Statement on Affirmative Action

Note: This statement does not reflect admission practices at Duke and draws largely from Prof. Calvin Cheung-Miaw’s research on the history of Asian American Studies.

The faculty of the Asian American and Diaspora Studies program disagrees with the recent Supreme Court decision regarding affirmative action. Based on our scholarship and our experience as educators, we unequivocally support race-conscious admissions and believe that affirmative action is an important tool in remedying racial inequality.

Asian Americans have played a complex role in the most recent debates about affirmative action. Some Asian Americans assume that affirmative action leads to discrimination against Asian American applicants to colleges and universities. Our position on this issue is guided by, first, a commitment to ending racial inequality for all groups in the United States, and second, our understanding of the history of Asian American Studies scholars and activists who have worked to ensure access to higher education for Asian Americans and others. As there is an abundance of scholarship on the persistence of racial discrimination and on the social processes that reproduce racial inequality across many different areas of U.S. society, our statement focuses on the history of Asian Americans and affirmative action.


It is difficult to make meaningful generalizations about the impact of affirmative action on Asian Americans.[1] Admissions officers may give favorable consideration to the backgrounds and experiences of those applicants who would increase the racial diversity of the student body. This provides a “plus” in admissions for those students, though we hasten to point out that in today’s world of college admissions, all admitted students are highly qualified. However, there is no single way that affirmative action is practiced in university and college admissions. For instance, a university may include some Asian American ethnic groups in their affirmative action programs but not others.[2] A Harvard admissions officer told an interviewer that at one point, Harvard’s affirmative action policy was to give a “plus” to working-class Asian Americans but not wealthier Asian American applicants.[3]

The history of Asian American activism offers an illuminating perspective on present-day debates. Beginning at the end of the 1960s Asian American students joined with other students of color to demand the transformation of their colleges and universities. This wave of activism gave birth to our field, Asian American Studies. Asian American students also sought to gain recognition from university administrators as a racially disadvantaged group, demanding the inclusion of Asian Americans in affirmative action programs and student support services. Notably, student activists at Harvard waged a years-long campaign to push the university to recognize Asian Americans as racial minorities and develop a robust affirmative action program inclusive of Asian Americans.[4] In many instances, Asian American students were part of multiracial coalitions that challenged the prevailing idea that student potential could be measured by the students’ grades, test scores, and prestigious extracurriular activities, arguing that such metrics discounted the experiences and promise of working-class students. At Brandeis and the UCLA School of Law, for instance, Asian American student representatives read applications and offered recommendations for admission, prioritizing applicants’ commitment to community engagement or experiences of adversity over test scores and grade point averages.[5] Perhaps the most visionary demands came from students who demanded open admissions, which guaranteed admission to all student applicants who met a minimum set of qualifications. Black and Puerto Rican students succeeded in winning open admissions for students of all racial backgrounds in the New York City College system.[6]

During the 1980s, the population of Asian American students increased dramatically, in tandem with the rising number of Asian Americans entering the United States following the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, which reformed the United States’ immigration laws. At many colleges and universities, admissions officers began viewing Asian American applicants in stereotypical terms. This rise of anti-Asian bias in admissions took place within the context of fears about the decline of American geopolitical and economic supremacy, coded in racial terms. Such fears generated ideas and imagery that revived older ideas about a ‘yellow peril’, in which the rise of Asian political and economic power threatened white supremacy.

Asian American student activists and Asian American Studies professors in the 1980s challenged anti-Asian discrimination in university admissions. University administrators typically deflected charges of anti-Asian bias by pitting Asian Americans against other students of color. In their public statements, they implied that considerations of diversity meant that they could not accept too many Asian American applicants. They cast Asian Americans as an over-represented minority that had to sacrifice admission spots for the sake of affirmative action.[7]

Although a significant number of Asian Americans adopted such reasoning as their own, concluding that Asian Americans ought to oppose affirmative action, activists and scholars associated with Asian American Studies rejected pitting Asian Americans against other communities of color. They demanded universities address anti-Asian discrimination in admissions while preserving affirmative action. By and large, they were successful. At the University of California at Berkeley administrators eventually apologized for changes in their admissions policies that were designed to diminish the numbers of low-income, immigrant and refugee Asian American students. At Stanford and Brown, internal investigations revealed that bias against Asian American applicants tainted the admissions process.[8] More generally, Asian American activism challenged the mindset that a significant Asian American student body meant that universities or colleges were becoming “too Asian.” As these activist victories accumulated, Asian American student populations at these campuses grew rapidly, including at those institutions that continued to practice race-conscious admissions.

Looking Forward

When we look to history, therefore, we find that the goal of making higher education more inclusive through race-conscious admissions grows out of a longer history of Asian American activism for racial equality. Asian Americans have advanced the struggle for racial equality in higher education by attacking anti-Asian discrimination, not affirmative action. As in the past, present-day claims of anti-Asian discrimination can be subjected to rigorous debate and evaluation independently from criticism of affirmative action. Finally, we hope that all those interested in the debate over affirmative action will seek to ensure that all Asian Americans and all U.S. residents, regardless of racial or socioeconomic background and whether or not they attend highly selective colleges or universities, have the right to a quality education which will allow them to thrive and serve our communities.

[1] Julie J. Park, Race on Campus: Debunking Myths with Data (Cambridge: Harvard Education Press, 2018).

[2] The University of California at Berkeley, for instance, included Filipino Americans as an affirmative action group through the mid 1980s. See Grace Carroll, Karolyn Tyson, and Bernadette Lumas, “The University of California-Berkeley’s Affirmative Action Success Story,” Journal of Negro Education 69 (Winter-Spring 2000), 128-44.

[3] Dana Takagi, "The Three Percent Solution: Asian Americans and Affirmative Action," Asian American Policy Review 6 (1996), 1-14.

[4] Tony Butler and Renee Tajima, “The Third World Center: In Perspective,” Harvard Crimson, April 18, 1980,

[5] Albert Muratsuchi, “Race, Class, and UCLA School of Law Admissions, 1967-1994,” Chicana/o Latina/o Law Review 16 (no. 1, 1995), 90-140; Neil Pickett and Craig Charney, “Students Occupy Pearlman,” The Justice (Extra Edition), April 30, 1975, p. 1; Brandeis Third World Organizations, "Recruiting Third World Students," The Justice, October 12, 1976.

[6] Martha Biondi, The Black Revolution on Campus (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).

[7] Dana Takagi, The Retreat From Race: Asian-American Admissions and Racial Politics (1992; New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press).

[8] Takagi, Retreat From Race.