August 22, 2017

JEONG | Balancing the Affirmative Action Tightrope

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The summer of 2017 will be one for the history books. It was a truly a rollercoaster of emotional highs and lows. My hometown Golden State Warriors had undoubtedly the greatest postseason in NBA history, but at the same time, the South Korean men’s national team looked like the Denver Nuggets of international soccer. And last month, President Trump announced that the Department of Justice would investigate the discrimination of Asian students in college admissions, only to announce a few weeks later that he would unleash “fire and fury” on my peninsula.

Although I could do without the nuclear warfare, the role of Asian Americans in the affirmative action discussion is an issue that hits pretty close to home. I grew up in a largely Asian neighborhood in Northern California, where academic excellence superseded mental and physical health and where you could hear the neighbors’ five-year-old kid practicing the piano into the wee hours of the night. Here, one’s college admissions letter was the golden ticket and there was a visceral understanding among my peers that our race might very well prevent us from spending four years in the chocolate factory of one’s dream.

Although Trump promised to investigate further, it appears the movement against Asian “negative action” probably won’t gain political momentum any time soon. It is hard to sympathize with upper and middle class Asian kids at Cornell or U.C. Berkeley who complain about how unfair it is that they didn’t get accepted into Harvard… and the issue at hand is one whose advocates are almost exclusively Asian kids at Cornell and U.C. Berkeley who didn’t get accepted into Harvard. However, because the size of the concerned party is relatively small, liberals need to create a more nuanced platform that not only promises more equitable evaluation for Asian candidates, but also embraces the diversity of other disadvantaged minorities.

In an episode of the Netflix comedy Master of None, there is a scene where a black mother explains to her daughter and her Indian friend what a minority is. She explains that a minority is, “a group of people who have to work twice as hard in life to make it half as far.” For Asian Americans, the issue is slightly more complicated, as they fall somewhat ambiguously between the spectrum of economic privilege and social disprivilege.

What is not ambiguous is that in a country where education can be a catalyst for the profound reinvention of one’s economic fortunes, institutions of higher learning are designed to protect the interests of wealthy, white Americans from those who could benefit from it the most. Negative action against Asian students at top universities like Cornell and Harvard sets up a cycle of white socioeconomic privilege masquerading under the guise of preferential treatment for “legacy”students and “holistic” evaluation of candidates. In 2015, the Harvard Crimson reported that legacy students were three times more likely to receive admittance than others. Similarly, a 2009 study by a sociology professor at Princeton showed that Asian students had to score 150 points higher on the SAT than their white counterparts for the same chance of admission into top universities. Negative action against Asian students is never for the sake of campus diversity, but rather to ensure admission for kids whose dads play golf with the Board of Trustees on weekends.

It’s an interesting time in history to be debating affirmative action. A few weeks ago, we saw protests in Charlottesville where white supremacists (let’s call them what they really are) rallied to protect “white heritage,” proclaiming “white lives matter.” Socioeconomic and race-conscious affirmative action is clearly still necessary on campuses across America. The purpose of affirmative action isn’t to give each race an equal slice of the demographic pie on every college campus in America, but rather to mitigate a history of disenfranchisement and to prevent generations of cascading disadvantages for minority families. However, affirmative action today exists in an education system that is designed not to protect the disadvantaged, but rather uplift the wealthy. Negative action against Asian American students is an obstacle for first-generation families and a crutch for the most advantaged members of our society.

Every year, Cornell sends out the same email blast that the incoming Class of 20XX is “the most diverse in school history.” In order to truly embrace diversity on campus, Cornell must protect affirmative action and their dedication to minority students by getting rid of preferential treatment for legacy and trust fund students. Too often, the victims of these programs are high achieving Asian students. By ending these specific programs, we can preserve affirmative action while moving higher education away from its historically white and upper-class bias.

 

Jason Jeong is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at jj357@cornell.edu. Jeongism appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.