In between the hustle of Los Angeles and the easiness of San Diego lies Temecula, a small town in Southern California. With a population of about 100,000 people, it is reported that 70.8 percent of the people that live in Temecula identify as white, while just under 10% of the population is Asian. Temecula also happens to be my hometown. I, a Filipino-American living in a white-dominated area, went to Temecula Valley High School. In Southern California public schools, it is almost an inevitability that students will apply to the majority of the University of California, commonly known as UC, schools. One day, during a moment of relaxation, a peer turned to me and stated, “Chris, you should go to UCI.” I questioned why they thought I would be a good fit for University of Irvine, and they simply responded, “It’s the University for Chinese Immigrants.” Everyone had a good laugh, but, inside, I knew that within that light-hearted jab existed a lingering sense of truth in the speaker’s mind. At least among the high school students with whom I interacted, there was a common sentiment that Asian-Americans dominated the population at many of the UC campuses. That idea stemmed from the modern, yet reinforced, stereotype that Asian-Americans are smarter than other races and, therefore, are more likely to get into higher-caliber universities.
Although statistics show that Asian-Americans have a higher acceptance rate into UC institutions and big names such as Harvard University and Yale University compared to other people of color, this does not translate into a world where Asian-Americans are no longer oppressed in American society. One glaring fact is that Asian-Americans come from many backgrounds and countries, like China, Japan and the Philippines, and thus have quite a diverse array of economic and situational success in their placement in American society. Although there may be a greater number of Asian-Americans in universities compared to other races, this does not account for the fact that many Asian countries, such as the Philippines and Laos, are still underrepresented at these institutions.
Asian-American students make up 40 to 70 percent of the population at some of America’s top high school institutions. Yet in a 2009 study, sociologists Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford found that out of 9,000 students who applied to select top institutions, white students were three times more likely to be admitted over Asian students with comparable test scores. It is peculiar to note that many people cry out in anger when a minority is offered admission over a white student with assumedly higher scores and more qualifications. However, minorities who score as well as their white counterparts tend to have less of a chance to enter these institutions. So why are Asian-Americans being denied access to institutions at a dissimilar rate to whites? This phenomenon bears striking similarities to a movement to push Jewish students out of universities in the 1920s.
In 1922, Jews made up about 21 percent of Harvard’s population and roughly 40 percent of the student body at Columbia University. In 1922, Harvard president A. Lawrence Lowell proposed that the University set a quota for the number of Jewish students admitted into the University. Lowell argued that if the Jewish population in Harvard were reduced to 15 percent, then the limits would prevent a growth of the anti-Semitism attitude. There was much outcry from the public about these quotas. In modern society, quotas based on race are not permissible under Supreme Court jurisdiction. However, a more subtle form of education discrimination may be taking place towards Asian-Americans.
Some speculate that there is currently an unspoken push by Ivy League admissions offices to achieve a desired ethnic makeup in the student body, which would lead to a cap in the number of Asian-Americans admitted. Note that while Asian-Americans make up about 5 percent of the American population, it is estimated that they make up 28 percent of the National Merit semi-finalists, or those who score in the top 0.5 percent on the PSAT. This is much lower than their acceptance rates into top tier universities, which, for the past five years, has converged to around 16 percent even though the Asian-American population continues to grow in the United States. In a response to an article discussing the possibility of an Asian cap at private institutions, Harvard’s Director of Communications wrote that the ethnic distribution at the University was simply due to the admissions committee’s consideration of applicants’ “strength of character, their ability to overcome adversity and other personal qualities.”
Essentially, he is saying that the superior performance by Asian-Americans in academia is outweighed by their inferior personal qualities compared to other races. This again reflects the root of the issue: unfounded stereotypes that are continuously reinforced by societal norms. There are no facts to back up the claim that Asian-Americans are any less social or well-rounded compared to other races, yet their placement as the model minority has helped reinforce this stereotype into mainstream American thought because if Asian-Americans are stressed as model minorities, the implication is that their academic strength is compensated for by weakness of character.
But this stereotype does not only affect Asian-Americans in the field of academia. The number of Asian-American actors in the film industry is significantly low compared to other races. Consider this: When trying to name a list of extremely successful Asian-American actors, it would take the average person a while just to come up with maybe three or four. Conversely, when the same question is asked about white actors, one could go one for hours. Moreover, there are very few Asian-Americans in high positions of political power. This speaks to the implicit restrictions placed on the Asian-American culture.
I identify as Filipino-American. When I was told I should go to UCI because of my Asian blood, I was offended and confused. As a person of color, I was being restricted to a certain spot in the United States educational system. That is the Asian-American story. Asian-Americans face the reality of being labeled and believing that they are the model minority and, effectively, are forced to submit to the majority and fill the voids of the job sector and educational sphere controlled by white Americans.
In the current system, there is a limit to how much success Asian-Americans can achieve, and they face a more subtle form of oppression that is hard to identify. The model minority myth has created a false idea of one kind of Asian, and its consequences can be seen in the stereotypes faced by all Asian-Americans today.
—Christopher Brown ’16 is a political science and mathematics major.