I’m About to Graduate From College. Why Does Affirmative Action Still Impact My Future?
Updated: Jan 16
This is the second article in The WeChat Project’s series on affirmative action. To learn more, read the first article in our series.
Cover art credit: Yoko Shimizu
[BLOCKED] Mandarin version/中文翻译 on WeChat
I am about to graduate from an elite college on the East Coast. Many times, people in the Chinese American community ask me: “Why do you still care so much about affirmative action in California?”
It’s a good question. The debate around California’s Prop 16 has largely revolved around undergraduate admissions, and as someone who was applying to college just a few years ago, I understand the stress and concern surrounding these issues. It’s so hard to get a job these days—and one thing that Chinese American families can do to ensure their children’s future well-being is making sure that they get into a good college, right?
I grew up in the suburbs of Northern California, just minutes away from Stanford University and the Silicon Valley. My parents work hard everyday to make sure that our family can continue to afford living in an area as expensive as the Bay Area. But at college, I learned that there are some things that you cannot achieve simply by working hard.
I remember having dinner with one of my white classmates during my freshman year—it turned out that we actually grew up only thirty minutes away from each other. Before coming to college, I attended my local public high school, whereas she had attended the same private Catholic school since kindergarten. I asked her what her plans for winter break were, thinking that she might tell me about a Christmas family tradition, or that maybe she would be visiting relatives in a different state. Instead, she said: “Oh, I’m going to be working in a Stanford psychology lab! I’m so excited.”
I was baffled. Was this the norm? When I casually asked her how she got the position, she cheerfully told me that the Stanford psychology professor was a long-time family friend: “She told me that if I ever wanted to work in her lab, she would be more than happy to have me.” I knew that my winter break would be spent at home, not in a Stanford lab, and that I would probably spend weekends serving as a substitute receptionist at my dad’s office. I remember wondering how it was possible that we grew up just thirty minutes away from each other, and yet we led such different lives.
My mom is the most hardworking person I know. She somehow had enough time to work full-time, raise two children, and regularly take care of her parents, mostly by not sleeping very much. She spends so many hours working at her computer that she’s developed tendonitis in both of her wrists. But my hardworking mom arrived in this country in the 1990s, and does not have generations of family connections in this country that would guarantee me a cushy job in investment banking straight out of college, without much effort on my part. (This is how many students at my elite college get jobs, by the way. They graduate with a degree in History and then accept a job offer from their father’s Wall Street firm, which has nothing to do with what they studied in college or how hard they studied in college and everything to do with who their family knows.)
I don’t share this anecdote to generate pity or concern for my future. What I am trying to demonstrate is that even Chinese Americans who grow up in nice neighborhoods and graduate with degrees from fancy colleges need affirmative action—because affirmative action policies extend far beyond the realm of undergraduate education. And in the grand scheme of things, elite undergraduate degrees actually don’t matter much.
If a Chinese American student living in a nice house in Fremont with two college-educated parents is rejected from Harvard/Yale/Stanford/UC Berkeley/UCLA/etc., she will, in all likelihood, be okay. She worked very hard in school, and her parents may have paid for her to receive college counseling and SAT classes, so she probably has the opportunity to attend UC San Diego, UC Davis, San Jose State, Santa Clara University, Occidental College—all very fine institutions whose diplomas will marginally impact her employment opportunity and financial well-being, according to a landmark study published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. The Atlantic breaks it down this way:
If [hypothetical students] Mike and Drew have the same SAT scores and apply to the same colleges, but Mike gets into Harvard and Drew doesn’t, they can still expect to earn the same income throughout their careers. Despite Harvard’s international fame and energetic alumni outreach, somebody like Mike would not experience an observable “Harvard effect.” Dale and Krueger [the authors of the study] even found that the average SAT scores of all the schools a student applies to is a more powerful predictor of success than the school that student actually attends. This finding suggests that the talents and ambitions of individual students are worth more than the resources and renown of elite schools.
It’s also important to remember that race-conscious affirmative action has not really affected how many Asian students are admitted to the UC system. Before the implementation of affirmative action, and after the implementation of affirmative action, Asian students have consistently been overrepresented in the UC student body. And if we look at the data, race-blind admissions seem to have actually made it slightly less likely for Asian students to get in. (Remember that Prop 209 went into effect in 1998.)
So if affirmative action doesn’t really significantly change how likely it is for Asian students to get into UCs, why should we even care? Affirmative action has been most popularly discussed in the context of undergraduate education, but affirmative action policies affect Chinese Americans long after they graduate from college, helping to secure equitable employment opportunities and conditions. Prop 16 in California, for example, is an affirmative action bill that covers public employment and business contracting in addition to public education. When affirmative action policies were banned in California, barriers in government contracting led to an estimated annual loss of $1 billion in contract dollars by minority- and women-owned small businesses.
If I wanted to become an attorney, judge, engineer, etc. for my home state of California, and the state considered my race when reviewing my application, they would also know that it has historically been more difficult for someone like me to enter certain professions. According to the State Bar of California, California attorneys are predominantly white and male, while Asian American lawyers and other minority lawyers in California continue to be underrepresented. If we consider the example of becoming a judge, Asian Americans are even worse represented.
Chinese American sociologist Margaret M. Chin has found that most Asian Americans do not have a problem getting jobs. But as soon as they attempt to progress past the entry-level, Asian Americans hit the “bamboo ceiling”:
“The Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2013 estimated that over 35% of Asian American workers were employed in professional industries, but their numbers in business executive positions and boardrooms were miniscule...Asian Americans comprise just 2% of executive officers and 2.6% of board members at Fortune 500 companies. (Blacks and Latinos hold 7.4% and 3.3% of the Fortune 500 corporate board seats, respectively.) Even in Silicon Valley, Asian Americans encounter a glass ceiling. ASCEND, an Asian American professional organization, using 2013 EEOC data from HP, Google, Intel, LinkedIn, and Yahoo, found that the higher you climb on the corporate ladder, the fewer minorities you will meet. Within these five companies, Asian Americans represent 27% of professionals, 19% of managers, and just 14% of executives. A similar phenomenon occurs with Blacks and Latinos. Whites are the only group whose proportion increases as they rise through the ranks.”
These are professionals who, by any other measure, have everything going for them. Dr. Chin interviewed second-generation Asian Americans who speak fluent English, who have incredible work ethic, who have stellar grades, and who grew up in wealthy neighborhoods with two highly-educated parents. But in the corporate environment, “working hard, being smart, being the best at what you do, and not rocking the boat”—in other words, being a ‘model minority’—equates to lack of leadership potential or not being a good “cultural fit.” Their parents, who immigrated to the United States as adults and often worked as researchers or engineers, did not have the appropriate social contacts to help mentor their children. But don’t these highly qualified Chinese American professionals deserve the same chance of achieving leadership positions?
What was so special about the few Asian Americans who did make it to the top? Not Ivy League credentials, but two other factors. One, “they often spent time in high school, college, and graduate school learning and perfecting how to socialize, lead, and network.” And two, they credited “affirmative action programs that had explicitly identified minorities for management development.”
To be clear, the problem is not that Asian Americans are not “good”’ at their jobs, that they are not “good enough” to be leaders, or that having more Asian CEOs of Fortune 500 companies will automatically cure racism. What the bamboo ceiling does highlight is that we exist in a system where achieving a position in corporate leadership requires arbitrary, non-meritocratic qualifications—qualifications that many white professionals automatically have, simply because their families have been in America for generations, and because they are not stereotyped as being quiet, diligent robots. Affirmative action is one way of pushing against these unfair practices.
Affirmative action does not harm Asian American students’ chances of getting into a California public university. Affirmative action actively benefits Asian Americans’ employment opportunities long after graduating from college. Not every young Chinese person needs to become the CEO of a Fortune 500 company to lead a happy life. But every young Chinese person deserves an equal chance.