Asian students struggle with high rate of success

It's the season of disappointment for many minorities in America's most diverse state.

Like pollen wafting on spring winds, the thin, instantly identifiable rejection letters from the state's public universities are landing in mail boxes across the state, bringing bad news to a growing number of Latinos and African-Americans. California's ban on affirmative action has made it so.

But for Asian Americans, doors to universities are flying open and opportunity is soaring. More mailboxes than ever are stuffed with the fatter acceptance packages, rich with paperwork and glossy brochures.

Yet, collectively, Asians are not celebrating. Instead, there is deep anxiety as they struggle to balance success and ambition with broader social responsibilities befitting a group that, while still relatively small, is growing rapidly in size and political aspiration.

"There is great ambivalence, no question," says Ling-chi Wang, chair of the ethnic studies program at the University of California at Berkeley. He predicts that within three years, Asians will make up more than 50 percent of total undergraduate enrollment on the eight UC campuses, the nation's largest public university system. Mr. Wang warns, "If that happens, there is going to be a backlash."

Not everyone agrees. But it is clear many Asians are feeling exposed, and vulnerable, as a result of their success.

Barriers for Asians

California's end of affirmative action in the public sphere in 1996, a court ruling that brought a similar result in higher education in Texas, and a voter-approved end to racial preferences in Washington last year are all bringing new attention to a basic conundrum: For many Asians, affirmative action and racial preferences in education have been barriers, not helps.

For reasons no one fully understands, Asians, whether born abroad or in the US, are exceptionally high achievers in school. So as affirmative action is abandoned, Asians see a danger in appearing to separate, even if to their own narrow advantage, from other minority groups.

That concern was real earlier this month when some Chinese-American families won a stunning victory, forcing the San Francisco school district to end racial quotas that grew out of a 1983 court-ordered desegregation plan.

The Chinese-American families sued because they were denied entrance to one of the city's top public schools simply because of their ethnicity. In effect, Chinese Americans performed so well, they were in danger of overwhelming the top schools.

Groups like the Chinese for Affirmative Action worked hard to avoid strains between Asian Americans and blacks. "We were on the phone regularly with the NAACP," says Diane Chin of the CAA, making sure the black civil rights organization, which helped force the desegregation plan, realized the individuals who ended racial quotas "did not represent the entire [Asian American] community."

Others argue the settlement had the quiet backing of most of the community. "In the Asian American community, you'll find most people saying this is wonderful," says Lee Cheng, a Washington lawyer who helped found the Asian American Legal Foundation, which supported the lawsuit. "My hope is that this case will galvanize Asians to stand up for their rights more."

While racial preferences in public education are outlawed in California, the University of California is committed to racial diversity and is seeking it by other means.

Today, UC's governing board is considering a new admissions policy that will accept the top 4 percent of eligible students from each high school in the state. While it could open opportunities for some minorities, the overall impact on UC racial composition is expected to be minimal.

Still, most analysts expect UC to continue with experiments to at least slow the decline in Latino and African-American admissions. Last fall at UC Berkeley, for instance, the number of Latino freshmen was half what it was in 1996. By contrast, the number of Asians in the same class grew more than any other group, and was double the number of whites.

Advocates of affirmative action say ethnic classifications are always hazardous and many Asian subgroups, whether Laotian or Vietnamese, don't enjoy the same educational success rate as the Chinese.

Beware of generalizations

Still, as a group, Asian Americans chalk up exceptional grades. A study published last year by the National Center for Education Statistics dispensed with some commonly held assumptions about Asian performance. In particular, after tracking a national sampling of Latino and Asian eighth-graders for six years, it found that parents' education levels and higher incomes did not explain the Asian advantage. Phil Kaufman, lead author of the study, says the key ingredient seems to be that Asian parents have "higher expectations" for their kids, a complex concept that he says needs further study.

What makes the whole issue of affirmative action complex for Asians is their history of discrimination, from the internment of Japanese during World War II to race-based restrictions on Chinese during California's gold rush. Yet Asians often sought power through education and economic spheres, as opposed to African-Americans whose civil rights campaigns of the 1960s focused on political power.

Today, Asians appear increasingly bent on a greater political role, which could make it more difficult to challenge policies favored by some of its own civil rights advocates and other minority groups.

Recalling UC's own limits on Asian enrollment in the 1980s, Wang, who spoke out against caps at the time, recalls "the tricky thing was, we did not want to be seen as opposed to affirmative action."

Advocates say Asians benefit from racial diversity as much as any other minority, even if in the educational sphere it comes at their own short-term expense.

Whether that's true or not, the legal assault on racial preferences seems to have shifted the landscape for Asians to one of managing success, at least in education, rather than wondering how to achieve it.

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