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Old Posted Jan 8, 2007, 3:03 AM
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Asian-Americans...challenging ideas of race

From: http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/01/07/news/asians.php
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Asian-Americans challenge ideas of race in U.S. universities
By Timothy Egan
Sunday, January 7, 2007

BERKELEY, California
When Jonathan Hu was going to high school in suburban Southern California, he rarely heard anyone speaking Chinese. But striding through campus on his way to class at the University of California, Berkeley, Hu hears Mandarin all the time, in plazas, cafeterias, classrooms, study halls, dorms and fast-food outlets. It is part of the soundtrack at this university, along with Cantonese, English, Spanish and, of course, the perpetual jackhammers from the perpetual construction projects spurred by the perpetual fund drives.

"Here, many people speak Chinese as their primary language," said Hu, a sophomore. "It's nice. You really feel like you don't stand out."

This fall and last, the number of Asian-American freshmen at Berkeley has been at a record high, about 46 percent. The overall undergraduate population is 41 percent Asian. On this golden campus, the creek running through a redwood grove, there are residence halls with Asian themes; good dim sum is never more than a five-minute walk away; heaping, spicy bowls of pho are served up in the Bear's Lair cafeteria; and numerous social clubs are linked by ancestry to countries across the Pacific.

Asked what it is like to be on a campus that is overwhelmingly Asian, to be of the demographic moment, Hu shrugs, saying there is a fair amount of "selective self-racial segregation," which is not unusual at a university this size: about 24,000 undergraduates. "The different ethnic groups don't really interact that much," he said. "There's definitely a sense of sticking with your community."

But, he quickly added, "People of my generation don't look at race as that big of a deal. People here, the freshmen and sophomores, they're pretty much like your average American teenagers."

Spend a few days at Berkeley, on the manicured slope overlooking San Francisco Bay toward the distant ocean, and soon enough the sound of foreign languages becomes less distinct. This is a global campus in a global age. And now, more than any time in its history, it looks toward the setting sun for its identity.

The change at Berkeley has been a quiet one, a slow turning of the forces of immigration and demographics. What is troubling to some is that the big public school on the hill does not mirror the ethnic face of California, which is 12 percent Asian, already more than twice the national average. But it is the new face of the state's vaunted public university system. Asians make up the largest single ethnic group, 37 percent, at its nine undergraduate campuses.

The oft-cited goal of a public university is to be a microcosm — in this case, of the nation's most populous, most demographically dynamic state — and to enrich the educational experience with a variety of cultures, economic backgrounds and viewpoints.

But 10 years after California passed Proposition 209, voting to eliminate racial preferences in the public sector, university administrators find such balance harder to attain. At the same time, affirmative action is being challenged on a number of new fronts, in court and at state ballot boxes. And elite colleges have recently come under attack for practicing it — specifically, for ignoring highly qualified Asian-American applicants in favor of other minorities with less stellar test scores and grades.

In California, the rise of the Asian campus, of the strict meritocracy, has come at the expense of historically underrepresented blacks and Hispanics. This year, in a class of 4,809, there are only 100 black freshmen at the University of California at Los Angeles — the lowest number in 33 years.

At Berkeley, 3.6 percent of freshmen are black, barely half the statewide proportion. (In 1997, just before the full force of Proposition 209 went into effect, the proportion of black freshmen matched the state population, 7 percent.) The percentage of Hispanic freshmen at Berkeley (11 percent) is not even a third of the state proportion (35 percent). White freshmen (29 percent) are also below the state average (44 percent).

This is in part because getting into Berkeley — U.S. News & World Report's top-ranked public university — has never been more daunting.

There were 41,750 applicants for this year's freshman class of 4,157.

Nearly half had a weighted grade point average of 4.0 or better (weighted for advanced courses). There is even grumbling from "the old Blues" — older alumni named for the school color — "who complain because their kids can't get in," said Gregg Thomson, director of the Office of Student Research.

Across the United States, at elite private and public universities, Asian enrollment is near an all-time high. Asian-Americans make up less than 5 percent of the population but typically make up 10 to 30 percent of students at the nation's best colleges: In 2005, the last year with across-the-board numbers, Asians made up 24 percent of the undergraduate population at Carnegie Mellon and at Stanford, 27 percent at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 14 percent at Yale and 13 percent at Princeton.

And according to advocates of race- neutral admissions policies, those numbers should be even higher.

Asians have become the "new Jews," in the phrase of Daniel Golden, whose recent book, "The Price of Admission: How America's Ruling Class Buys Its Way Into Elite Colleges — and Who Gets Left Outside the Gates," is a polemic against university admissions policies. Golden, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, is referring to evidence that, in the first half of the 20th century, Ivy League schools limited the number of Jewish students despite their outstanding academic records to maintain the primacy of upper-class Protestants.

Today, he writes, "Asian-Americans are the odd group out, lacking racial preferences enjoyed by other minorities and the advantages of wealth and lineage mostly accrued by upper-class whites.

Asians are typecast in college admissions offices as quasi-robots programmed by their parents to ace math and science."

As if to illustrate the point, a study released in October by the Center for Equal Opportunity, an advocacy group opposing race-conscious admissions, showed that in 2005 Asian-Americans were admitted to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, at a much lower rate (54 percent) than black applicants (71 percent) and Hispanic applicants (79 percent) — despite median SAT scores that were 140 points higher than Hispanics and 240 points higher than blacks.

To force the issue on a legal level, a freshman at Yale filed a complaint in the fall with the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights, contending he was denied admission to Princeton because he is Asian. The student, Jian Li, the son of Chinese immigrants in Livingston, New Jersey, had a perfect SAT score and near-perfect grades, including numerous Advanced Placement courses.

"This is just a very, very egregious system," Li said.

"Asians are held to different standards simply because of their race."

To back his claim, he cites a 2005 study by Thomas Espenshade and Chang Chung, both of Princeton, which concludes that if elite universities were to disregard race, Asians would fill nearly four of five spots that now go to blacks or Hispanics. Affirmative action has a neutral effect on the number of whites admitted, Li is arguing, but it raises the bar for Asians. The way Princeton selects its entering class, Li wrote in his complaint, "seems to be a calculated move by a historically white institution to protect its racial identity while at the same time maintaining a façade of progressivism."

Private institutions can commit to affirmative action, even with state bans, but federal money could be revoked if they are found to be discriminating. Li is seeking suspension of federal financial assistance to Princeton. "I'm not seeking anything personally," he said. "I'm happy at Yale. But I grew up thinking that in America race should not matter."

Admissions officials have long denied that they apply quotas.

Nonetheless, race is important "to ensure a diverse student body," said Cass Cliatt, a spokeswoman for Princeton. But, she added, "Looking at the merits of race is not the same as the opposite" — discrimination.

Elite colleges like Princeton review the "total package," in her words, looking at special talents, extracurricular interests and socioeconomics — factors like whether the applicant is the first in the family to go to college or was raised by a single mother.

"There's no set formula or standard for how we evaluate students," she said. High grades and test scores would seem to be merely a baseline. "We turned away approximately half of applicants with maximum scores on the SAT, all three sections," Cliatt said of the class Li would have joined.

In the last two months, the nation has seen a number of new challenges to racial engineering in schools. In November, the U.S. Supreme Court heard a case questioning the legality of using race in assigning students to public schools in Seattle and Louisville, Kentucky.

Voters are also sending a message, having thrown out racial preferences in Michigan in November, following California, Texas, Florida and Washington. Last month, Ward Connerly, the architect of Proposition 209, announced his next potential targets for a ballot initiative, including Arizona, Colorado, Missouri and Nebraska.
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