It is far too easy to scapegoat affirmative action for the capriciousness of college admissions. The University’s goal of creating a well-rounded community does not correspond with the applicant’s notion that hard work and accomplishment will automatically lead to admission. Those who oppose affirmative action on the basis of anti-Asian bias should consider that Princeton does not owe admission to the smart people of the world, but it does have a duty to its current student body to provide the most informative educational experience. We would argue that being exposed to diverse worldviews is important to the student body’s intellectual growth outside of the classroom.
Affirmative action benefits Asians too, especially when we consider the broader Asian-American and Pacific Islander community. Contrary to many narratives, affirmative action can actually help Asians from traditionally disadvantaged subgroups. The anti-Asian bias falls apart when we consider that the Asian experience is not uniform: the Asian Law Caucus’s amicus brief on Fisher v. Texas finds that there are “large disparities in educational attainment among Asian-American ethnic groups. Based on U.S. Census Bureau data, the educational attainment of Hmong, Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese Americans is the lowest among Asian-American ethnic groups and similar to those of Latinos and African Americans.” The assumption that affirmative action is unilaterally anti-Asian perpetuates the neglect that some Asian ethnic groups face when they really need assistance.
The most difficult step is seeing past how much it seems we stand to lose and consider how much affirmative action benefits our fellow people of color. In an issue as personal and important to the Asian community as education, the stakes are high and rejection seems hard to justify when you have worked so hard. We need to move beyond assigning an agenda to Black, Latinx, and Native American students who have worked hard and are applying to colleges just like us. They are not stealing spots; they are not the culprit. The continuous dispute over affirmative action should compel us to reflect on who we are pointing our animosity toward in our casual conversations and how we position ourselves among other ethnicities.
The Princeton Asian American Students Association