As SCOTUS Hears Affirmative Action Arguments, Asian American Advocates Weigh In

Emil Guillermo, NBC News, December 10, 2015

As oral arguments began this week in a Supreme Court case that could deal a blow to affirmative action, sociologist Jennifer Lee says she hopes Asian-American parents who are against the concept realize that it represents a net positive for the Asian-American community.

In a book published this past July, “The Asian American Achievement Paradox,” Lee, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine (UCI), and Min Zhou, a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), suggest Asian Americans shouldn’t blame affirmative action for perceived injuries, but instead embrace the policy.

“They think it’s in their self-interest to fight affirmative action,” Lee told NBC News. “But [it is] only in a very narrow way, without thinking of their broader life course. We need affirmative action because we don’t have the institutional advantages we think we do.”

Lee pointed to 2014 data from the National Asian American Survey that shows the majority of Asian Americans—69 percent of registered voters polled from California—supported affirmative action.

“This may come as a surprise because there has been a small, but highly organized, vocal minority who opposes it,” Lee said. “What’s important to note is that the second generation are more likely to support affirmative action than immigrants, most likely because the former understand how race affects their life chances, even as they attain high levels of education.”

Lee said Asian Americans should be supportive of polices like affirmative action because, at some point, they may need them. In that sense, whether affirmative action is in one’s self interest is not as important as the broader picture, she said.

“The better question [isn’t self-interest, but] whether Asian Americans are willing to recognize our ethnic and class diversity,” Lee said. “Not all Asian ethnic groups are highly educated and high-achieving; in fact, most aren’t. For those who face ethnic and class disadvantages, including Cambodian-, Laotian-, and Hmong-Americans, affirmative action policies will help. It will also help high-achieving groups like Chinese-, Indian-, and Korean-Americans to experience racial and ethnic diversity and better prepare them to work in diverse workplaces.”

Lee also said that it’s a misconception that if race is not considered in college admissions, more Asian Americans would be offered admissions in places like Harvard, adding that race-blind admissions would probably give more advantages to others with privilege, such as the child of a legacy or someone from an underserved geographical area.

“Affirmative action policies allow universities to consider the differential starting points while also promoting diversity on campuses,” Lee said. “It creates a learning environment that better prepares students to be productive members of the increasingly diverse labor market and society. Thus, Min Zhou and I have argued that affirmative action policies benefit students of both high and low socioeconomic backgrounds.”

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