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Affirmative misinformation: What Asian Americans really think of affirmative action

Harvard student Samaga Pokharel, right, and other activists rally as the Supreme Court hears oral arguments
AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite
Harvard student Samaga Pokharel, right, and other activists rally as the Supreme Court hears oral arguments on a pair of cases that could decide the future of affirmative action in college admissions on Oct. 31, 2022.

According to polling group AAPI Data, 69 percent of Asian Americans supposedly favor race-based college admissions. The claim has gone viral, with some in the media claiming that most Asian Americans support a policy that penalizes them — and that those who don’t are nothing more than “a vocal Asian American minority railing against affirmative action.”

However, a closer look reveals that the AAPI Data’s survey questions intentionally incline respondents to express support for the controversial admissions policy, revealing more about the question Asian Americans were asked than the values they hold. The reality is that many Asian Americans are not as enthusiastic about racial preferences as AAPI Data and much of the media would like us to believe. 

The question behind the statistic reads: “Do you favor or oppose affirmative action programs designed to help Black people, women and other minorities get better access to education?” It comes from AAPI Data’s most recent Asian American Voter Survey (AAVS), a national survey of Indian American, Vietnamese American, Filipino American, Korean American, Japanese American and Chinese American registered voters conducted every other year since 2016.

In every such survey, the “better access” question produced an overwhelmingly positive response — not only did over 60 percent of all respondents say they favored affirmative action, but so did a majority of each individual Asian-origin group.  

In 2018 and 2016, however, AAPI Data included a second question about race-based college admissions on the AAVS, which read: “In general, do you think affirmative action programs designed to increase the number of Black and minority students on college campuses are a good thing or a bad thing?” The answers to that question tell an entirely different story.

In 2018, support for affirmative action among Asian Americans as a whole was 8 percentage points lower (58 percent) in response to the “increase the number” question than in response to its “better access” question (66 percent). In 2016, there was a 12 percentage-point gap — 64 percent support on the “better access” question but only 52 percent on the “increase the number” question. Moreover, in 2016, nearly two-thirds of Chinese American participants responded to the “increase the number” question by saying affirmative action is a “bad thing,” an instance of majority disapproval of the policy.

What explains the difference in response to these two questions? The competing images of affirmative action that they present.

AAPI Data’s “better access” question conveys an image of equal opportunity and nondiscrimination, suggesting — inaccurately — that all affirmative action does is help minority students apply for and attend college. Considering most Americans favor equality of opportunity, it’s unsurprising that this question produces high levels of support for the policy.

AAPI’s “increase the number” question, on the other hand, conveys an image of a quota system, such as those used (and eventually outlawed) in the 1970s to further equal racial outcomes in education and employment. This question more closely reflects existing affirmative action programs, which provide an admissions “tip” to “underrepresented minorities,” namely Black and Hispanic Americans. Racial quota systems were unpopular when they were first introduced and they remain so today. A July 2022 poll from State Policy Network, for example, found that 78 percent of Americans agreed with the statement “We should aim for equality of opportunities, not equality of outcomes.” It comes as no shock, then, that AAPI Data’s “increase the number” question yielded a more negative response than its “better access” question.  

AAPI Data knows this. In 2018, two AAPI Data senior researchers, along with a City University of New York (CUNY) sociology professor, published a blog post on the organization’s website titled “Asian Americans’ Attitudes Toward Affirmative Action: Framing Matters.” They note:

“Questions that refer to ‘increasing numbers’ of Black and minority students,’ rather than ‘increasing access to’ higher education, seem to negatively influence overall rates of support, as do questions that mention ‘considering race,’ rather than simply referring to affirmative action.

“When affirmative action is framed as increasing access to under-represented groups, it garners higher levels of support. When the policy is framed as increasing the number of under-represented groups, it draws higher levels of opposition, perhaps because it invokes the idea of quotas, which have been ruled unconstitutional since 1978.”

These researchers also noted that support for affirmative action is lower “when ‘women’ are not included as potential beneficiaries in the question.” So, AAPI Data’s “better access” question includes women as benefiting from affirmative action — which they don’t — while its “increase the number” question didn’t.

AAPI Data tossed out its “increase the number” question for the AAVS after 2018 — the year that Students for Fair Admissions v. President and Fellows of Harvard College went to trial. Like much of the media, this “nationally recognized publisher of demographic data and policy research on Asian Americans” seems more interested in pushing a particular narrative than in understanding what Asian Americans really think about affirmative action.

Renu Mukherjee is a Paulson Policy Analyst at the Manhattan Institute. Follow her on Twitter @RenuMukherjee1.

Tags AAPI Data Affirmative action Asian Americans Discrimination

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