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Asians stand to gain as Trump cancels affirmative action

Return to race-neutral college admissions ends Obama's diversity drive

Graduating students pose for a group selfie before commencement at Harvard University.   © Reuters

NEW YORK -- The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has rescinded diversity-promoting guidelines for American college admissions and will opt instead for race-blind admissions. The move will likely favor Asian-Americans amid charges that such policies have held down their enrollment in elite institutions.

A joint letter issued by the Justice and Education departments on July 3 repeals seven documents offering legal guidance for achieving racial diversity, adopted under then-President Barack Obama.

The old guidelines, dating from 2011 to 2016, advocated positions that went beyond the Constitution's requirements on civil rights, the letter argues. 

Policies like affirmative action in college admissions have long stirred controversy. And in recent years, some of the harshest criticism has come from a seemingly unlikely source.

Asians, the fastest-growing immigrant group in the country, have sped ahead with high grades and strong test scores but are not seeing admissions rates at elite universities reflecting that growth. Some now say they are victims of the same diversity policies intended to help minority groups like themselves.

"This is a triumphant moment for Asian American communities," the Asian American Coalition for Education, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring equal education rights for Asian-Americans, said in a news release following the announcement. The group praised the Trump administration's move as "a culmination of much-needed government actions to revamp misguided policies that facilitated widespread abuses of race-based affirmative action in higher education" and noted that the Obama-era "racial balancing" policies disproportionately hurt Asian-Americans.

Another nonprofit equal education rights group, Students for Fair Admissions, has sued Harvard University's governing bodies on behalf of Asian-American applicants, accusing Harvard of systematically discriminating against them by limiting the number of students of Asian descent.

A student walks on the University of Texas campus in Austin.   © Reuters

The 2014 lawsuit contrasted the relatively stable percentage of Asian undergraduates enrolled at Harvard -- hovering between 14% and 18% from 2003 to 2013 -- against other elite schools like the California Institute of Technology, whose figure jumped from 31.1% to 42.5%.

An analysis filed by Students for Fair Admissions in June found that Asian-American applicants to Harvard had consistently ranked lower in personality assessments than their non-Asian peers.

Edward Blum, president of the group, praised the government's shift in policy. "Students for Fair Admissions welcomes all governmental efforts to end racial classifications and preferences in college admissions," he told the Nikkei Asian Review via email.

Not all Asian-Americans are on the same page, however. While the Harvard lawsuit has drawn substantial national attention, a 2016 survey from the nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice found that 52% of Asian-American voters support affirmative action to increase black and other minority students on college campuses.

Majorities of five out of six groups polled -- Indians, Filipinos, Koreans, Japanese and Vietnamese -- called such programs a "good thing." Only Chinese-Americans were mostly opposed, with 63% deeming the programs a "bad thing."

"As an Asian person, I think this will actually hurt us," said Michelle Amor, a senior at Columbia University and co-president of its Philippine culture association, Liga Filipina, in an email interview on the Trump administration's move. "People are blinded by the model minority myth, and fail to realize that there are so many different ethnic groups lumped together under the term 'Asian' and many of them are still severely underrepresented."

"I can count the number of Filipinos at Columbia on two hands," she said, and "our small club has to constantly fight for recognition and resources" even as a Chinese counterpart enjoys "hundreds of members and a massive budget."

"While I don't doubt that the Asian Americans choosing to fight affirmative action might be victims" of some sort of discrimination, "we should work to improve affirmative action policies, rather than eliminate them," Amor said. "Quality diversity initiatives understand that there's more to a candidate than just grades and activities, and more than just 'Asian.'"

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