The University of Michigan’s United Asian American Organizations and the Indian American Student Association hosted a teach-in and open discussion event about  affirmative action on Monday night. Affirmative action seeks to increase diversity in workplaces, schools and other institutions by considering an applicant’s race, ethnicity or other personal identification factors when making admissions decisions.

LSA sophomore Mira Simonton-Chao, a member of UAAO; Engineering juniors Sahana Prabhu and Meghana Kandiraju, co-social awareness chairs of IASA; and IASA co-president and Engineering senior Shaunak Puri began the event by defining key terms: model minority myth, which is often associated with Asian Americans, anti-Blackness and equity vs. equality.

Prabhu talked about the importance of understanding these terms, focusing specifically on acknowledging anti-Blackness and where it stems from.

“Various students of color are often seen as competing with each other,” Prabhu said. “When Asian Americans feel like they are competing with, for example, Black students, it pits us against each other.”

Affirmative action was first enacted by President John F. Kennedy, who proposed the Civil Rights Act, and has since been adopted by higher education institutions nationwide. 

In the 1960s and 70s, universities across the country began to admit more students of color. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that the reservation of spots for “quality minority students” violated the Equal Protection Clause and Civil Rights Act of 1964 in the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case. 

However, the case, while striking down the use or racial “quotas,” upheld the use of race in university admissions more broadly. On June 23, 2003, the Supreme Court upheld the Bakke decision in Grutter v. Bollinger and also ruled that the University of Michigan had unfairly denied admission to two white students by using a points system in the Grutter case and in Gratz v. Bollinger. With the points system, each applicant is assigned a number of points based on their academic performance, extracurriculars and background, the latter which included race. 

In 2006, Michigan voters approved Proposal 2, which banned affirmative action in higher education and public employment. The ban was challenged in court when the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action claimed it was discriminatory. The challenge went to the U.S. Supreme Court which, ruled in favor of the ban in 2014. The University of Michigan currently has a nondiscrimination policy statement that claims that the University is an “equal opportunity/affirmative action employer.” But since the approval of Proposal 2, Black undergraduate enrollment has declined significantly. 

UAAO and IASA also presented on two different case studies tied to affirmative action.

In Fisher v. University of Texas, Abigail Fisher, a white woman, applied for undergraduate admission to the University of Texas in 2008 and was denied admission. She sued the University of Texas for using race as a consideration in admissions, but the court ruled in favor of the University of Texas and affirmative action.

In Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University, Students for Fair Admissions, an organization that advocates for ending affirmative action, claimed Harvard discriminates against Asian American students in its admissions processes in 2014. Harvard denied the claim, and a U.S. district court ruled in favor of Harvard. SFFA has since filed an appeal with the First Circuit Court of Appeals. If the Supreme Court upholds the ruling in favor of Harvard admissions, it would overturn the precedent in the nine states that have banned affirmative action, including Michigan. According to presenters, this case is based on the myth that affirmative action forces Asian Americans to unfairly give up spots to Black or Latino students.

UAAO and IASA also discussed the recent laws that have affected California’s affirmative action practices. Prop. 209 was a ballot proposition approved in 1996 that amended the state constitution to prohibit state institutions from considering race, sex or ethnicity, specifically in areas of public employment, public contracting and public education. Prop. 16 was a ballot proposition from the 2020 election that asked voters to amend California’s constitution to repeal Prop. 209 and restore affirmative action practices — it was ultimately not approved.

Attendees and members of UAAO and IASA also discussed the underlying myths surrounding affirmative action.

Puri said it is important to address misconceptions about affirmative action, particularly among Asian American students.

“We really wanted to highlight that promoting equity and diversity in higher educational spaces is a policy that benefits everyone,” Puri said. “We also wanted to show how misinformation about affirmative action often gives Asian American students the false impression that they are being pitted against Black, Latino and Indigenous students, which usually has the unfortunate effect of perpetuating anti-Black, anti-Latino and anti-Indigenous sentiments within the Asian-American community.”

The first myth discussed was that affirmative action makes racial quotas legal. However, the Bakke case upholds that racial quotas are illegal. 

The second myth discussed is that standardized test scores should be the primary discerning factor in college admissions because they measure merit in a way that is “color-blind.” This myth has been debunked, since standardized test scores do not account for educational equity differences between different racial or socio-economic groups. The main college admissions tests — the SAT and ACT — have been shown to adversely affect Black students.

LSA sophomore N. Cameron Johnson talked about the danger of colorblindness in admission processes.

“Colorblindness in admissions just ignores intersectionality and the way being BIPOC can affect so many other areas of your life and education,” Johnson said. “In a lot of my classes, we’re talking about education and Blackness and how there’s this myth that there’s a language gap in Black homes and that parents don’t teach their children language in the ways that schools expect children to learn and review things, so it just ignores that there are these differences in what is valued culturally.” 

LSA junior Victoria Minka also spoke to the importance of considering factors other than test scores in college admissions.

“Education is tied to food security, neighborhood, economic stability and so much more, and all of this has to do with systemic racism,” Minka said. “Our education system is also tailored to white people and what is considered the normative American experience. And this isn’t the same for folks who experience oppression in some form or who don’t conform to this normative identity.”

The third myth discussed is that affirmative action requires Asian Americans to unfairly give up spots to Latino or Black students. However, any student who applies to college is still competing with all other applicants, regardless of race.

During the open-discussion section, attendees talked about the role that students and institutions play in promoting affirmative action and equity in higher education. LSA junior Evangeline Yeh said that universities should create concrete plans for diversifying their student bodies if they want to enact real change.

“Change really can’t happen immediately unless the institution wants it, which they don’t, so having a plan to tackle it over multiple generations of students is really the only way to go unless the higher ups want to change their system,” Yeh said. 

LSA senior Anju Jindal-Talib talked about small ways the University can help demonstrate the importance of affirmative action by changing the narrative of Black student’s experiences. 

“Another small level thing, but has a big impact, is just changing the language around the way U-M talks about Black students and acknowledging the disparities,” Jindal-Talib said.

Daily Staff Reporter Kate Weiland can be reached at kmwblue@umich.edu.

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