So I wanted to post on this earlier, but I’m only now finding the time. Apparently the University of California has adopted a new admissions policy, set to go into effect in 2012, that would increase the number of white students while driving down the number of Asian American students.
One of the things I find most compelling about California is that unlike nowhere else in the US (okay, maybe Hawaii too), Asian Pacific Islander Americans have a place in California. This is due in no small part to the fact that, in very specific ways, the UC-system has been tremendously successful in serving certain APIA groups since the 1980s. For example, UC Berkeley – which is consistently ranked as the nation’s best public university – currently has a 42% Asian American undergraduate population (compared to the census figures for Asian Americans in the state and nation at 11% and 4.3% respectively). The other highest undergraduate figures for UC campuses are also significant: Irvine 55% (!), Riverside 43%, and Los Angeles 38%.* What I admire about the UC-system is that, in a qualified sense, it accomplishes precisely what most students seek in higher education: a means to cultivate professional equity and realize class stability through a public, democratic(-ish), geographically diverse system.
However, what first needs to be said about this remark is that the UC-system strongly serves East Asians, particularly Chinese and Japanese Americans. The danger with regard to admissions and the equal representation of APIA students, though, is that many ethnicities come under the umbrella of “Asian American,” each obviously from distinct regions (East, South, and Southeast Asia as well as the Pacific), historical trajectories of immigration, and social inequalities (hence, my preference for Asian Pacific Islander American). In fact, there are vast class differences that belie the frequently repeated observation that Asian Americans are well served by the UC-system.
To return to the new admissions policy, it is patently unreasonable to herald any sort of increase in student diversity if it comes with an increase white students. As reported in the Mercury article, UC’s own estimates find that under the new policy there may be up to a 7% decrease in Asian American students with up to a 10% increase in white students. This is unacceptable. Even if we set aside the incongruities of college success among APIA students, there of course remains other historically underserved populations, including a consistently appalling failure among state institutions to increase Latino, African American, and American Indian students in college campuses. Under the new policy, African American and Latino applicants only expect a maximum increase of 1% and 3% respectively. This is ridiculous.
While I am adamant that this admissions measure is an unquestionable failure, it is admittedly difficult to enact any sort of fair representation policy without some sort of unwanted side effect. For example, in the landmark Supreme Court case of Allan Bakke, the UC Davis Medical School was found in violation of the Equal Protection Clause and Title VI. The Court declared that while affirmative action programs are constitutional, quota systems based on race are unconstitutional. What’s interesting is the total irony that the Civil Rights Act should 14 years later be invoked to successfully defend a white applicant’s entrance to med school. In 1996, the Bakke decision was strengthened in California with the passing of Proposition 209, which prohibits state institutions from considering race, sex, or ethnicity in hiring or admissions.
And while there is a difficult circularity about the issue of affirmative action and race-based placement, it seems to me that race-blind selection all but renders insidious all forms of government mandated affirmative action programs, agencies, and efforts. In effect, Office(s) of Diversity and all such artifices ultimately end up doing the work of government PR, administering the soft face of a state and judiciary unwilling to disrupt the meritocracy of white civil society. The difficulty today is that government agencies and institutions such as the UC-system must gingerly navigate around the problem of racial equality without the tools that were stripped away by the passage of Bakke and Prop 209. Gatekeepers must instead vaguely triangulate their selection metrics to correlate with target demographics. So, for example, if Asians seem to score well on subject tests and there are too many Asians in the system, then give less weight to subject tests. How can we deliver justice using the approximation of statistical correlation?
And no, we’ll never get to the bottom of this. Or at least not in the present configuration of state and federal powers. But however imperfect legislation and policy implementation may be, let’s acknowledge in no uncertain terms that the new University of California admissions policy is misguided.
*Note: These figures only represent undergraduates, APIAs in graduate programs are significantly lower.