Reframing Affirmative Action at Stuyvesant

“Any concerns I have are somehow invalidated because I am both Black and Latino,” senior Eugene Thomas said. “Every single time I’ve ever discussed college, I’ve been told, ‘You're gonna get in wherever you want. Let's face it: you're black!’ like it's some proverbial golden ticket into the top universities.”

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“Any concerns I have are somehow invalidated because I am both Black and Latino,” senior Eugene Thomas said. “Every single time I’ve ever discussed college, I’ve been told, ‘You're gonna get in wherever you want. Let's face it: you're black!’ like it's some proverbial golden ticket into the top universities.”

Affirmative Action is a divisive practice that is often perceived to benefit Black and Latino students at the expense of White and Asian students during the college admissions process. As demonstrated by Thomas’s comment, many people, Stuyvesant students included, erroneously see Affirmative Action as a race-based quota that acts as a gateway for Black and Latino students simply by virtue of skin color and regardless of qualification.

But this isn’t a “Black versus Asian” dilemma — it’s not a zero-sum game, and a successful black student is not a rival but a deserving peer. Affirmative Action is meant to counter historical forms of discrimination, and regardless of whether the Supreme Court strikes down Affirmative Action, universities like Harvard will continue to strive to represent the best version of America, and that means diversity.

The History of Affirmative Action

In reality, Affirmative Action has a much less specific definition than race-based quotas in admissions. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925, requiring government contractors and employers to take "affirmative action" to ensure that applicants and employees were not discriminated against based upon their “race, creed, color, or national origin." President Lyndon B. Johnson then added gender as a clause. The order was implemented to curb prejudice and discrimination against any individual American.

Affirmative Action historically helped Asian immigrants who were poor and non-English speakers. From 1981 to 1996, the percentage of bachelor’s degrees earned by Asian Americans grew from 2 to 5.5 percent, which is significantly faster than their population growth, per the US Census Bureau.

Opponents of affirmative action have always held that the policy discriminates against white Americans. Edward Blum, an anti-affirmative action activist, sued the University of Texas at Austin for disfavoring white applicants in 2009. Last year, in a 4-3 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the university and emphasized the importance of diversity in education.

The decision was controversial, and Justice Alito wrote in a dissenting opinion that it would hurt Asian Americans. Blum has used Alito’s dissent to co-opt Asian Americans into his white nationalist agenda, and is suing Harvard University for discriminating against Asian American applicants. Stuyvesant and three other high schools with large Asian American populations have been subpoenaed for the lawsuit.

Many point to the achievements of minority groups such as Asian- and Jewish- Americans as proof that the United States is a functioning meritocracy.

However, large numbers of Asians only began to immigrate into the United States following the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which allowed Asians into the country under the condition that they were well educated. White supremacists then falsely claimed high levels of Asian American education were a product of the United States, rather than the various immigrants’ countries of origin. Thus, Asian Americans were labeled as the “model minority,” and the Civil Rights Movement was attacked as a tool that benefitted other “problem” minorities.

Despite the legal end to segregation in 1964, redlining (policies that prevent minorities from moving into certain neighborhoods) and white flight (when more affluent families abandon certain neighborhoods) are among several factors that continue to force African Americans and Latinos to settle in much poorer neighborhoods. In turn, they have a poor public education system and stand to gain from policies like Affirmative Action.

“Colorblind Policies Make a Colorblind World”

Many Stuyvesant students would describe the SHSAT as the “ultimate equalizer,” giving everyone an equal chance to have a quality education and thus find economic success. Through colorblind testing, the SHSAT is supposedly a step toward a colorblind society.

Thousands of Asian Americans accepted into elite high schools based on a colorblind exam want to believe that colorblind policies work and that these should be adopted by the college admissions process. The notion that so-called colorblind admissions policies are actually products of systemic oppression might appear to invalidate the accomplishments of Stuyvesant students and be detrimental to the school’s large Asian American population.

Colorblind education policies are, however, a myopic approach to inequality that continue to play host to systemic racism, such as redlining and white flight, which has resulted in massive failures and what the DOE describes as “modern-day segregation.”

The logic of race neutrality leaves segments of the Stuyvesant community complicit in a white nationalist agenda: “If Asian Americans found success without race-based assistance, Black and Latinos should be able to do so without Affirmative Action.”

But Affirmative Action is ultimately about creating a diverse student body. Many Asian cultures place a heavy emphasis on examinations and view them as objective measurements of achievement. Even if exams could be truly objective, Harvard doesn’t really care, and doesn’t want a student body comprised of competent test takers; there are simply too many other traits, including talent, individuality, and even background, that can’t be quantified by standardized testing.

It is also important to note that homogenizing Asian Americans into a single group is a ploy by Edward Blum and a white nationalist agenda. While Chinese, Korean, and Indian Americans have educational success, many Southeast Asian immigrants, including Hmong, Cambodian, and Laotian Americans, drop out of high school at rates approaching 40 percent, per The New York Times. Don’t get caught up in the rhetoric of an “Asian America,” because Affirmative Action also provides aid for many Asian immigrants.

White nationalists don’t want a meritocracy when it doesn’t benefit them — though they support colorblind admissions at Harvard, they are heavily opposed to them in California, where Affirmative Action is banned. According to the New York Times, they have called the Asian American student population “the hordes of Asians.” Edward Blum is not looking out for Asian Americans—he has systematically brought several pieces of key civil rights legislation, such as the Voting Rights Act of 1965, before the Supreme Court to have them struck down, which has disenfranchised many Asian immigrants.

Affirmative Action for Women

Often, the fight for women’s suffrage came at the cost of equal rights legislation for African Americans. In fact, women’s suffrage advocates Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony refused to support the 15th Amendment, aligning instead with racist Southerners who argued that women’s votes could be used to offset those of African Americans.

And what’s horrific is that this isn’t just an isolated incident. Time and time again, women are willing to tear down racial minorities in order to further their own success.

Today, may women argue against race-based affirmative action policies. “Many times, students fixate on race instead of the fact that many females benefit from affirmative action in STEM fields,” senior Sammie Paul said. Helping women in STEM is undoubtedly important, but is not mutually exclusive with helping minorities.

In general, many polls have shown that a much larger portion of Americans support gender-based affirmative action than those who support race-based affirmative action, proving that most Americans do not understand that both types of affirmative action come from the same executive order.

In Conclusion

The backlash against Affirmative Action reveals a clear misunderstanding of the purpose of the practice. Colleges are tasked with creating a student body that is capable of thriving and accepting students who have something to add to the university and the experiences of other students.

Affirmative Action not only seeks to give all students a fair chance at top universities, but it takes into account the different obstacles students of various races and backgrounds must overcome.

Senior Anna Pacheco, who was the only Latina in her predominantly Asian prep school, recounts her prep teacher always telling her that she didn’t have to try as hard in tests since she was Puerto Rican.

Let this be clear: students don’t get in "just because they're black/Hispanic/women." While it is true that colleges want a diverse student body, that diversity does not only mean race. The diversity they are looking for includes other factors such as location, intended majors, and types of extracurriculars. And increased diversity can have positive effects, both socially and academically, such as exposing students to different ideals and ways of thinking, as well as helping to improve both short and long term race relations.