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Speaking Of America

Race-blind college admissions: Not so black and white for Asian students

A debate in the United States on whether universities should adopt a race-blind admission policy is polarising Asian Americans

WASHINGTON • Like many students applying to competitive universities, 18-year-old Abigail Fisher was rejected by her top choice, the University of Texas in Austin.

However, unlike most others who get a rejection letter in the mail, Ms Fisher didn't just throw it away and turn to her safety school.

Instead, she took the University of Texas to court. She argued that the university had discriminated against her because of the colour of her skin. She is white.

Ms Fisher and her lawyers claimed the university's affirmative action policies - designed to ensure a diverse student body - had unfairly denied her a place.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

If a university is about academics, then academic excellence should be the only thing that matters when deciding who gets in. That seems only fair, and appealing at a personal level: Why should I be rejected and my place given to another student with inferior grades?

That was in 2008. Today, after years of being bounced around various courts, the case is before the Supreme Court. The court had heard oral arguments on the case a few years earlier but decided then to simply send it back to a lower court.

This time, the nine Supreme Court justices are expected to make a decision. The stakes for that decision are high - not just for Ms Fisher but also any student around the world considering applying to a public American university.

If the Supreme Court upholds the university's right to consider race, then the status quo remains and no one is better off or worse off than he was before.

However, if the court sides with Ms Fisher, a dramatic shake-up of admission policies across US public universities can be expected.

College application forms will no longer have a field where applicants indicate their race. And the chances of applicants getting in will be altered across the board.

The stakes are also raised by the racial backdrop to the court's decision. This year has been one when racial issues on college campuses have really come to the fore. Students across dozens of schools in the United States have protested against what they see as racist policies and behaviour, calling for resignations of staff and renaming of buildings. More attention is being paid to racial issues now than ever before and this affirmative action verdict will land smack in the middle of the debate.

Despite the complex nature of this debate , it is pretty easy right now to figure out who stands where on the issue. Republicans - who are predominantly white and who generally favour less government intervention - are in favour of doing away with affirmative action. Democrats - who tend to include large chunks of the black and Hispanic communities that benefit most from affirmative action - want schools to be able to continue to consider race in admissions.

Just as most white students may not be particularly exercised by this issue, many students from ethnic minorities are.

One group, in particular, finds itself in a special bind on the issue, feeling like it cannot either fully condone or condemn affirmative action. That group is the Asian Americans.

A DIVIDED RESPONSE

In the weeks leading up to the Supreme Court hearing on Fisher v University of Texas, two clusters of Asian American organisations sent competing amicus briefs to the court, staking out vastly different positions.

Amicus briefs are arguments submitted to the court by parties not involved in the legal action directly but who have strong interests in the subject matter.

One group, led by the Asian American Legal Foundation and the Asian American Coalition for Education, sent a brief to the court supporting Ms Fisher, arguing that affirmative action admission policies have long disadvantaged the Asian community.

The brief said: "Contrary to that court's depiction of the issue as white versus minority, in fact, it is Asian American students, the members of a historically oppressed minority, who comprise the group most harmed by the programme."

It strongly condemned the University of Texas admission programme, describing it as "racial balancing or, even worse, potentially an effort by academic and political elites to curry favour with a powerful voting bloc".

The argument reflected the growing frustration among Asian Americans that they have been hard done by race-based admission policies. The issue is not well documented, so the community tends to turn to a 2009 Princeton study that found that Asian Americans must score 140 points more on the college admission exam, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, than whites to have the same chance of getting into a private college. They also note that where legislation has been passed to force race-blind admissions, the proportion of Asian American students has shot up.

Prior to the Fisher case, Asian Americans had launched legal actions of their own. Some 64 Asian American organisations filed a complaint with the Department of Education this year. Last year, a group of Asian American students filed a lawsuit against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, complaining that they were discriminated against because of their race.

Yet, there are also hundreds of Asian American groups that back affirmative action.

A competing brief filed by a group that includes Asian Americans Advancing Justice described the University of Texas admission policy as "kind of thoughtful, benign consideration of race to increase equal opportunity and improve racial diversity in university admissions".

It also worries that a move by the court to invalidate one form of affirmative action would be the start of a slippery slope that ends up with all forms of affirmative action overturned.

Both briefs appear to make valid points, yet they stand on polar opposite ends of the spectrum.

WHAT IS FAIR?

Hard-nosed Singaporeans may simply see this as a pure meritocracy issue. From that standpoint, the argument that the academically superior candidate should always be picked ahead of an academically inferior one is attractive.

If a university is about academics, then academic excellence should be the only thing that matters when deciding who gets in. That seems only fair, and appealing at a personal level: Why should I be rejected and my place given to another student with inferior grades?

But a broader look at the issue turns up some compelling arguments why so many Asians support race-based affirmative action.

For one thing, the stereotype of Asians being culturally predisposed to academic excellence ignores the fact that Asians come in all stripes. Just as there is great diversity across the Asian continent, Asian Americans should not be seen as a monolithic bloc. Quite a few will indeed fit the stereotypical mould of the hard-working, quiet maths whizz, but countless others will not.

Affirmative action can stop high-performing Asian Americans from getting into some schools, but can also help low-performing ones get into others.

Then there is the question of the value of a diverse student body to the broader educational experience. As one seeks to broaden the mind, it would certainly help if the environment itself provided horizon-expanding experiences and interactions. Some nascent research suggests that students make better decisions in a diverse student body than a culturally homogeneous one.

Finally, there is the issue of broader inequality. While it may not have the differentiating power it used to, a university degree can still contribute significantly to social mobility.

Give a child from a disadvantaged family the chance to go to university and there is a good chance that he can break out of the poverty trap. That in itself is a decent argument to allow for some racial diversity in schools, especially in a country like the US, where race and socioeconomic class are often correlated.

But it is also worth considering whether a society benefits from having a university population that bears little resemblance to itself. And given that socioeconomic advantages do accrue unevenly over generations in a meritocracy, should we worry about universities creating a self-preserving elite?

My own take on this, as an Asian observer steeped in the Singapore system that emphasises both meritocracy and cultural diversity, is that the argument for retaining affirmative action in university admissions is a strong one.

And while it may seem unfair to some Asian American students, supporting such policies is probably the right thing to do.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 25, 2015, with the headline 'Race-blind college admissions: Not so black and white for Asian students'. Print Edition | Subscribe