Leveling the Playing Field

Columbia students share differing views on affirmative action

By Jasmine Park

College admissions are a special iteration of hell. Most, if not every student at Columbia can probably think back with a cringe to that process, where insecurity, ambition, and anxiety dangle in the hands of busy, untouchable admissions officers. Amid this chaos, Americans are confronted with the idea that race can play a heavy role in determining one’s future—affirmative action is a widely discussed topic, and one that the Trump Administration is taking on with renewed vigor. Given that higher education plays such a key role in the classic American Dream story, some people are uncomfortable when affirmative action pulls college out of the meritocratic narrative.

The Supreme Court has scrutinized affirmative action many times. The most recent episode being Fisher v. University of Texas, where a white female student sued the University of Texas, citing discriminatory admissions policies. Although the Court allowed Texas to use race as a non-quantified factor for admissions in June 2016, the U.S. Department of Justice has revived the attack on affirmative action in a new investigation of Harvard University, where anti-affirmative action advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions, claims there is intentional discrimination against Asian American students in admissions.

With the persistence of the “model minority myth”, the generalization that Asians are inherently high achieving, it is already difficult for Asians to determine where they fit in the American narrative. However, the current administration and the Department of Justice occupy a particular ideological space, and when US Attorney General Jeff Sessions champions Asian-Americans to attack a policy meant to ensure diversity, it places that community in an impossible situation.

For Chinese-American student Victoria Hou, CC ’21, affirmative action is a serious point of contention. Having grown up in Northern California near UC Berkeley and Stanford, with a significant Asian-American population, she’s keenly aware of the hypercompetitive environment that can feed into the anger surrounding affirmative action. For many in her community, college is more than a place to spend four years; it’s an indication of success and the culmination of exhausting years of work. It feels like “everything [revolves] around going to the best college, getting the best ACT or SAT scores, doing the right extracurriculars, etc,” she says. “Every single thing in your life starts to feel like it’s about getting into college.” Hou calls it a positive feedback loop, where expectations and ambitions trip over each other, creating a toxic environment that’s especially dangerous for vulnerable high schoolers.

With the model minority myth working against Asian-Americans, a rejection letter can be more than just that, which is especially frustrating for a community often placed outside of the conversation about race in America. Hou sees Asian-Americans as feeling isolated, never here nor there in the spectrum of privilege and discrimination and lacking an obvious historical precedence of speaking out. In that environment, affirmative action becomes more than a small hindrance; it’s another unacknowledged weight.

Illustration by Jennifer Bi

Hou, like many Asian-Americans, doesn’t want to stereotype or disregard the struggles of other minority groups. And yet she can’t help but empathize with the group of Asian-Americans suing Harvard. With so much pressure to get into a good university, the opacity of the admissions process is difficult to handle. There’s the sense that affirmative action can place Asians in a situation where they feel they have to work extra hard on top of all the hypercompetitive stress that goes on.

Beyond adding to stress culture for certain demographics, Omar Khan, CC ’18, notes that there are other moments when affirmative action can be complicated. To illustrate his point, he throws out, “What is an Asian-American?”

When someone says “Asian-American,” they’re likely to think of an East Asian, often pushing South Asians and Southeast Asians to the side. With parents from Pakistan and the Philippines, American” particularly valuable in describing himself. In terms of Asian-Americans at Columbia, he notes that there tend to be many Korean, Chinese, and Indian-Americans, but there isn’t much discussion about Filipino representation and whether or not that community is well-represented on campus. Filipinos make up a large minority in the U.S., but that’s not reflected on Columbia’s campus.

Despite that, he believes that the institutional barriers in the American educational system make the value of affirmative action incalculable. To him, it’s ridiculous that in his academically rigorous New York City high school there was not a single black man in his graduating class. Since coming to Columbia, he has come to understand the specific position that certain racial groups have come to occupy in U.S. history.

“While the treatment of Asian-Americans under affirmative action sometimes can be unfair, affirmative action itself can be a good thing and those two things can be true at the same time,” he says.

For Kennedy Stacy, CC ’20, a black QuestBridge scholar, programs with similar policies to affirmative action have helped her succeed. Although she believes the education system in general could do more to promote academic excellence in minority students, as a student who doesn’t come from a school that traditionally feeds into universities like Columbia, she does have faith in the efficacy of affirmative action policies.

However, she’s also aware of the criticism such policies face. Beyond rude comments stemming from ignorance and stereotypes, Stacy understands that in an ideal world, affirmative action would not be necessary. But we don’t live in a post-racial society, and she doubts we ever will. Stacy understands that there is bound to be conflict, especially when on one hand there are people who are disadvantaged, and on the other there are those accustomed to privilege who feel something is being taken from them.

“It’s not that people are being disadvantaged, it’s just that other people are getting a chance now,” Stacy explains.

For Elektra Williams, CC ’20, and others, it’s been a learning experience. As a white woman raised in a very conservative family, she’d been told that affirmative action is something negative that would unfairly affect her chances of getting into universities. However, she admits that coming to Columbia has changed her perspective a little, allowing her to realize that some people are historically disadvantaged and affirmative action is necessary to even the playing field.

She thinks a university population needs to accurately represent the population of the U.S. and that is impossible with strictly merit-based policies. But Elektra is precise by nature. She wants equal representation, nothing more and nothing less. Still, though she understands there’s a necessary element of give and take, something about affirmative action makes her uncomfortable. There’s a hesitancy in her answers that reflects the difficulty of taking a firm stance on something so riddled with politically correct landmines.

On its face, splitting hairs over who gets into what university could seem trivial, but the opportunities of higher education are never ones to be taken lightly. Admissions decisions are quite literally what brings Columbia students together. When I asked a friend how she felt about affirmative action, she shrugged,

“It can bring out the worst in us.”

But for some Columbia students, it can also bring out their best.w

Editor’s Note: The students interviewed above are speaking of their own personal experiences, and are in no way expected to be representatives of their respective races or ethnicities.

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