Sunday’s NYT Education supplement ran a cover story by Timothy Egan about Asian Americans and affirmative action. Focusing on UC Berkeley — where Asians have grown to 41% of the student body since Proposition 209 banned racial preferences in 1997 — Egan observes that the end of affirmative action and the implementation of a “pure meritocracy” in admissions spells hugely disproportionate numbers of Asians at elite colleges and drastic shortages of Hispanics and African Americans. Berkeley, he concludes somewhat ominously, is the future of higher education.
But you don’t need the NYT to spot the trend. Just take a day trip to the Ivy league campus of your choice. Back when I was at Yale (in the mid-’90s), Kim was the most common last name. Outdoing the Jones by far, there were, I think, 51 of us at one point. (There were even, to my chagrin, two Richard Kims!) As Egan points out, Asian Americans comprise roughly 5% of the US population but represent anywhere from 13-40% of undergraduates at many top schools: 27% at MIT, 24% at Stanford, 17% at UT Austin, 13% at Columbia, 37% in the UC system as a whole and so forth. In contrast, only 3.6% of Berkeley’s freshman class are African American and only 11% are Hispanic — way below state population levels.
Egan’s right about the numbers, but he misses the mark on many other measures. First, he underplays the differences between “brain drain” Asian Americans and more recent, less affluent, less educated Asian immigrants. As Frank Wu points out in his book Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, after the passage of Prop. 209, Filipino Americans (like African Americans) were “zeroed out” at Berkeley’s law school despite the fact that the Bay area contains one of the largest Filipino communities in the US. Egan does quote a few academics who note that Sri Lankans and Koreans are not the same people, but he makes it seem as if the salient differences are matters of culture and “values” rather than of class and access.
Secondly, for much of the article Egan gives the erroneous impression that Asian Americans are just delighted about their demographic surge at the UCs, biting to end affirmative action elsewhere and seize seats currently reserved for other minorities. He gives airtime to Jian Li, who’s campaigning to deny Princeton federal funding because he thinks its admission policy discriminates against Asian Americans. (Despite a perfect SAT score, Li was rejected by the Tigers. But don’t shed a tear just yet, he’s doing quite fine at Yale). And Egan cites a 2005 study by Thomas J. Espenshade and Chang Y. Chung that finds that, without affirmative action, Asians (and not whites) would fill the vast majority (80%) of spots reserved for African Americans and Hispanics at elite universities.