Indian Americans and Asian American community organizations were split in their response to a Supreme Court ruling June 23 that upheld the constitutionality of the race-conscious admissions program at the University of Texas.
The Asian American community has long been divided on the issue of affirmative action in the college admissions process. Some community organizations have said affirmative action discriminates against Asian Americans, with high-achieving students losing out to less-qualified African American and Hispanic students. Asian Americans are generally perceived to be over-represented at the nation’s campuses of higher education.
Other Asian American organizations argue that campus diversity — representing all of the nation’s ethnic minorities — is necessary to prepare students for an increasingly heterogeneous American population and workforce.
In his dissent to the majority 4-3 decision, Justice Samuel Alito wrote that the court’s ruling and UT’s admissions policy specifically discriminates against Asian Americans, who are lumped together as a group, without acknowledging for differences between Indian American, Chinese, Vietnamese and other Asian American students.
“Hispanics are better represented than Asian Americans in UT classrooms,” wrote Alito, adding: “The court’s willingness to allow this discrimination against individuals of Asian descent in UT admissions is particularly troubling, in light of the long history of discrimination against Asian Americans, especially in education.”
The case, Fisher vs. Texas, was brought about by Abigail Fisher, a white woman who had applied to UT Austin, but was not accepted. Fisher sued the university, saying its admissions policies were unfair to students who do not belong to under-represented minority groups.
Texas state has a “Top 10” admissions policy, which guarantees admission of the top 10 percent of graduating students at any of its high schools to the college of their choice within the state. UT Austin adds a “personal achievement index” to its criteria for admitting students, which considers race, socio-economic background, extracurricular activities and extraordinary circumstances, among other factors.
The university has said that the “Top 10” policy alone is not enough to create diversity on its campuses, and therefore must use a holistic approach. In a 2004 memo defending the use of PAI noted: “The university identifies the educational values it seeks to realize through its admissions process: the destruction of stereotypes, the promotion of cross-racial understanding, the preparation of a student body for an increasingly diverse workforce and society, and the cultivation of a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry.”
UT Austin initiated the use of PAI after years of low representation — about four percent of the student body — of African Americans and Latino students at its campuses.
Fisher was not in the top 10 percent of her class, but applied nonetheless to UT Austin. In her lawsuit, the young student, who has since graduated from a different university, noted that under-represented minority students who were also not in the top 10 gained admission, while she did not.
This is the second time the court has heard the case: in 2012, the justices sent the case back to a lower court, which ruled in favor of the university. The lower court upheld its earlier ruling after a re-examination of the case.
“Class rank is a single metric, and like any single metric, it will capture certain types of people and miss others,” wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy in the majority decision. “This does not imply that students admitted through holistic review are necessarily more capable or more desirable than those admitted through the Top Ten Percent Plan. It merely reflects the fact that privileging one characteristic above all others does not lead to a diverse student body.”
“Indeed, to compel universities to admit students based on class rank alone is in deep tension with the goal of educational diversity as this court’s cases have defined,” wrote Kennedy.
YuKong Zhao, president of the Asian American Coalition for Education, said in a statement that he was disappointed by the Supreme Court’s decision, but pointed out: “Today's ruling is not a green-light for Ivy League schools and other colleges to use racial quotas, racial stereotypes, just-for-Asian higher-standards and other unlawful practices to blatantly discriminate against Asian American children in the college admissions process. Such discrimination is clearly illegal.”
“The fundamental way to improve diversity in colleges is through improvement of K-12 education in America's poor communities, not by allocating college admission slots based on skin color,” said Zhao.
The organization 80/20 – headed by S.B. Woo – has announced an initiative to discourage Asian Americans from donating to several Ivy League schools that allegedly discriminate against Asian Americans. The organization has also stated that it will file a lawsuit focusing on the alleged discrimination against Asian American students, as raised by Alito and the dissenters.
But several Asian American organizations applauded the Supreme Court ruling. "UT's individualized review of applicants will continue to benefit Asian Americans and avoid harmful stereotypes based on the 'model minority' myth," said Margaret Fung, executive director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
"We are pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court acknowledges the continued need for affirmative action policies that make it possible for students of all backgrounds, including many historically disadvantaged Asian American and Pacific Islanders, to access higher education and create a stronger country through their contributions to a diverse society," said Mee Moua, president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
University of California president Janet Napolitano issued a statement lauding the Supreme Court’s decision. “Today’s U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the use of race-conscious measures in college admissions will contribute to greater equity and participation in public higher education for all American students.”
The decision will not impact the UC system. Since the passage of Prop. 209 in 1996, the 10 campuses that make up the nation’s largest public university system are barred from using affirmative action. UC does use a holistic approach in its admissions process, taking socio-economic conditions, availability of Advanced Placement classes and other factors into account.
Asian Americans make up the highest numbers of students enrolled at UC campuses – 37 percent – but have nonetheless complained of under-representation at UC Berkeley and UCLA. Last year, Napolitano told India-West during a media briefing, “Our goal is to share the pie for all Californians, not to pit ethnic groups against each other.”