Still Retreating from Race: Asian Americans in the Ivy League

 

“…claims that Asian American students were as well qualified but less likely than whites to gain entry to the elite schools set in motion a tedious debate over the definition of ‘excellence,’ ‘merit,’ and ‘diversity.’”

When do you think this was written? Would you believe it was 1992 when this first appeared in Dr. Dana Takagi’s Retreat From Race: Asian American Admissions and Racial Politics (p. 176)? This award-winning work chronicled the affirmative action and racial preference debates taking place at the elite level of higher education (the schools that are usually around the top 15 or 25 research university schools listed in US News and World Report). 

In it, Takagi shows that the political groups and actors involved in these arguments back in the 1980s and 1990s grew more and more mixed in their views on the merits of affirmative action and better alternatives to it (assuming it was not ameliorating social inequalities). As she states:

“Both conservatives and liberals support equal opportunity and abhor discrimination—but they disagree over how to achieve the former and how to discourage the latter. In the battleground over policy, the two leading strategies for achieving equal opportunity—racial preferences and color-blind policies—do not neatly correspond to conservative or liberal politics.” (184).

Part of the reason for this mixed response was the new complication of race that entered into the debate when Asian Americans were brought into what used to be a “white and black issue.” Takagi reminds us that the changes in Asian enrollment corresponded with changes in immigration that began in the 1960s. By 1980, Berkeley was already at 20% Asian enrollment whereas the US Asian population was hovering at around 3-4%. Much of this can be explained by immigration; highly educated and skilled workers such as nurses, engineers, laboratory scientists were recruited and hired from Asia; these adults brought their families to the US (or started them stateside). Parents with a lot of education usually encourage their children to  achieve similarly. Not surprisingly then, within about 15 years we saw an influx of high-test-scoring, multi-talented Asian young adults applying to Berkeley, Harvard, and Princeton.

But a new problem emerged. It seemed that while the Asian American population was increasing rapidly in size, there should have been more qualified applicants of Asian descent who should have entered the hallowed halls of the Ivy League and other elite institutions. But that did not appear to be the case. Many interpreted this as a case of outright discrimination, and indeed federal intervention analyzed the admissions data to see whether the ratio of applicants and admits disfavored Asian Americans over others. University officials pointed out that Asian American admissions were already disproportional to their presence in the population; further they were seen as uniformly “good but not exceptional,” lacking subjective qualities like “capacity for involvement, commitment, and personal growth.” (from Yale’s definition (see Takagi p.81)).

The use of admissions data, revealed the importance of interpretation. Evidence showed that admissions of Asian Americans were capped regardless of the size of the Asian applicant pool. Some argued that this was discrimination, but others argued that this was a reflection of diversity initiatives. The latter argument asserts that there are many kinds of excellent students and the limit on Asian American acceptance was a reflection of that. Again “good but not exceptional.” Neoconservatives who once argued that affirmative action was “reverse discrimination” in which whites were the victims, exchanged this picture with that of Asian Americans. From this perspective Asian Americans were now the victims of affirmative action, making African Americans the beneficiaries of anti-Asian discrimination. More insidious was the implied message that affirmative action replaced “quality” (i.e. Asian and white applicants) for color (i.e. black applicants). As Takagi narrates, liberal university officials were on the defensive:

“At pains to reassure their public that conservative claims about declining standards were not true, the proponents of liberalism zealously reiterated their commitment to individualism and merit.” (170)

This resulted in a concession that the best way forward was to support the neoconservative solution of having admissions policy based on class, rather than race.

Does this sound familiar? Takagi’s study came to mind when I was reflecting on the debates going on in the New York Times recently over “Fears of an Asian Quota in the Ivy League.” The central question asked: “Are top colleges limiting the number of Asian-Americans they admit?” The question behind that question is: if it’s true, what’s the justification? The perceived restriction of Asian American admissions to the Ivy League returns.

What’s changed since the 1990s to 2012 in terms of admissions at elite higher education institutions? Publisher Ron Unz shows the Asian American enrollment levels in the Ivy League dropped from a high of 20% in 1993 to 16% and has remained level since then, as seen in the image capture below taken from his lengthy article.

The main change is that the population of 18-21 year-old Asian Americans has continued to climb (again due to continued high immigration and regular birth rates). Assuming that the recruiting of highly-skilled, highly-educated immigrants hasn’t changed, there are likely more eligible bright Asian American young people who should qualify for the ranks of Harvard and Berkeley. As Unz points out, Caltech is the only school that has kept pace with population growth in comparison to the Ivy League schools. What’s the difference? Caltech, a primarily math, science and engineering school admits applicants based on merit, almost exclusively.

Notice that the same pattern we saw in the late 1980s to the 1990s in the discourse seems similar to the one we’re seeing now almost 20 years later. Data is presented to illustrate 1) a disproportional presence of Asian Americans in the elite schools, and 2) a flatlining of Asian enrollment levels at these schools, beginning roughly around 1995. Neoconservatives again interpret the disparity as evidence of anti-Asian discrimination via affirmative action; liberals point out that there is no evidence of discrimination via affirmative action. As Khin Mai Aung, director of the educational equity program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, points out,

“Affirmative action “simply allows admissions officers to consider an applicant’s racial background in a limited way as one of a myriad of factors that make up who he or she is. It neither condones nor facilitates racial discrimination and quotas.”

Whether or not an informal quota is actually placed on Asian American admissions into the Ivy League, it’s important to stress that 1) this is an extremely rarefied set of schools, 2) it is not a result of affirmative action. Using the dynamics of these schools as an explanation for the dismantling of affirmative action is really dangerous. To put this in numerical perspective, data from the National Center for Educational Statistics for 2011 shows that white non-Hispanic enrollment in degree-granting institutions was about 61% or 12.7 million out of 21 million students. For African Americans it was 14.5%, Latinos 13% and Asian/Pacific Islanders 6.1%. By this count, Latinos are underrepresented by about 3 percentage points relative to their presence in the US. Asian Americans are about on par with their population.

If race is allowed as a consideration for admission at schools that are just below (or a good deal below) the super-elite schools, then maybe we should consider how affirmative action works generally, rather than extrapolating from Harvard and Yale. The question of why the Asian American enrollment levels are compressed in the Ivy League is an important one to be sure, but this concern should not be conflated with the effectiveness of affirmative action overall.

The top schools to a certain extent reveal the tensions of reflecting the dual values of merit and diversity, as noted by Takagi and others. Two interesting solutions have been proposed. Sociologist Carolyn Chen advocates a hybrid system that utilizes affirmative action for underrepresented groups, and a merit system for whites and Asians.  This approach protects the potential opportunity for those groups who remain at a significant social disadvantage in America today. It changes the terms of admission for those other groups by placing them on a level playing field such that subjective factors are secondary to objective merit factors. When applied to the Ivy League, this may have the effect of readjusting the enrollment levels of Asian American undergraduates. Unz’s solution (pp.41-44 of his essay) is what he terms the Inner and Outer Ring solution. Super-elite schools should use merit criteria for 20% of each entering class and a lottery for the remaining 80%. In the latter, applicants must still pass certain minimal merit credentials, but since most of these Ivy League applicants will meet them, a lottery solves the problem of using subjective variables, as well as potential bias in admissions officers (he cites corruption and cronyism at work in the admissions processes at the Ivy League). Whether these are workable solutions remains to be seen, but in the deliberations over affirmative action, it’s important to distinguish the debate that takes place at the very top of higher education and the realities that occur further down the ivory tower. I suspect that solutions that make sense for elite schools will not be the same for lower tier schools, and hopefully our courts will know the difference.

 

 

 

Good Data, Confusing News and the Reinforcing of Stereotypes: Reporting on The Pew Asian American Survey Report

Over the past year I have had the privilege to work with the Pew Research Center on developing what I believe is the most rigorous survey sample of Asian Americans. Given the deep pockets that form the financial base of Pew, I had high hopes that this survey would indeed help us pinpoint better what we can know about Asian America. Indeed, this survey, while smaller in sample than the National Asian American Survey 2008 (3,500 compared to over 5,000), improves upon it and its predecessors in sampling methodology and in simply asking a lot more questions of a random sample of Asian Americans.

“Asian American” is a weird term in the sense that it assumes a commonality among Americans of Asian descent when in fact it’s a massive amalgamation of no less than 20 different nationalities. This dual tension of perceived commonality and diversity is a hallmark dilemma in the social sciences, especially when discussing minority groups. How similar are Asian Americans and how diverse are we? A good survey of Asian Americans needs to account for both.

One of the major problems facing Asian Americans today is the proverbial “positive stereotype” called the “model minority myth.” It asserts that Asian Americans are a racial minority group that embodies American ideals of hard work and discipline and the concomitant material rewards of more (and prestigious) education, greater income, desirable jobs, as well as the social reward of receiving praise from the dominant group. This would overemphasize commonality and de-emphasize diversity.

Why is this a problem? Because a closer look at data on Asian Americans reveals that this myth applies only to very select cuts of the Asian American population and yet is applied to all. In a media-saturated environment like ours, such perceptions are amplified and sow seeds that help grow racialized beliefs about Asian Americans. And anyone who grows up in this culture is susceptible to it.

So survey research and the reporting of such research is not necessarily absolutely neutral; it’s possible that unclear reports of survey research can distort the very reality it supposedly portrays. The recent reporting of the new Pew Research Center’s Asian American Survey (2012) is one powerful illustration of how this plays out.

For example, the Pew study rolls out this statistic we see a lot: Asian American household incomes are higher than the national average. In fact it’s not even just higher by $1000-$2000, it’s almost $15,000 higher (see p.29).

screenshot p.29 Pew Asian American survey report

The report notes a couple of important qualifiers with a couple of cites for readers to reference. Based on the largest Asian ethnic groups, 2 are even higher than the Asian American median. The other four are below that median, and in fact Koreans are just $200 on average higher than the national average. Scholars have also stressed a few other pieces to the puzzle over these high figures, and the Pew report mentions these without putting the parts together.  Asian Americans today are largely immigrant (p.24), but specifically “highly-skilled” immigrants. This means these immigrants have more education (p. 25), and possibly more work experience than other immigrants. In fact the Pew report notes that Asian immigrants even differ from their peers in their countries of origin. For example, 27% of adults (ages 25-64 specifically) in South Korea had a bachelor’s degree, whereas 70% of Korean immigrants (in the same age range) had the same. With such high level of education we should not be surprised that we find a larger proportion in management and professional level (i.e. mostly white-collar) occupations (p. 27). These kinds of jobs usually offer better pay and more consistent pay than most other jobs and about half of Asian America are in this sector compared to about 40% for the rest of the country. Later on (p.33), the report mentions that nearly half of Asian America (47%) resides in one region (and most of these very specifically in one state, California). One of the highest cost-of living regions is the West, and California, and Hawaii exceedingly so.

When we stop to put these parts together, Asian American household income appears higher but no other group in the US has the same internal social dynamics like what we see among them. No other group is dominated by high-skilled immigrants, high educational attainment (acquired largely before arrival to the US), more fulltime workers per household in one of the most expensive states to live in. The report does not apply this degree of rigor, but more importantly we see examples like the following in major news outlets:

“The Pew report, titled “The Rise of Asian Americans,” finds that Asians are the highest-income and best-educated racial group in the U.S. Nearly half (49 percent) of Asian-American adults have a college degree, and they boast a median annual household income of $66,000 (versus the U.S. median of $49,800).” (MSNBC.com 6/19)

“Positive stereotypes about Asian Americans are rooted in reality: They are more educated, wealthier and value work, marriage and family more than Americans as a whole, according to a Pew Research report out today.” (USAToday.com 6/18)

The lack of nuance leaves us with the impression that Asian Americans have it pretty good. What’s so bad about a “positive stereotype?” It allows us to dismiss the concerns of the vulnerable among these so-called model minorities.

Advocacy groups took notice and acted fast. Groups like the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (an umbrella organization of over 30 groups) have now expressed concern publicly over these gross generalizations that have not furthered the conversation but instead may contribute to further misunderstanding Asian America.

So even a report based on census data and a a new state-of-the-art survey of an understudied group can still lead to erroneous reporting from mass media outlets that can reinforce myths.

As part of my calling as a social scientist, its important to address stereotypes with data. What’s challenging is dealing with the media patterns that undermine good data such as running stories that minimize complexity as witnessed by the recent reportage of the new Pew report on Asian Americans.

How else might social scientists help media to make appropriate narrations based on survey data?

 

Poverty and the “Model Minority”

As Asian Pacific American Heritage Month draws to a close during this election year, I wanted to draw attention to the issue of poverty as it remains quite significant in light of the recent recession. Believe it or not, poverty is a real issue for Asian Americans. I write this with the understanding that many Americans hold to an onerous stereotype sometimes described as the model minority myth.  

The myth asserts that certain minorities are so exemplary in their socioeconomic achievements that they stand apart in contrast to those “other minorities” who don’t share the same degree of material success. Asian Americans are described as being today’s model minority. The singular number is intentional as American society likes to keep race and ethnicity simple: apparently all Asian Americans are alike in their successes. How do we know this? The Census! When you see Census figures based on race, it sure looks like Asian Americans do stand out. In the past 2 censuses they showed above average incomes. What accounts for this remarkable feat? [Read more...]

Asian Americans on the Move

I recently had a chance to see the new Avengers movie and one of the characters, Tony Stark mentioned that he had a hankering for shawarma. And that made me think: “Yeah some shawarma would be pretty good. Hmm, I could sure go for some Indian food right now too. Hey when was the last time I had it? Sigh.) You see, I had returned to an old realization. After having lived in Waco, Texas for almost 8 years now, there is still not a single Indian restaurant for over 50 miles in any direction.

I still remember the challenges in adapting to a place that looked largely devoid of Asian Americans. Indeed I wasn’t too far off the mark as the Census data from 2000 showed that about 1.4% of the city was Asian while the national percentage at the time was about 4%. When I left South Bend, IN where I attended graduate school I left one of the least populated Asian American cities (it was 1.2% in 2000, and now 1.3% or about 1,349 people), for a city that had a couple hundred more Asian Americans in the Waco area. Today Waco estimates of the Asian population are around 1.9% or 2330 people. [Read more...]


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