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What If We Actually Researched The Affirmative Action Debate?


On Thursday, the Columbia School of Social Work invited Columbia sociologists Jennifer Lee and Van Tran to speak about Asian Americans and the affirmative action debate. Professor Lee describes their work as grounded in “sizzling research.”  Wait, you mean real research? Blasphemy!

Edward Blum, a.k.a. Students for Fair Admissions

Last fall, a nonprofit under the euphemism of “Students for Fair Admissions” put our friends in Cambridge on trial. Asian American students are held to higher standards and their awesome personalities are underrated, they argued. End affirmative action!

Who even are they? A quick Google search produces images of aggrieved Asian American students and parents up in arms. But wait! Who’s that Wall Street looking guy creeping in the background of the pictures?

That’s Edward Blum. He’s not an attorney, but a stock broker and entrepreneur who was on the losing side of Fisher v. University of Texas in 2013. Revising his strategy, Blum turned to Asian plaintiffs. Students for Fair Admissions is his creation. According to Lee, Blum actively recruited Asian Americans through his website, with provocative questions such as “Were You Denied Admission to College? It may be because you’re the wrong race.”

Lee and Tran’s project is markedly different from Blum’s. While his is meant to increase racial threat between minorities, theirs is to ground the debate in real data. Using data from the 2016 National Asian American Survey, their results reframe the Asian American affirmative action debate entirely.

Consider the following line:

Do you favor, oppose, or neither favor nor oppose allowing universities to increase the number of Black students studying at their schools by considering race along with other factors in choosing students?

According to Lee and Tran, this is the “classic framing” of the affirmative action debate. Just under 40% of whites and Asians responded in support, Blacks are 70%, and Latinos around 50%. Notably, the other responses were split between “oppose” and “neither favor nor oppose,” the latter of which one should keep in mind.

But there’s a problem with this framing, according to Tran. For example, Asian Americans are a part of the debate too. So consider this question instead: Do you favor, oppose, or neither favor nor oppose allowing universities to increase the number of Black students and some Asian American students studying at their schools by considering race along with other factors in choosing students?

The difference is that this question includes the clause “and some Asian American students.” When we talk about affirmative action this way, the data changes. Across the board, every demographic surveyed increased their support for the policy. After all, if we vote based on self-interest, inclusive policies are more compelling.

But here’s where it gets interesting. While around 22% of whites responded “neither favor nor oppose” to the first question, only 7% did to the second. In other words, whites neutral about affirmative action came to concrete decisions when the survey mentioned Asian Americans; they became polarized. What’s more, Latino respondents’ answers remained the same. Indeed, the second question only added Asian Americans to the debate.

Lee and Tran aren’t done yet. What about views on affirmative action among Asian American groups? The data is telling. On average, 43% of Asians support affirmative action; broken down into subcategories, the answers differ wildly. Chinese are the least supportive (30%) and Koreans the most (62%), with other ethnicities falling between them. For example, 56% of Cambodians support affirmative action, and 55% of Bangladeshis do. The evidence is clear: variation across racial groups is actually smaller than among Asian Americans! This, however, would not help Blum’s case.

As Lee and Tran point out, how we talk about affirmative action matters. Subtle framing differences, such as a brief clause (“and some Asian Americans”) can have massive consequences.

Photo via South China Morning Post

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