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Panel discusses effects of affirmative action on Asian Americans

March 29, 2024

The Asian Studies program hosted a panel titled “Asian Americans and Affirmative Action” in Kresge Auditorium on Wednesday. The panel welcomed  OiYan Poon, the co-director of the College Admissions Futures Co-Laborative, and Natasha Warikoo, professor in the humanities and social sciences in the department of sociology at Tufts University. Warikoo and Poon are both authors of books on affirmative action and its effects on Asian Americans.

The panel was organized as part of the College’s “Asian American Reckonings” series by Professor of Social Sciences Nancy Riley, Professor of History and Environmental Studies Connie Chiang, Professor of Asian Studies and Cinema Studies Shu-Chin Tsui, Professor of English and Asian Studies Belinda Kong and Assistant Professor of Sociology Shruti Devgan.

Riley stated how the goal of the panel was to elucidate affirmative action and to help view the issue through the lens of its effects on Asian Americans. She said a core part of the panel was the questions and answer segment, which allowed attendees to ask questions they had regarding affirmative action and receive reputable answers.

“We really are hoping that they will present some things and that students in particular, but the audience in general, will be engaged and be able to ask some questions about affirmative action,” said Riley.

The panelists first explained the history and evolution of affirmative action, as well as various popular myths regarding how affirmative action works and why these myths bring about the notion that affirmative action is discriminatory against Asian Americans. According to the panelists, affirmative action was merely a safety net that allowed race to be evaluated as one part of a holistic review of each applicant in conjunction with other factors.

“Yes, diversity is a compelling interest to justify the consideration of race but in this ruling, the Court said it can be considered as one of many factors. One, it cannot be [is] the reason anyone gets in and it cannot be the reason anyone is kept out, and it can’t be a point system,” Poon said.

The panelists contended that the myth of affirmative action being a race quota precipitated a divide within the Asian American community on the issue. Poon explained how there was a split between those who see race as an issue requiring systemic solutions and those who see it as a personal issue centered on the individual. Poon regards the split in opinion as evidence of the overwhelming amount of myths on how affirmative action worked.

“I went around the country. I interviewed … 36 Asian Americans on many sides of the debate.… I asked them, ‘How does race conscious admissions affirmative action work?’ And they told me all these myths. Then I asked them, ‘What’s your ideal system of college admissions?’ and they described to me race conscious, holistic admissions,” Poon said.

The panelists made it clear how affirmative action was not developed as a form of reparations or to further equal opportunity but rather as a “diversity rationale,” which suggests that diversity within these institutions of education has been shown to be beneficial to all students in not only their education but also in their interpersonal relationships. This distinction was explained to be problematic due to it being in line with the idea of interest convergence, in which affirmative action was only supported when it showed to reap benefits for white students.

“The way that we’ve been talking about affirmative action for the last almost 50 years has actually been problematic as well.… That was the justification for affirmative action, that it was because everybody could benefit from diversity right? Whites were actually going to not be harmed and they might be helped a little bit by this policy,” Warikoo said.

This insight offered by the panelists regarding the intricacies of affirmative actions gave way to many questions from students.

“How effective do you think ‘band-aid’ solutions like targeting students of color in urging them to still apply to these institutions are in light of the Supreme Court decision? What do you think colleges can do to work toward that?” Nina Ramores ’24 asked.

In response, the panelists noted that though the loss of race-based affirmative action is significant, it is not the only tool colleges have to increase diversity within their student body. That being said, they added that these “band-aid” solutions would only do so much.

“These institutions are imperfect, right? We shouldn’t like it that we shouldn’t need a policy like this to have representation…. [These solutions are] just like a little band aid,” Warikoo said. “So there are these things that have happened as a result, and they’re problematic, but to me, those problems are smaller than the total exclusion of those groups on these campuses, not total exclusion, but even less representation, which makes that … a different kind of problem.”

Noah Goldwasser ’27 felt that the panelists were able to put the information they received into the context of Bowdoin and thought critically regarding the future of the institution.

“It definitely made me think critically about the responsibility I place on Bowdoin admissions to create our campus culture, and the intentions and effects of our Office of Inclusion and Diversity initiatives on creating a culture where non-white students can thrive,” Goldwasser said.


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