The U.S. Supreme Court will begin hearings today on Fisher v. University of Texas, a case that challenges the future of diversity in higher education. Specifically, it will review the constitutionality of a broad affirmative action program used to admit freshmen to the flagship university in Texas. Although the current Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action in the country’s institutions of higher education—established by Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003—determined that diversity was enough of a compelling interest in education to allow institutions to consider race as one of many factors in admissions’ decisions, this case seeks to prohibit schools from considering race whatsoever in a student’s application.
There are plenty of reasons to support diversity in higher education—the most important among them being that it benefits everyone inside and outside the classroom. But the reason this debate irritates and, frankly, offends me is how its critics seek to challenge this common good by promoting division among those of us who ought to be its strongest advocates.
I’m not in the least surprised by this—after all, the conservative strategy is to divide. To divide rich from poor, white from nonwhite, black from brown, and so on. Give them time and I’m sure they’d even divide the tall from the short. And when it comes to diversity in education, the age-old strategy of depicting Asian Americans as vehemently opposed to programs that expand opportunity to all racial groups once again rears its ugly head. If all racial minorities (including Asian Americans) don’t support such programs, the argument goes, how could it possibly be a good thing? Critics of diversity in higher education want and need us to believe that expanding opportunity for some can only be achieved by stealing it from others. It is a zero-sum game that couldn’t be farther from the truth.
Let me be absolutely clear: I am an Asian American (in case the name confuses you) and I fully support race-conscious admissions programs. I support them because I understand that race, in addition to other factors such as socioeconomic status, still shapes opportunity in this country. I support race-conscious policies because our country is quickly become more racially and ethnically diverse and our institutions of higher learning have yet to reflect those demographics. And finally, I support them because I know that our country’s global competitive advantage will rely on an increasingly diverse workforce—a workforce trained in our institutions of higher learning.
I’m not alone. In fact, the majority of Asian Americans in this country support affirmative action. One organization, the 80-20 National Asian American Educational Foundation, filed an amicus brief in support of the petitioner with the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights, citing a survey that allegedly reveals overwhelming support in the Asian American community for “race-neutral, merit-based college admissions policies.” The organization even challenges any Asian American organization taking a different stand to do a similar survey proving 80-20 wrong.
It’s not a very smart challenge since a closer look at the 80-20 survey demonstrates that the organization only queried its own membership and asked leading questions on their website to boot. Self-selected survey responses do not pass muster for representing public opinion. What does, however, is a multicity, multiethnic, and multilingual survey of political attitudes and behavior of Asian Americans—a survey that already exists. This survey was administered by the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research and demonstrates that 63.1 percent of Asian Americans indicate that affirmative action “is a good thing” while only 5.7 percent report it “is a bad thing.”
This finding is consistent with exit polls taken during votes on two state referendums to end affirmative action. In 1996, 61 percent of Asian American voters rejected Proposition 209 in California, and in 2006, 75 percent of Asian American voters rejected a similar measure in Michigan—Proposition 2.
So I’m clearly not the only Asian American to support programs that open access to higher education and expand this opportunity to all Americans—particularly those groups that continue to be underrepresented on our college and university campuses. Moreover, I’m in good company: One amicus brief was filed by the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, 18 separate Asian American and Pacific Islander education and youth-serving organizations, and 52 higher education faculty and officials; an additional brief was filed by the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice (an affiliation itself of four organizations working for civil rights from the Asian American perspective) and was joined by 74 additional Asian and Pacific Islander organizations.
The arguments supporting race-conscious admissions programs made in these briefs must be lifted up to make clear that our community is not as divided over this issue as conservatives would have you believe.
First, Asian Americans are familiar with the need for programs that expand opportunity. Take California, for example, a state where Asian Americans benefited from race-conscious programs until they were no longer underrepresented. Asian Americans also continue to benefit from race-conscious opportunity programs in the workplace—while the Asian American population continues to grow rapidly across the country, their educational attainment levels have not translated into commensurate gains in achieving leadership positions in businesses, so public contracting programs, in particular, still pay attention to race.
Second, diversity benefits Asian Americans because it benefits us all. While there is no evidence suggesting that the university system in question hurts the Asian American population, its holistic admissions process actually benefits Asian Americans by allowing the university to consider the diversity within Asian subgroups. There is also ample social science research that demonstrates that diversity in higher education increases cross-cultural interactions and decreases negative stereotyping—two positive outcomes that Asian Americans both contribute to and benefit from.
As our country becomes more diverse and continues to compete in an increasingly global economy, the failure to promote diversity in our institutions of higher learning will also fail to meet the needs of our future workforce and the business community. To be sure, I’ve heard Asian Americans argue against admissions programs that consider race, as I’ve also heard African Americans, Latinos, and whites argue against them as well. Instead of positing race-conscious programs as a zero-sum game that divides us, we should lift up the evidence that demonstrates diversity benefits us all and underscore the ideal at the heart of this nation—that opportunity should be expanded to all.