Affirmative Action & the Myth of the Model Minority


Marking the option “Asian” for the ethnicity-centered questions on college applications can be a complicated task. For Asian-American students, this is a concession that they will be held to much higher standards than their peers, solely on the basis of their race. All of their scores have to be that much higher to compete. All of their extra-curricular activities have to be that much more impressive. For students who have had to work hard to make all the right choices in order to become competitive applicants, it can be disheartening when the number one factor holding them back is something wholly outside of their control.

Affirmative action is not designed to be a zero-sum game, however. President Kennedy’s brainchild ultimately came to fruition under President Johnson and was designed to be a temporary equalizer of the playing field. Today, the practice is defined as an active effort to improve the “educational opportunities of members of minority groups.” Affirmative action has been designed to solely benefit these individuals by acknowledging the continued pervasiveness of subjugation and the necessity of diverse classrooms, and it has been successful in that regard. However, the Asian-American population has not reaped the benefits of this program in the same way other minorities have. Instead, this group has been relegated to “model minority” status, meaning the entirety of this population is perceived as being more successful than society’s status quo. This has somehow led to notions that the accomplishments of Asian-Americans must be taken with a grain of salt.

In one recent case filed against Harvard University, it was estimated that the Ivy League school required Asian applicants to score 140 points more on their SATs than white students, 270 points more than Hispanics, and 450 points more than African-Americans to be considered competitive. A separate lawsuit also targeted the UNC-school system, alleging that Asian applicants have faced similar challenges even in public universities.

Affirmative action’s perpetuation of manufactured competition may be pushing many students to a fatal tipping point. While it is impossible to generalize the individual mental health struggles of young Asian-Americans, the following trends that should not be taken lightly. Among young women of all ethnicities, Asian-American women have the second highest suicide rates, only falling behind Native Americans. In addition, at highly competitive universities such as MIT and Cornell, the suicide rate for Asian-American students is quadruple the national average. Even though the Asian “tiger mom” who prioritizes their child’s academics over all else is often portrayed comically in pop culture, the actual phenomenon can have tragic results.

While efforts to limit the overpopulation of Asian students in universities may suggest that Asians have unfair advantages in the professional world, the actual data disproves this misconception. Even though Asian-Americans represent almost a third of the professionals in the tech industry, they represent less than 6 percent of the executives in this same field. This extreme disparity suggests a glass ceiling in the professional world that is often glossed over or ignored.

Many have made the argument that the removal of affirmative action would limit diversity, citing the effects of the California ban of the practice in public institutions. In the two decades since the ban was administered, the University of California school system has been overtaken by Asian students that now make up a plurality of 40 percent of the student population, despite the fact that they only make up 12 percent of the state’s population. Seemingly, a complete elimination of diversity-minded programs can have problematic results.

In order to remedy the often-knotty outcomes for Asian applicants while also enfranchising other historically subjugated groups, policymakers should seek to remedy affirmative action instead of simply striking it down. Primarily, the massive diversity and disparities that exist amongst the Asian population must be acknowledged in the application process. Asian-Americans are often all lumped together as recent descendants of immigrants who came to this country on either student visas or H1B visas, both of which often draw highly-skilled professionals that acquire the resources to support the education of their children.

However, while this may represent a large subset of Chinese, Korean, and Indian-origin applicants, it is not representative of the entire Asian-American population. For example, those of Southeast Asian descent such as Cambodians and Hmong often find themselves in some of the lowest economic quintiles within and outside of their racial group. A study by the Brookings Institute found that these groups are often living in areas with underfunded schools and are performing academically well below the national average. Unfortunately, this trend of inequality is ignored in the affirmative action process when all Asian applicants are grouped together without consideration for applicants’ specific nationality, income, or neighborhood of residence. While schools’ promises to be need-blind when reviewing applications may be well-intentioned, they are misguided in their refusal to acknowledge a pertinent factor in access to quality education and resources.

It is important to recognize that affirmative action is primarily designed to aid groups that have been systematically oppressed by the American government and society. While I concede that the struggles of Asian-Americans are incomparable with the struggles of African-Americans or other historically-disenfranchised minorities, the hardships that Asian-Americans have undergone cannot be pushed under the rug. Less than 100 years ago, Japanese-Americans were placed in U.S. internment camps due to World War II paranoia. After the Vietnam War, many immigrants from Vietnam fled a communist regime only to be met with racism and xenophobia. Most recently, in a post-9/11 America, Indian-Americans and Muslim Americans have faced consistent threat of hate crimes and violence.

Despite the diverse subsets of Asians living in the United States, broad generalizations and stereotypes have denied this prominent immigrant population the opportunity to be viewed as anything but an “other” in American culture. By factoring in family income and neighborhood of residence, affirmative action can be remedied to simultaneously acknowledge the privilege of certain students, Asian and non-Asian alike, while also recognizing the unfair and unfounded disadvantages placed on “the model minority”.

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