Should race be a factor in US university admissions process?

Kent Ewing says though Asian Americans have benefited greatly from California universities' race-blind admissions, there are good reasons to reconsider the law to level the playing field

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 May, 2014, 6:05pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 May, 2014, 5:12am

Since 13 British colonies in America became an independent nation 238 years ago, no race has been barred by law from entering the United States - except, that is, the Chinese, declared personae non gratae by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The act was finally repealed in 1943 as the US found itself allied with China in its war against Japan.

But now, 71 years after that ignominious chapter of US history came to a close, Chinese Americans, as well as other Asians in the US, claim they are once again threatened with exclusion, this time from some of the country's best universities.

Appropriately, this latest battle is playing out in the state of California, where the story of Chinese migrants seeking success in America began with the gold rush of the 1850s and which in 1996 became the first US state to prohibit consideration of race as a factor in university admissions.

This 1996 decision opened the floodgates to a multitude of Asian American applicants who, under the new race-blind regimen, were often more academically qualified than other applicants and thus secured more places at state universities, arguably the best publicly funded universities in the nation.

Today, although Asians - a racial designation in the US that includes Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Indians, Filipinos and others - comprise 14 per cent of California's population, they now account for 36 per cent of its freshman (or first-year) offers for admission to its university system. On some campuses - usually the better ones, such as University of California San Diego and UC Irvine - Asian American students make up more than 45 per cent of the freshman class.

From an Asian perspective, then, these acceptance figures are a tremendous success story and amount to a powerful testimony that hard work pays off and high achievement is rewarded in American life; indeed, for some, it is a source of racial pride that has come to be part of the fabric of what could be called the Asian American dream.

The other races in the multicultural American melting pot don't necessarily see it that way, however. In California, they, too, want those coveted university places - and they want to reverse the 1996 prohibition in order to get them.

They have a point: there are many racial narratives in America's richly complex history, and those narratives have often come into ugly conflict. The country is at its best when it embraces its diversity and tries to reconcile its different peoples and traditions.

And that is exactly what its great universities have been doing since the civil rights triumphs of the 1960s - and some of them well before that - and race has all along been a necessary and important consideration in that effort. To argue now that times have changed and a once-skewed American playing field has been levelled is simply disingenuous.

Yes, the US has a two-term black president in Barack Obama, but those were not race-blind elections. In Obama's rare case, it turns out his ancestry and his powerful personal narrative helped him more than they hurt him.

Outside the rarefied air of the White House, many African Americans continue to struggle to overcome a history of slavery and the worst forms of discrimination. Their playing field is hardly level.

Race has always been a vexing aspect of American life - and probably always will be. For its universities to pretend otherwise is an act of betrayal - yes, one that benefits Asian Americans, but a betrayal nonetheless.

And yet this disturbing pretence has become a trend. The US Supreme Court just last month upheld Michigan's ban on affirmative action - the system of "positive discrimination" implemented in the 1960s to compensate minorities, particularly African Americans, who were victims of historical discrimination - effectively supporting similar measures in seven other states.

In California, however, Senator Ed Hernandez - concerned that his fellow Latinos (as well as other ethnic groups) are poorly represented in its university classrooms - authored a bill that would turn back the clock, reinstating affirmative action and thus once again making race a determining factor for admission to any UC institution.

California's Asian community has cried foul, mounting a passionate campaign that prompted Hernandez to withdraw his bill before it could be debated.

That's unfortunate. It's a debate that California - and a nation that still fails to offer a level playing field - should continue to have.

Kent Ewing is an American teacher and writer based in Hong Kong. He can be reached at Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1