Cao: Why Asian Americans should support affirmative action


Henry Cao, Columnist

A century ago, Asian Americans were low-skilled laborers who were crowded into ghettos and endured de jure racial discrimination. In recent years, Asian Americans have become the highest-earning, most educated ethnic group in the country. Furthermore, Asian Americans have overtaken Hispanics as the largest group of new immigrants to the United States. Twenty-first century prospects could not seem more auspicious for Asian Americans.

Nevertheless, Asian Americans face various forms of de facto discrimination, among which is affirmative action. College admissions has often put Asian-American students at a disadvantage. Asian-American enrollment at Ivy League universities has been especially perplexing, as the percentages of students there that are Asian American have plateaued despite the rising population of Asian-American students.

In spite of these claims, Asian Americans should support affirmative action because opposing it undermines the economic and social advancement of other minorities. Although removing affirmative action would benefit Asian Americans, these benefits are significantly less than those that lower-income minorities receive through affirmative action programs.

The debate in the Asian-American community over whether Asian Americans should support affirmative action is far from over. Opponents of affirmative action prefer to replace the system with a meritocracy. Conversely, supporters of affirmative action praise the holistic admissions criteria and its benefits for historically underprivileged minorities. Both sides have compelling points; it is important for universities to increase social mobility for disadvantaged groups in light of admitting the most qualified students. Unfortunately, due to a scarcity of high-level college education, universities are under constant pressure to create the most socially optimal distribution of admissions.

This begs the question of what the fairest outcome is. No one can answer this question, since there is a plethora of factors that determine a student’s success as a professional. Despite this, it is reasonable to conclude that a college degree leads to better employment and income prospects. In 2014, a person with a bachelor’s degree typically earned $1,101 per week; a person with only a high school diploma typically earned $668 per week. However, when racial ethnicity is factored in, Caucasian Americans and Asian Americans earn the highest income at each education level, followed by Black or African Americans, and Hispanics or Latinos. Moreover, the disparity of income between races increases when education level rises. Nonetheless, income level rises for all ethnic groups when education attainment rises too.

Underprivileged minorities stand the most to gain from affirmative action, because they have the largest benefits from higher levels of education. Simply speaking, these groups have the lowest average incomes and college education, so even a small increase in income can greatly increase their standards of living. Society should look for ways to get more socially disadvantaged students to apply to college and also improve our public education system so that students are more prepared for college. Social mobility is heavily tied to education, so incentivizing universities to admit economically disadvantaged groups helps our society reach a more equitable state.

The main issue of repealing affirmative action for Asian Americans is that increasing the percentage of Asian Americans with higher education will eventually encounter diminishing returns. Fifty percent of Asian Americans already have bachelor degrees or higher. If affirmative action skeptics are correct about their assertions on racial quotas, then this number should be a miracle. How will increasing this figure combat hiring discrimination, underrepresentation in fields outside of STEM or even common racial stereotypes? The desired outcome is that Asian Americans will integrate better with American society. College education is a necessary factor in the pursuit, but it alone is not sufficient.

Asian Americans have been conditioned to think in terms of a house of cards. If you are missing a college education, extracurricular achievements, a prestigious job and so on, then your life is a shadow of what your true potential is. Ironically, our preoccupation with college education blinds us to the truth that education is not the panacea for all the challenges our community faces. Conversely, higher education would profoundly benefit underprivileged minorities, including poorer Asian-American groups such as Vietnamese Americans. At least from the perspective of higher education, Asian Americans need to help others before they help themselves.

Henry Cao is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected].

The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.