Sociology professor talks affirmative action, impacts on Asian American students

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Sohoni met with students Nov. 28 to examine the history of affirmative action and recent cases that impact the admission of Asian American students into colleges. TUCKER HIGGINS / THE FLAT HAT

Wednesday, Nov. 28, sociology professor Deenesh Sohoni gave a lecture to students at the College of William and Mary on Asian Americans and affirmative action. Sohoni, who partnered with the Asian American Student Initiative, discussed the history of affirmation action, its application to Asian Americans, and its role in the October 2018 lawsuit, Students for Fair Admission vs. Harvard. 

Affirmative action, which Sohoni defines as policies which benefit underrepresented groups and counter effects of past discrimination, is at the center of the lawsuit against Harvard, where the plaintiff Students for Fair Admission claim that Harvard University has discriminated against Asian Americans through its admissions process. 

“My criticism is, yes, we should see if Harvard’s discriminating, but to tie it to affirmative action is potentially problematic and if we did decide on a true merit system, what would be a good merit system that’s purely merit system?”

“Are there legitimate problems with Harvard’s admission system?” Sohoni said. “… The problem in this case for me is, should that issue, which is an issue of discrimination, be tied to this idea of ending affirmative action? Because the argument is that the only way to stop discrimination is to end race-based types of admissions. My criticism is, yes, we should see if Harvard’s discriminating, but to tie it to affirmative action is potentially problematic and if we did decide on a true merit system, what would be a good merit system that’s purely merit system?” 

Sohoni said that student body diversity is one of the main compelling interests for universities desiring to utilize and keep affirmative action policies. 

“One of the ways that schools have tried to say this is that, ‘We need to have a large enough percentage of minorities that people aren’t tokens,’ and suggesting that … there have to be enough that … people feel comfortable being a minority in these locations,” Sohoni said. 

As soon as these universities attach a number to these policies, however, Sohoni notes that some judges may decide that the university has invoked a quota system, which courts have rejected in the past.

According to Sohoni, while some people associate quota systems with affirmative action, data suggest that quota systems are less prevalent in affirmative action cases. Nevertheless, quota systems have come to the forefront in the court system.  In Regents of University of California v. Bakke (1978), quota systems were deemed unacceptable and unconstitutional, whereas affirmative action itself was not.

Sohoni noted that another shift in defining affirmative action and its appropriate processes occurred in 2003, when two University of Michigan cases were brought to the Supreme Court. In Gratz v. Bollinger (2003), Michigan’s undergraduate admissions system, which utilized a “simple quota” system based on points, was ruled unconstitutional, as points were awarded for an applicant’s minority status. 

Fisher v. University of Texas (2013) saw affirmative action defined again, when the Supreme Court decided that affirmation action itself is not unlawful, but race must be considered under strict scrutiny, and the invocation of affirmative action by universities must be reviewed by court systems. 

“… [This case suggested] that affirmative action is OK to get diversity after you’ve tried every other means,” Sohoni said. 

Sohoni said that affirmative action’s goal is not to prevent discrimination but to encourage inclusivity. With the change in composition of U.S. Supreme Court judges on the bench and the remobilization of groups against affirmative action, Sohoni said that affirmative action’s end may come to pass.

“The change of the Supreme Court has led people who are against affirmative action to start pushing for getting another case before the Supreme Court because they think it’s likely to end affirmative action,” Sohoni said. 

Sohoni cited California’s Proposition 209, which forbade schools to ask questions about applicants’ racial identities as a benefit of affirmative action for Asian Americans.

“Schools couldn’t collect data on the racial characteristics of individuals; therefore, you can’t have affirmative action,” Sohoni said. “When that happened, no surprise, enrollments increased for whites, stayed [the] same for … Asian Pacific Islander Americans and dropped for Hispanics [and] Blacks. When we did have a natural experiment [with Proposition 209], we found that diversity of schools declined and it didn’t benefit Asian Americans.”

Sohoni sees the targeting of affirmative action policies as problematic, as he points out that there are other factors in the admission process that affect diversity on a broader scale. According to him, students with legacy status have the highest chance to get in, followed by athletes and affirmative action students. 

“There’s a question of why are we picking on affirmative action over these other things,” Sohoni said. “… Why privileged legacies when they have all the breaks in life because they’re rich? They’re coming from rich families, so they should actually maybe have harder qualifications because they’ve had so many benefits. … Even when we talk about sports, there’s this kind of premise that minorities are getting in, but it turns out that 65 percent of people who are athletes getting in to schools are whites — and they’re wealthy whites whose parents can pay for them to learn how to play lacrosse.” 

AASI Co-director Patrick Canteros ’20 said his organization wanted to host this event in an effort to draw upon the current conversation surrounding affirmative action. 

“We really wanted to have this conversation on campus because I think a lot of traction has been happening around the country about affirmative action and especially what it means with Asian Americans.”

“We really wanted to have this conversation on campus because I think a lot of traction has been happening around the country about affirmative action and especially what it means with Asian Americans,” Canteros said. “This is part of a series of events we’re doing this whole week for Asian American advocacy week and affirmative action is one of the biggest things happening for Asian Americans education-wise.”

Athena Benton ’21, who is a member of AASI, said she found Sohoni’s talk helpful in defining affirmative action and how the process works. 

“I think a lot of people don’t really know or understand affirmative action, so I think it’s really cool that our club’s been able to talk about it,” Benton said.