Haunted by Negative Action: Asian Americans, Admissions, and Race in the "Color-Blind Era"

By Poon, Oiyan A. | Asian American Policy Review, Annual 2009 | Go to article overview

Haunted by Negative Action: Asian Americans, Admissions, and Race in the "Color-Blind Era"


Poon, Oiyan A., Asian American Policy Review


In the 1980s, the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), and the University of California, Berkeley (UC Berkeley), were found to be discriminating against Asian Americans in their admissions process. (1) Although the facts of the case showed that quotas against Asian American applicants favored White applicants, conservatives manipulated the facts in the case to shift the debate over affirmative action in favor of their anti-affirmative action agenda (Robles 2006; Takagi 1993). They argued that affirmative action was detrimental to Asian Americans and unfairly favored African Americans and Latinos (Kim 1999). However, the truth was that the two campuses were practicing "negative action." Jerry Kang (1996, 3) states, "negative action against Asian Americans is in force if a university denies admission to an Asian American who would have been admitted had that person been White."

On 4 February 2009, the University of California (UC) Board of Regents unanimously approved a new UC eligibility policy to begin in the fall of 2012; at the eleventh hour before the regents' vote, Asian American

voices from the political left raised concerns about the policy (Jaschik 2009). With the quota controversy from the 1980s still haunting the Asian American community, political leaders were wary of the perceived significant increase of Whites at the UC at the expense of Asian Americans, with marginal gains by other students of color--a negative action policy impact. Some reports about the new policy, however, have been inaccurate and even misleading in representing the new policy and may be causing more anxiety than is necessary. (2)

Given that the UC policy must meet the restrictions of Proposition 209 (California Secretary of State n.d.), could the UC be practicing negative action again, with the new university eligibility (3) policy? This article provides a summary of the new policy and discusses concerns raised by Asian American leaders, providing a critical analysis of the new policy's impact on Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) applicants. The article concludes with a commentary on the need for a sustained AAPI education advocacy organization to provide proactive analysis and leadership on education policy.

UC Eligibility Policy

At the heart of all admissions debates is the construction of the definition of "merit." Although Proposition 209 made race-conscious admissions policies illegal, the debate over race, equity, and college access is far from over. Each revision in the University of California's admissions eligibility policy since Proposition 209 has originated with a desire to increase fairness in defining merit and eligibility in admissions. The latest UC eligibility policy amendment originated from the results of a two-year comprehensive research study by the UC Regents Study Group on University Diversity about the impacts of Proposition 209. (4) One of the most alarming findings was that under the current policy, 49.1 percent of the admissions went to students from high schools that produce only 20 percent of the state's high school graduates, indicating the persistent and severe inequalities between high schools in the state. At the center of the policy change and debate is the amendment of criteria determining which students constitute the top 12.5 percent of California's high school graduates. The California Master Plan for Higher Education (University of California n.d.) guarantees UC admission to the top 12.5 percent of the state's graduating high school students but does not dictate how the university should define the top 12.5 percent.

Current Policy

The current policy determines the top 12.5 percent through three sets of criteria. In the state context, students become UC eligible if they are in the top 12.5 percent of the state based on an index of grade point average (GPA) and tests. A second group of students is considered eligible in local context if these students rank in the top 4 percent of their graduating high school class. …

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