Fair grounds

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 March, 2012, 12:00am


In Hong Kong, I often hear completely misguided, misinformed - and sometimes just plain disturbing - interpretations of affirmative action.

'If you were Latino, you could get into Harvard with your scores. But because you are Asian, you need 400 extra points. So go study.'

'Thank God our last name is Lee. We're going to list our daughter's ethnicity as black, like Spike Lee.'

Factoring in race in US universities' admissions decisions has been around, off and on, for the last quarter of a century. A major victory of the civil rights movement, affirmative action has increased the numbers of African American and Latino students across almost all US campuses, while, some studies show, directly hindering the chances of white and Asian students. All this is about to change, though, as the US Supreme Court prepares to rule on a case which questions the constitutionality of considering race in admissions. It looks like affirmative action may end soon.

If you are an Asian student or an Asian parent, you're probably thinking, 'It's about time'. But, first, ask yourself this: will the world truly be a better place without affirmative action? I don't think so.

Growing up in the California public school system, I attended eight different schools for eight different grades, including ones that were majority-Asian and ones that were majority-black. I learned that a diverse school teaches a child lifelong lessons on humility, co-operation, sensitivity and perspective, something you cannot learn from textbooks.

But the main reason I'm a big fan of affirmative action is because I fear what will happen if we do away with it. We do not have to look far to catch a glimpse. Here in Hong Kong, ethnic minorities are on the verge of suing the Education Bureau for 'serious racial discrimination' because these non-Chinese children cannot have the same quality of education as Chinese children. With low marks in Chinese, ethnic minority children in the local system often grow up with poor prospects.

We need the US to blaze the trail for affirmative action, to give hope and guidance for systems like Hong Kong's. We need affirmative action because the playing field is not level, for reasons stretching all the way back to the days of slavery. Education is the only chance we have of ever evening things out.

So, while cancelling affirmative action in US higher education may appear to benefit Hongkongers seeking to study abroad, it would also open a whole new can of worms.

In 20 years, I hope to look at a picture of the graduating class of my alma mater, the University of California, Berkeley, and see an even more diverse mix of races - black, white, Asian, native American and Latino, instead of the current ratio of about 40per cent Asian and nearly 30per cent white. In my picture of the future, too, the vast numbers of African Americans and Latinos will have got a place not based on race, because by then affirmative action will have levelled the playing field.

But we're not there yet. Until then, I'm happy to have my Chinese sons work that much harder.

Kelly Yang is the founder of The Kelly Yang Project, an after-school programme for children in Hong Kong. She is a graduate of the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard Law School. kelly@kellyyang.com