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[Kim Seong-kon] Asian students in affirmative action controversy

By Korea Herald

Published : July 12, 2023 - 05:31

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History will remember 2022 and 2023 as pivotal times when the US Supreme Court overturned two monumental legal precedents in America: women’s abortion rights and affirmative action. Conservatives say that times have changed now and we no longer need the two. However, liberals worry that America has become hopelessly conservative due to the justices appointed by former President Donald Trump.

The 2022 decision of the US Supreme Court that reversed the famous 1973 Roe v. Wade case that decriminalized abortion in the US enraged many American women. Conservatives support the Supreme Court’s decision because they think it would significantly reduce unscrupulous sexual activities among young Americans. However, liberals were upset on the notion that the Supreme Court had deprived women of constitutional rights.

The overturning of affirmative action has been controversial, too. John F. Kennedy signed affirmative action into law in 1961 in order to help minorities access better employment. Later, it was extended to education as well. Initially, the main beneficiaries were African Americans and Hispanics. Later, Asian Americans, too, joined the group.

However, problems arose as time went on. One problem was that white students complained they were victims of affirmative action because they could not enter college despite outstanding academic achievements due to an “unfair admission policy based on race.” Thus, white students began suing universities. The Grutter v. Bollinger and the Gratz v. Bollinger cases involving the University of Michigan in 2003 were well-known examples. Some states had already banned affirmative action, such as California, which abolished it in 1996.

Another problem had to do with Asian American students. With impeccable academic records and strong motivation, the population of Asian American students at prime US colleges has significantly increased recently, to the level of unbalancing racial diversity on campus. As a result, some universities began limiting affirmative action mainly to minority applicants with less stellar backgrounds. Accordingly, a few Asian American applicants with excellent academic records could not secure admission to top-tier universities despite their illustrious backgrounds.

A CNN reporter recently wrote, “In the Harvard case, the conservative group 'Students for Fair Admissions at Harvard University' is alleging that the university discriminates Asian American applicants by rating them lower on traits such as leadership and likeability and holding them to a higher standard for admission than other applicants.”

Recently, a Chinese American student’s case went viral because despite a nearly perfect SAT score and a distinguished high school academic record, he received a rejection letter from Harvard. Many Asian Americans became angry at Harvard, which had rated Asian Americans lower than other applicants in the category of positive personality, courage and respectability.

The CNN reporter said, “Asian Americans are at the center” of the affirmative action controversy now. According to NBC News, however, such a phenomenon creates a problem. NBC reported that the Asian American Advocacy Fund had stated the following in a news release: “The white supremacist agendas behind these lawsuits use the small number of Asian Americans against affirmative action as pawns in their efforts -- weaponizing the model minority myth to divide our communities.”

The Nation goes even further. Under the title, “Asian American Conservatives Have Become Key Allies of White Supremacy,” it says, “Asian American anti–affirmative action activists have not been simply 'used' by white activists and duped into this white supremacist policy. They are active, militant co-conspirators with white conservatives.” Immediately, Asian Americans protested at such a far-fetched theory that made Asian Americans a scapegoat in the affirmative action dispute.

The Nation also reports, quoting from researchers, “Reversing affirmative action only strengthens the population of white students at the expense of Black and other minority students, including Asian Americans.” This is certainly disheartening. It seems that Asian Americans are unwittingly caught in the crossfire between white and Black Americans.

The Washington Post reported that the Supreme Court’s decision would “help White and Asian students while hurting others.” Still, however, many Asian Americans reportedly think that affirmative action is good and should continue. They are afraid that the new admission policy will benefit only a few distinguished Asian American students who want to enter Ivy League schools.

Now affirmative action admission policy no longer exists at American universities. Still, however, we hope that other diversity programs will continue on campus even after the end of affirmative action. After the US Supreme Court’s decision to terminate affirmative action, many university presidents have already promised not to change policy aimed at racial diversity on campus. We also hope that the abolishment of affirmative action in education will not affect employment for minorities.

We strongly hope America remains an ideal multiethnic country, even without affirmative action.

By Kim Seong-kon

Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.