Are the College Students Who Need Affirmative Action Getting It?

UC Berkeley
The number of Black students fell at the University of California after the state banned affirmative action.

Charlie Nguyen / Flickr

Are the college students who need affirmative action most actually benefiting from it during the admissions process? A look at how affirmative action plays out among Asian American and African American students suggests maybe not.

The Diversity of Asian America

In the educational realm, colleges and universities often exclude Asian Americans from receiving affirmative action benefits. That's because the racial group is already highly represented on college campuses nationwide. But a closer look at the Asian American population reveals distinct class divides among its ethnic groups.

For instance, those with Southeast Asian origins tend to be lower income and less educated than their counterparts from South and East Asia, alike. Given this, is it fair to subject a Vietnamese American college applicant and a Japanese American college applicant to the same affirmative action policy?

The African American Dilemma

Among African Americans, class divides exist between Black people native to the United States and foreign-born Black people, with the latter achieving higher incomes and levels of education than the former. In fact, census findings indicate that African immigrants to the U.S. are the most highly educated group of people in the country.

In America's most elite colleges and universities, the Black students on campus are often immigrants or the children of immigrants. Does this mean affirmative action is failing to serve the descendants of enslaved people, the group some scholars argue it was designed to help?

Who Was Affirmative Action Meant to Serve?

How did affirmative action come about, and who was meant to reap its benefits? In the 1950s, civil rights activists successfully challenged segregation in the education, food and transportation realms, to name a few. Buoyed by the pressures of the civil rights movement, President John Kennedy issued Executive Order 10925 in 1961.

The order made reference to "affirmative action" as a means by which to end discrimination. That's because affirmative action prioritizes the placement of underrepresented groups in sectors from which they were categorically barred in the past, including the workplace and the academy.

Back then, African Americans, Asian Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans faced a wide range of barriers because of their racial backgrounds--from being forced to live in segregated neighborhoods to being denied adequate medical care and fair access to employment. Because of the pervasive discrimination such groups faced, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was created.

It functions, in part, to eliminate employment discrimination. The year after the act passed, President Lyndon Johnson issued Executive Order 11246, which mandated that federal contractors practice affirmative action to develop diversity in the workplace and end race-based discrimination, among other sorts. By the late 1960s, educational institutions were using affirmative action to diversify the nation's colleges.

How Deep Are Intra-Racial Divides?

Thanks to affirmative action, college campuses have grown more diverse over the years. But is affirmative action reaching the most vulnerable segments of underrepresented groups? Take Harvard, for example. In recent years, the institution has come under fire because such a large number of Black students on campus are either immigrants or immigrants' children.

It's estimated that two-thirds of students there come from families which hail from the Caribbean or Africa, the New York Times reported. Therefore, Black people who have resided in the country for generations, the ones who endured enslavement, segregation, and other barriers, aren't reaping the benefits of affirmative action en masse.

Harvard isn't the only elite institution to see this trend play out. A study published in the Sociology of Education found that selective colleges enroll just 2.4 percent of native Black high school graduates but 9.2 percent of Black immigrants. And a study published in The American Journal of Education found that 27% of Black students at selective colleges are first- or second-generation Black immigrants.

However, this group makes up only 13 percent of all Black people between the ages of 18 and 19 in the United States, leaving little doubt that Black immigrants are over-represented in elite academic institutions.

A large number of Asian Americans are first- or second-generation immigrants, of course. But even in this population, divides exist among native and foreign-born individuals. According to the census' 2007 American Community Survey, just 15 percent of Native Hawaiians and other Pacific Islanders have bachelor's degrees, and just 4 percent have graduate degrees.

Meanwhile, 50 percent of Asian Americans overall have bachelor's degrees and 20 percent have graduate degrees. While Asian Americans generally are highly educated and well represented on the nation's college campuses, clearly the Indigenous segment of this population is being left behind.

What's the Solution?

Colleges seeking multicultural student bodies must treat African Americans and Asian Americans as diverse groups and not as homogeneous entities. Achieving this requires taking into account an applicant's specific ethnic background when considering students for admission.

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Your Citation
Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Are the College Students Who Need Affirmative Action Getting It?" ThoughtCo, Nov. 15, 2020, Nittle, Nadra Kareem. (2020, November 15). Are the College Students Who Need Affirmative Action Getting It? Retrieved from Nittle, Nadra Kareem. "Are the College Students Who Need Affirmative Action Getting It?" ThoughtCo. (accessed January 22, 2021).