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How Asian-Americans Fit Into The Affirmative Action Debate

Asian-Americans are thrust into the affirmative action debate as the DOJ investigates alleged reverse discrimination of Asian-American applicants.
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How Asian-Americans Fit Into The Affirmative Action Debate

Affirmative action in higher education is a polarizing topic. 

The New York Times recently reported that the Justice Department plans to investigate "intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions," which could be a reference to affirmative action.

The DOJ later clarified that its focus was on voices not often heard in this discussion: Asian-Americans. 

"Your race shouldn't be a factor. We're not asking for affirmative action in favor of Asians," Cory Liu said. 

Liu is a volunteer executive director for Students for Fair Admissions. The organization sued Harvard University in 2014. He claims affirmative action hurts Asian-Americans, who reportedly have to go through a higher admission standard compared to other ethnicities. 

"We're asking that it doesn't matter that I'm Asian or white, or black, or Hispanic — just look at me as individual human being," Liu said. 

The College Board reports that Asian-Americans score the highest on the SAT and ACT compared with other ethnicities.

But a 2009 Princeton study claimed that Ivy League schools require Asian-Americans to score 140 points higher on their SAT than whites, 320 points higher than Hispanics, and 450 points higher than African-Americans to be admitted. 

The study's author Thomas J. Espenshade stopped short of saying Asian-Americans we're at a disadvantage because the research lacked additional information, including admission essays and recommendations.  

"I think that's racist. What you're basically is saying that the Asian student who achieves a certain score, if they check a different racial box, they get into the school. But somehow we don't want too many Asians," Liu said. 

Liu accuses some universities of racial balancing, limiting Asian-Americans in schools to make room for other ethnicities. But Students for Fair Admissions doesn't come without controversy. It is led by Edward Blum, who is also the architect of another anti-affirmative action case involving Abigail Fisher, a rejected white female student from the University of Texas. Fisher's case went all the way to the Supreme Court before justices ruled college and universities could consider race as one factor among many.

"When it comes to race and ethnicity, I think the court has been, over the last 25 years, slowly and carefully, probably beginning with Croson, moving the nation to the point that the use of race and ethnicity must be fully abandoned," Blum said. 

Despite Blum's history of engineering anti-affirmative action lawsuits, Liu is adamant that Blum isn't using Asian-Americans as a so-called "wedge" to divide minorities on this topic.

"He speaks for many Asian students for fair admissions. Our nonprofit organizations has over 21,000 members and most of them are Asian and that spread through word of mouth," Liu said. 

Not everyone agrees with Liu. In fact, a 2016 national poll reported that 64 percent of Asian-Americans support affirmative action in higher education. Some, like assistant professor and affirmative action advocate OiYan Poon, say Asian-Americans are intentionally being used as a wedge — as they've been before. 

"Asian-Americans historically and today have always played a role in the racial debate. We've always historically been used as/by white opponents for equal opportunity for  them to fight civil rights policies and ideas of equity and inclusion," Poon said. 

As a former application reviewer, Poon contends colleges take a holistic approach in admissions that go beyond race and grades like legacy preferences, financial need, leadership skills, clubs, affiliations and recommendations. 

"We need to think about how race in the U.S. is more complex now and how Asian-Americans can play a role in either advancing racial justice or advancing what I call racial just us, where only we benefit. That it's only about self interest. It needs to be a broad idea of racial justice that's inclusive of every body," Poon said. 

SFFA and Harvard are currently gathering facts for their case. And although the DOJ won't be reviewing the SFFA suit, it will be investigating a similar case by 64 Asian-American associations who allege racial discrimination in Harvard admissions.