Understanding Affirmative Action: Part 2

With apologies for the lateness of this post, I’m taking up part 2 of my attempt to make some sense of the affirmative action debate and the recent spate of accusations (often, though not exclusively, by racial conservatives like Charles Murray), that the Ivies are using anti-Asian quotas.

My main concern about this argument over quotas is that conservatives have jumped on this bandwagon to attack race conscious school admissions and some Asian Americans are falling it. But, as I pointed out in my last post, there’s a long history of struggle over race conscious college admissions in the context of which affirmative action is very much in the interests of Asian Americans.

When James Meredith attempted to break the de facto ban on African Americans at the University of Mississippi in 1962, de facto bans against Asian Americans also existed at many colleges and universities. Meredith’s courageous decision was one of the catalytic events of the Civil Rights Movement. In the face of this kind of discrimination and its broad legacy of inequality, affirmative action was a logical demand, won in order to address the (still evident) under-representation of people of color in certain kinds of employment, government contracts, and college admissions.

In many early instances, affirmative action sought to rectify these wrongs through the use of quotas. Quotas made affirmative action gains measurable, allowing for evaluation of progress over time.

But in 1978 SCOTUS ruled that the use of quotas is unconstitutional. And in 2003, SCOTUS affirmed in Grutter v. Bollinger that schools can have race-conscious admissions that name membership in “underrepresented minority groups” as a qualification, but only as long as race is taken into account along with  other factors like test scores, grades, extracurricular activities, or being the child of an alumnus and/or a donor, as just a few possible examples.

So, now race conscious admissions processes are allowed, but not to address the cumulative historic legacy of racism expressed in terms of structural inequality and segregation. Nope, post ’78, affirmative action serves the purpose of creating diverse learning environments for the privileged few who are able to attend college. Other positive affects are mostly incidental.

But, if justice and not just diversity was the goal of affirmative action, many argue that quotas would be necessary. For instance, if Harvard established a goal of addressing the shortage of doctors on American Indian reservations, they would need to determine how many doctors are necessary and set a quota. If not, the desire to address the shortage wouldn’t mean much since recruitment alone wouldn’t address the historic educational disadvantage that has led to Native Americans constituting less than 2 percent of those admitted to Harvard in 2011.

This, to me, is the context in which we need to examine the allegations of anti-Asian quotas at Ivy League colleges.

First, here’s the complaint. Asian Americans as a group are very well represented among Ivy League admissions. For instance, at Harvard, 17.8% of those admitted are Asian American while Asian Americans are 5.6% of the general population. But, while well-represented among those admitted, Asian Americans are under-represented when compared with the percentage of the qualified applicant pool that is Asian American.

If those who are saying this is evidence of quotas are right, the quotas should be eliminated. But, that doesn’t make quotas bad on principle. It’s their illegality that makes them problematic because it means that if they’re being used, they’re being used secretly and without accountability to stakeholders, including donors and students.

Moreover, Asian Americans are a diverse group. If Asian admissions are being capped, the groups that suffer most are Hmong, Filipino, and Laotian Americans, among other Asian ethnic groups that are definitely underrepresented. Anyway, if anyone is over-represented, it’s white children of alumni who made up 30% of 2011 Harvard admissions, and few are complaining about that imbalance.

But, while the arguments being made on both sides are complex, a simple reality is often ignored. There are only a few spots at elite colleges to go around. Harvard admits around 1,600 people a year out of a pool of nearly 35,000. So providing opportunities to some will necessarily mean denying it to others and those opportunities are nothing to sneeze at. Attendance at elite colleges continues to be one of the strongest predictors of lifelong success and disproportionate influence in societal decision-making. There is no denying the broad social implications.

And that brings us back to the hot button issue of quotas.With so much at stake, how do we insure that Ivy League educations don’t end up functioning as de facto barriers to those without such degrees being included among elite decision makers in a society in which whites are so over-represented?

This, to me, is the discussion we ought to be having about affirmative action. Knee jerk reactions to the possibility of quotas tend to shut down the possibility for dialogue and allow publicly accountable institutions to continue to reproduce social inequality more often than it levels these inequities.

Equating quotas with the bans against people of color attending colleges and universities that were in place for much of our history and over which much blood was shed, is disingenuous. Those bans existed in order to insure that non-whites would never rise to positions of influence but would certainly be anxious to take the most highly exploitative jobs.

On the other hand, openly acknowledging the under-representation of certain groups by race, or poor people, rural people, people with disabilities, and many others whose matriculation at schools like Harvard might yield a benefit to society as a whole is a good thing. Conducting campaigns of recruitment specifically targeting these groups is legal and appropriate. And while quotas aren’t legal, including certain characteristics, such as a desire to serve under-represented and poor communities, especially in professions that accrue immediately to the public good, is legal. So let’s get past our fear of quotas and start talking solutions and not just problem. .


Avatar photo

By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.