Voices in Education

What Is Racial Equity in Education According to Asian Americans?
On March 16, 2019, a Chinese American protester held a sign saying “Equity: A code word for Anti-Asian,” during a town hall event in Queens, New York. Participants at the event discussed proposed changes to the admissions policies in New York City’s specialized public high schools. Although many Asian Americans would disagree with the framing of education equity, and in this case proposals for increased racial integration in public schools, as “anti-Asian,” the sentiment this protester expressed is becoming increasingly common among some segments of Asian American communities.

What is racial equity in education according to Asian Americans?

In the last decade, some Asian Americans—who mostly identify as Chinese American immigrants—have vehemently opposed policies for increasing racial equity in education access, from K–12 through higher education. In 2014, Asian American activism in California stopped SCA-5, which was a proposal to repeal the state affirmative action ban at public postsecondary institutions. In 2018, the Massachusetts State House witnessed an unprecedented turnout of mostly Chinese American protesters opposing a bill, sponsored by Representative Tackey Chan, requiring state agencies collect ethnically disaggregated data on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders  to inform public agency outreach to the diverse population. Although no Asian American is a named plaintiff in any of the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) federal lawsuits attacking race-conscious admissions practices in selective colleges and universities, Asian American identified organizations are supporting SFFA’s efforts.

In all of these cases, upstart organizations like the Asian American Coalition for Education claim they are fighting for racial equality on behalf of Asian Americans. Yet, data show that most Asian Americans support affirmative action. In fact, the oldest and most well established Asian American civil rights organizations have, and continue to, advocate for race-conscious admissions.

As my coauthors and I demonstrate in our Summer 2019 Harvard Educational Review article, it is clear that there is an Asian American affirmative action divide. In our article, we offer a conceptual model to better clarify the intense division and debate over education equity policies and practices like race-conscious college admissions. Simply put, there is an ideological split between Asian Americans in how they understand or frame racism, and whether they believe there is a public interest, and thus a state obligation, to disrupt systemic reproductions of racial inequalities.

What is racial equity in education according to Asian Americans? It depends. As policy debates continue, it is important to recognize that not all Asian American perspectives on this question are the same.

About the Author: OiYan Poon is an associate professor of higher education and director of the Race and Intersectional Studies for Educational Equity (RISE) Center at Colorado State University. Her research focuses on the racial politics and discourses of college access, higher education policy, affirmative action, and Asian Americans. She is currently conducting a study, funded by the Spencer Foundation, to understand how race-conscious holistic review works in selective admissions.