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  • Dec 20, 2014
  • Updated: 8:20am
CommentInsight & Opinion

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 The act was finally repealed in 1943 as the US found itself allied with China in its war against Japan.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 kewing56@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter: @KentEwing1


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This article is a bald face advocacy of discrimination against Asian Americans, similar to past discrimination against Jews. Unlike countries like for example Malaysia which overtly discriminate against Chinese and Indians, the United States Constitution only recognizes equality under the law. That implies a meritocracy. If Asians do better academically compared to other groups, so be it. If UC - Berkeley becomes 100 % Asian, fine. You can't argue that Asian Americans got some special advantages given the past history of US discrimination against Asians or that they engaged in discriminatory practices against African Americans or Hispanics. America needs the best. It doesn't matter why Asian Americans succeed -- whether it's tiger moms, rich intellectual traditions or some kind of genetic edge-- who knows. Asians are a heterogeneous group anyway so having a campus filled with Asians implies diversity. Two of America's internet titans -- Google and Facebook -- were both founded by Jews. Talented minorities have been big winners in America. Perhaps the next high tech titans will be founded by Asians -- ones that went to the UC university system.
"Are you saying that the Latinos who harvest the crops that we buy in Park n Shop aren't working hard? For shame. "

Look at you stereotyping all latinos as doing unskilled menial labour. Besides, that type of work doesn't qualify you for university.

Nobody is entitled to a university education. If your academic performance isn't as good as others, then sorry, you're not going to university. Asians had it just as hard as Latinos, and they overcame those odds through good academic performance in school.
What a surprise, a white guy in China saying that ethnic Chinese should be OK with not getting a place based on merit.
Before asians started "exceeding" their "quotas" at uni, it was always best person for the job - i.e. if you had the best grades, qualifications etc, you beat all others. For multiple places - its the next best person. Problem was, that meant that asians were getting all the best slots - far more than their demographic percentage. And - like the Jews before them - whites started getting angsty and put more stringent "white only" criteria - has to be good at debating, sports, there is even a criteria that you must play an instrument - that isn't a violin or piano (i.e. "white" music, not "asian" music).
Despite all that, asians still overrepresented their demographic - so now it's affirmative action.
I totally disagree with this author's stance. Actually it's very simple. Getting a place into university should depend on your academic ability, not race. If you disagree with this then there is something seriously wrong with your rational. It's the very basis of equal opportunity.
Kent is WRONG. We are fighting hard against SCA-5 in California. Asian including Chinese work very hard to gain admission into Universities in California. Race based admission will be similar to those in Malaysia - i.e. medical school admission, Chinese need to score 95%+ to gain admission while the local only need to score 50%+ to gain admission. Therefore in Malaysia, who do you want to treat your heart problems. Kent - next time when you have a serious medical problem, give it a try to obtain medical treatment in Malaysia, be sure to pick a non-Chinese Doctor.
Also, why are SCMP giving a white guy english teacher who couldn't even keep a job as a teacher back home national coverage in HK? It's like giving an editorial to some guy who couldn't hold a job from HK the right to rant about whites in a white newspaper
In a perfect world - what, where qualifications and places are given based on the size demographics of a population, and not their merit?
I wouldn't call that perfect.
so you are saying to asians, "hey I know you worked hard to get your A, waaaay harder than blacks and latinos and whites who got poorer grades, but because of what race you are we have to give it to someone else who worked less harder than you, because they're not asian".
In a perfect world, this is true. Unfortunately, we don't live in that world.
Funny how white privilege and white guilt is asking Asians to pay for their sins instead of owning up and pay for slavery. This is also a way to distract the culprit of discrimination: white people. Nice try mr. Ewing who knows what's best for minorities



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