by OiYan Poon, with coauthor Oliver Wang
’Tis the season again: of holiday parties, excessive consumerism… and media hype over whether elite colleges and universities discriminate against Asian Americans in their undergraduate admissions process. This annual tradition may have begun in 2006 with Jian Li’s well-publicized lawsuit against Princeton. Li, who was a student at Yale and later transferred to Harvard, alleged that Princeton exhibited an anti-Asian admissions bias, in rejecting him despite his high test scores and GPA.
Almost a year ago, the media exploded with debates over the Tiger Mom’s memoir on extreme parenting. Among Amy Chua’s spurious arguments was the suggestion that her brand of childrearing helped explain why Asian Americans are highly represented, if not overrepresented, amongst undergraduates at Ivy League schools and similarly selective institutions. Now, in the early winter of 2011, comes the latest hackneyed news story about how some mixed-race (hapa) Asian American applicants with non-Asian surnames are avoiding identification with their Asian heritages as a precaution against possible anti-Asian bias at top schools.
Over the last 5 years of this mainstream media-driven discussion, we have learned two things:
For the past three months I have been in New Orleans, supporting the youth leaders and organizers at the Vietnamese American Young Leaders Association (VAYLA). It’s striking to me that while social media is blowing up with questions of anti-Asian bias faced by the Asian American 1%, the debate is rather irrelevant to the community with which I work. Not one VAYLA youth member or staff member has had a conversation, even in passing, about the latest anti-Asian admissions policy uproar.
While so many people wring their hands and beat their war drums to make the Ivies accept more Asian Americans from the pool of highly qualified applicants, the youth at VAYLA are fighting for basic educational resources. Like textbooks.
In my collaborative research study with VAYLA youth leaders, published in the report Six Public High Schools, Six Years after the Storm and documented in this video, the Raise Your Hand Campaign (RYHC) research team found troubling inequalities from their survey of 450 high school students (nearly 200 were Asian American). Some of the findings include:
This Wednesday, December 14, the RYHC team at VAYLA will be staging a performance and media event to present their recommendations to the New Orleans Recovery School District Superintendent. In the holiday-themed production, youth will be asking Santa Claus for:
The struggles of Asian American youth in New Orleans are the experiences of the Asian American 99%. It’s high time we put the concerns of the elite 1% on the back burner and devote a whole lot more attention to the large proportion of Asian American youth who struggle to finish high school and strive to be the first in their families to attend a college -- of any kind.
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OiYan Poon is a visiting researcher at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. She has been conducting an ethnographic study in New Orleans since September, and has been serving as an adult supporter and mentor to the Raise Your Hand Campaign at VAYLA. She earned her PhD in education with a graduate certificate in Asian American studies at UCLA.