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Affirmative Action Draws Mixed Reactions from Asian-Americans

In late June the United States Supreme Court will decide whether university affirmative action programs should continue to help certain minority groups in admissions and other policies. The high court will consider two cases, Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, involving the University of Michigan. The decision will determine whether race can be used as a factor in admitting students to state-funded colleges in an effort to increase campus diversity.

The Michigan cases have drawn mixed reaction among Asian Pacific Americans, who often find themselves both "victims" and "beneficiaries" of affirmative action. Although May is the month dedicated to observing Asian Pacific Heritage, many Asian Americans find themselves focussed on the issue of affirmative action in the waning weeks before the Supreme Court's decision. Maryland undergraduate Amy Wong says Asian Pacific Americans, or "APAs," may be left out of discussions on the topic.

"Asian Americans are often put in the middle of this debate over affirmative action. It has become such a black-white issue much like the words 'diversity' and 'multiculturalism.' When people use these words, they're really talking about black and white," she said. "APAs, Latinos and Native Americans are lost somewhere in the middle."

Graduate student and instructor Chris Liang says many Asian-American students in his classes have mixed feelings about the need for affirmative action programs.

"A lot of them are 'sitting on the fence.' I encourage a lot of questioning and thinking in class," he said. "I don't necessarily want someone to buy into one camp or the other. There are some students who are very vocal in their opposition to affirmative action. And there were some students, less vocal, who were supportive. By far, the majority of the students were questioning it. They want to support the idea and believe in fairness. But they hear stories from their friends, or other Asian Americans, or other students with higher grades: Not getting admitted raises questions of meritocracy. What's fair? Is it fair with people studying really hard and doing the things you're supposed to be doing to succeed and then not getting in [to a college]? But it's also fair to let students from disadvantaged groups, blacks and Latinos and women, be considered for admission into some of the top schools."

Another Maryland graduate student and instructor, Marie Ting, spent several years studying and teaching at the epicenter of the debate, the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where she grew to appreciate the need for affirmative action programs.

"I think the greater good is being able to educate students in a diverse environment," she said. "So when they graduate, they can be leaders [such as at] Michigan, known as the 'leaders and the best.' We educate students so that when they go out into society, they can continue to be the 'leaders and the best.' How are you going to work in a diverse working environment or lead a diverse country if you don't know how to work in that diversity? I think affirmative action is a way that creates diversity so that we all learn and work together and be better citizens later on."

Criminology student Wong agrees with Ms. Ting's views adding that, without affirmative action, social inequities will not go away.

"Affirmative action is very important and I do think that APAs do benefit from affirmative action and maybe don't realize it," she said. "When it gets brought up, people get all touchy and [think] quotas, and it's unfair. What we have to realize is that this country, this society, has been through such a long history of oppression and injustice. We can all talk about diversity and everything working itself out. But until you take active steps to reach diversity, you're never going to get there. In order to reverse these historical things, you have to do something like affirmative action: take action."

Sociology professor Dae Young Kim says stereotypes of Asian Americans being uniformly gifted academically and relatively wealthy leads to many needy students to be ignored.

"Asian Americans used to have [be subject to] these quotas on many elite college campuses," said Professor Kim. "Then when Asian Americans try to apply for fellowships or other kinds of opportunities, they're denied because of the fact that they're considered the model minority. It's a Catch-22 [paradoxical] situation. And you have to take into account that, while many Asian Americans may not need affirmative action because they do well on SAT [entrance] exams, you have Southeast Asians and poor Asian Americans. Even among the Chinese. You have the 'uptown' [wealthier] Chinese and the 'downtown' [poorer] Chinese. They have different educational outcomes."

So, affirmative action is definitely needed for [some] Asian American students. But they're not even considered under the affirmative action policies. In that respect, Asian American students are also hurt."

Maryland graduate student Chris Liang says that some of the students he teaches say the stereotype that Asian Americans only major in engineering, science and medicine hurts those students in other fields of study.

"One student said, 'All I want to know is how does it benefit Asian Americans?' How does it benefit me? We talked about different fields [of study]: fields such as education and psychology where there aren't many Asian Americans, or the arts and humanities, where there [also] aren't a lot of Asian Americans," he said. "People, myself included, have been beneficiaries of affirmative action policies. I don't know if anyone would ever come out and say that. "

Even with the upcoming Supreme Court decision, Chris Liang suggests that Asian Americans will continue to have ambivalent feelings on the issue of affirmative action.

"Where do Asian Americans stand on this? Are we discriminated against? Are we model minorities? There are a good number of us who are not succeeding," he said. "There is a certain tension and a lot of questions. It's a healthy thing to be questioning policy, as good as it looks or feels. It's good to question it because there may be ways to make it better."

Instructor and graduate student Chris Liang of the University of Maryland is one of many Asian Americans awaiting the Supreme Court's decision regarding university affirmative action admissions policies in the United States. The high court's ruling may be seen in the Asian-Pacific American student community as a blessing or problem, regardless of the outcome.