Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Discrimination against Asian-Americans in college admission -- Note for a lecture, "E Pluribus Unum? What Keeps the United States United"

America's affirmative action programmes designed to help racial minorities are being used by Ivy League schools to discriminate against Asian-Americans
By Leon Hadar
According to one study, more than half of all applicants to Harvard with exceptionally high SAT scores in 2008 were Asians, but they made up only 17 per cent of the entering class.
THE American public and media have been preoccupied in recent days with the political and social drama unfolding in Ferguson, a suburb of St Louis in Missouri. A decision by a grand jury last week not to indict the white policeman, Darren Wilson, who fatally shot Michael Brown, an 18-year-old African-American, in August sparked protests and acts of vandalism in Ferguson and around the country.
Americans have been glued to their television sets watching in horror scenes of mostly young blacks looting businesses, vandalising vehicles and confronting police who showed up in riot gear and tried to block off access to several areas of Ferguson, leading to violent clashes between protesters and police.
"Ferguson" will probably be recalled now as another sad chapter in the history of race relations in America. The police and their supporters would argue that Mr Wilson acted in self-defence when attacked by Mr Brown. Spokesmen for African-American civil-rights groups would contend that the incident was just the latest example of the low value that American society places on the lives of young black men.
Indeed, despite the election of an African-American as president and the continuing but slow improvement in the economic and social status of African-Americans in recent years, race problems - and in particular, relations between whites and blacks in the United States - would continue to dominate public discourse for many years to come.
But the focus on the plight of African-Americans tends to divert attention from the discrimination faced by other radical and ethnic groups in the US, including Asian-Americans. The recent success of Chinese, Indians, Vietnamese, Koreans and Japanese in integrating into American society - with the educational and professional achievements of Asian-Americans surpassing those of white Americans - may explain why many Americans forget that not long ago Asian-Americans were treated like second-class citizens, and denied access to housing, education and jobs.
Thousands of Chinese immigrants were recruited to work in terrible slave-like conditions building American railways at the end of the 19th century. American citizens of Japanese descent were rounded up and interned in concentration camps after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (while many Japanese-Americans were serving their adopted country fighting the Japanese). And Korean, Vietnamese and other immigrants from East Asia that fled their countries for the US were never embraced with open arms by American society.
So consider the following paradox. It seems that Affirmative Action (or positive discrimination) programmes that were adopted by the US government as part of an effort to assist racial minorities, including blacks and Asian-Americans, are now being employed as a weapon by top American universities to discriminate against Asian-American applicants.
More specifically, Asian-American individuals and groups, backed by civil rights organisations, are accusing those so-called Ivy League schools, including Harvard, of using race in their admission policy to discriminate against Asian-Americans, who are deemed to be "over-represented" in the student population.
In a prominent legal case heard by the Supreme Court last year, Fisher vs University of Texas at Austin, that challenged the consideration of race in college admissions, the petitioners refer to 22 incidents in which qualified Asian-American applicants were denied admission to the university because of their race. According to critics, Asian-Americans now face a "bamboo ceiling" when they apply for admission to colleges.
And last month, two new lawsuits were filed that called into question whether Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill were not giving sufficient priority to using race-neutral admissions criteria. The cases, brought by some of the same individuals behind the Fisher vs University of Texas at Austin, point out that Asian-Americans may suffer through race-based admissions policies. The petitioners want to enforce the Supreme Court's Fisher decision that ruled that race should be used as a criterion only after other means of achieving diversity have been tried.
According to Ron Unz, an economist who has researched the issue, there has been a consistent pattern of discrimination by Harvard and other universities against Asian-American applicants since at least the 1990s, noting that Harvard's reported enrolment of Asian-Americans began gradually declining at that time, falling from 20.6 per cent in 1993 to about 16.5 per cent over most of the last decade.
Interestingly enough, the decline was taking place at a time when there was a large increase in America's college-age Asian population, which doubled between 1992 and 2011 (while white numbers remained almost unchanged). Overall, according to Mr Unz, the percentage of Asian-Americans enrolled at Harvard fell by more than 50 per cent over the last two decades, while the percentage of whites remained the same.
A similar trend could be observed at other universities, with college-age Asian Americans enrolled at most of the Ivy League schools also falling over the same period despite a huge increase in the number of Asian-American applicants who scored high in the college admission tests (also known as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT).
By comparison, colleges that adopted a selective but race-neutral admissions policy, such as the California Institute of Technology, have seen their enrolment of Asian-Americans increasing almost exactly in line with the growth of the Asian-American population.
Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade points to statistical evidence that shows that Asian-American applicants are being discriminated against, highlighting the wide discrepancies in the SAT scores needed to gain admission to elite colleges. Using data from 1997, he found that Asian-Americans scoring a perfect 1,600 had the same chances of getting in as white students who scored 1,460 and African-American students who scored 1,150.
SB Woo, a retired physics professor from Delaware, a critic of what he regards as blatant race-conscious college admissions and who founded an organisation that defends Asian-American interests, has been receiving for years letters from Asian-American parents whose children had been rejected by Ivy League schools that admitted non-Asian classmates with lower test scores.
Critics allege that Harvard and other Ivy League schools now have quotas for Asian students, in what appears to be similar policy to that in the early 20th century for Jewish students. Like in the case of Jews applying for admission to Harvard, Yale and Princeton in 1914, the universities defend their policies today by arguing that SAT scores should not be the only basis for admission, and that other "intangible" criteria such as "leadership" should be taken into consideration.
But it's more likely that Harvard and other universities are worried that if the application process were based entirely on merit and SAT scores, the percentage of Asian-Americans in the student population could increase, perhaps to more than 50 per cent in some departments, while the number of African-Americans and Hispanics, who together constitute around 25 per cent of the entering class today, would fall dramatically.
According to one study, more than half of all applicants to Harvard with exceptionally high SAT scores in 2008 were Asians, but they made up only 17 per cent of the entering class. They make up 20 per cent of the entering class today, although based on their test scores their percentage in the entering class should have risen to at least 40 per cent.
It's not clear whether the lawsuits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill would bring about change in their policies. But they should at least encourage a debate over whether affirmative action programmes that were intended to address racial inequality are now creating the conditions for racial discrimination.
Unlike what happened in Ferguson, no one expects that Harvard's policies would spark violent protests. But at the end of the day, discrimination is discrimination whether it's practised against African-Americans or Asian-Americans.

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