Equality ≠ Equity

So here we are again, talking about affirmative action as "discriminatory" against Asian Americans. Excuse me if I have excessive déjà vu right now, because it feels like only yesterday when I was embroiled in debates on social media over California's SCA-5, a bill which would have brought affirmative action on the basis of race (among other demographic characteristics) back into California's system of higher education.

Yet it is a year later, and this time we're talking about a dozens of community Asian American organizations filing a formal complaint with the Office for Civil Rights in the Department of Education, as well as the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice. Sixty-four organizations, to be exact, and it's worthwhile to point out these are only Asian American organizations, not Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander.

Let us be clear that this coalition of organizations is just that—a group of organizations, in no way representative of the broader Asian American community. This is made even clearer with the statement in response to this complaint from over 135 Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander organizations rebuking the contents of this complaint and expressing full support for affirmative action.

This debate has long ravaged the Asian American community (in particular) for many years, and I admittedly have been continually uninspired by the arguments made by the anti-affirmative action camp. Yet here I am again, unable to avoid the itch in commenting (again) on this topic.

AAPI populations overwhelmingly support affirmative action—the 2014 APIAVote & Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC 2014 Voter Survey found that 70% of AAPI supported affirmative action. Another recent survey specifically asking about such programs to increase black and minority students on college campuses by Asian American Decisions in 2014 found that 63% of AAPI viewed affirmative action as a "good thing."

These numbers are striking, not only because there is a clear majority of AAPI that support affirmative action, but this majority has persisted over the years. However this is not new information, and the anti-affirmative action camp is clearly uninterested with the majority views of the AANHPI population.

A fault that is evident to me in this conversation is the conflation and confusion of equality with equity. The two terms sound similar, are often used as synonyms, yet in this context, they do not mean the same thing. Equality suggests an even playing field, one in which everyone has the same chance of acquiring or achieving something when on that playing field. Equity, on the other hand, emphasizes fairness—and access to the playing field is far from fair.

Replace "playing field" with "college admissions," and you get the gist of what I'm arguing here.

I'll also point out that my argument here, although in my own words, is far from unique/novel/new/unheard of. However I write this because it is precisely why I support affirmative action, and because I feel like we do not seem to remember the difference between equality and equity more often than not.

It is fact that Asian Americans are overrepresented in higher education, something that I do believe should serve as a point of pride for our community. However, we have to recognize who is underrepresented in this same space—and it's not just racial minorities, including blacks, but also members of the AAPI umbrella as well, including various Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander ethnicities.

We cannot argue that the college admissions process is an equal playing field to begin with, especially when we know that K-12 education is far from equitable or equal across the board. Here, some say, "affirmative action isn't the answer, fixing K-12 is!" And to that, I can only point to the thousands of underrepresented students this will pass over—K-12 education reform isn't something just around the corner, nor will it happen tomorrow (or even next year).

So yes, we should fix K-12 education and make sure that every student is receiving the education they deserve, but we should also support the students who are missing from our college campuses. Understand that colleges are not going to admit "underperforming" students, and that students that colleges admit in to their institutions—whether or not race or other demographics played any minuscule role in the decision—are capable, and on par with other admitted students.

Furthermore, college admissions is a holistic process, determined not just through test scores, grades, and the ridiculous number of extracurriculars some students are able to pull under their belts.

Remember that test scores, grades, and extracurriculars are heavily moderated and sometimes dependent on socioeconomic status and access—when studies show that significant numbers of some students of East Asian descent go to SAT prep, the question is not if they worked hard or not, but instead the fact that they have access to a privileged space that many others cannot afford.

It is absolutely a marker of privilege when we complain about not getting into top-tier college A or B, and having to "settle" for top-tier but-oh-so-slightly-lower-ranked college C. It becomes disappointing when we are willing to expense opportunities to fix inequality and inequity in this country for personal gain.

If you got a 2300 on your SAT (or, I guess, with the changes in recent years, let's say 1500), have a GPA above 4.0, and a laundry list of extracurriculars, I do not doubt that you will get into a top-tier college. Furthermore, whether you graduate from Stanford or Harvard or Yale or Penn or Dartmouth—or god forbid, UCLA or Berkeley or Tufts or one of those tiny little liberal arts colleges—will not make or break your life or career. It won't.

But I digress. Back to equality vs. equity. This country has a history of racism and discrimination—we cannot expect that by declaring society to be equal, it will automatically become so. Centuries of discrimination cannot be erased overnight or even over the course of a few decades, and higher education is a clear manifestation of this problem.

Allowing everyone freedom to play on the same playing field is not the same as allowing everyone equitable access to that playing field. The barriers to even getting your foot in the door make equality a base and incomplete goal, when we need to instead focus on equity.

Thus this demands us to lift up disadvantaged and underrepresented members of our society into positions where they are not found, and give them the opportunities to succeed, despite the barriers in their way.

More importantly, perhaps, affirmative action is not just about race—it's also about gender, class, ethnicity, and other demographic characteristics. So when we talk about supporting affirmative action, we are also supporting underrepresented AAPI communities that are also missing in higher education.

And after writing the previous 1100 words, I feel a sense of hopelessness because I just did what I know so well never works—trying to convince the privileged to care. Trying to convince someone to care about someone else is often an impossible task, and yet we try too often to appeal to our humanity—to little or no avail.

So while I can point to the lack of black students on many college campuses—or even look inward to the AAPI community to the underrepresented Hmong, Cambodians, and Laotians (to name only a few groups) in higher education, this is useless. It is useless if we aim to only care about ourselves and our own personal ambition.

(Pictured: Harvard University via Wikimedia)