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For Asian Americans, a Barrier or a Boon?

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By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 20, 1998; Page A09

SEATTLE—In many ways, John I. Yam embodies the paradox that affirmative action poses for Asian Americans.

While contractors were working on Yam's dream home, a 5,000-square-foot contemporary overlooking sparkling Lake Washington, the dust and noise from the construction set off a dispute with a neighbor that quickly took on racial tones. "He told me to go back to Hong Kong," said Yam, a doctor who has established a booming suburban practice since coming to the United States three decades ago. That brief bout with bigotry reminded Yam that Asian Americans need affirmative action as much as any minority because, whatever their accomplishments, they are often seen as outsiders.

But other times, Yam is convinced that affirmative action unfairly holds Asian Americans back. His son, Garrett, has been rejected by more than 20 medical schools without so much as an interview, despite a 3.5 grade point average and above-average medical board scores. Yam suspects that his son would be readily admitted were Asian Americans not already overrepresented in medical school: They account for nearly a fifth of the nation's 67,000 medical students, but only 4 percent of the overall population.

"I feel Asian Americans lose their competitive edge because of affirmative action," Yam said. "We're not competing on equal footing with whites or other races because so many Asian youngsters score high on tests and do well in school."

As the debate over affirmative action has intensified into perhaps the nation's most contentious racial issue, it often has been cast as a contest between blacks and whites. Yet it is Asian Americans who are about to play a central role in the next big battle over affirmative action.

If early public sentiment holds, Washington state will become only the second place in the nation to abolish race-based programs. Patterned after California's Proposition 209, which was approved by voters in 1996 and took effect last year, Washington's Initiative 200 would bar the consideration of race or sex in hiring, government contracting and admissions to public colleges and universities. So far, polls suggest that more than two-thirds of voters support the ban. With their relatively broad political reach and status as one of the state's largest minority groups, Asian Americans enjoy unusual visibility here and a central question developing in the ongoing debate is whether affirmative action helps or hurts them. It is a question that leaves many Asian Americans ambivalent.

"With blacks and whites, this issue is a lot more simple. Blacks benefit from affirmative action and whites don't," said Arthur Hu, a Seattle engineer and a leader in the Initiative 200 effort. "But Asians basically break the rules."

Asian Americans often are depicted as the nation's model minority, whose self-reliance, educational achievement and financial success offer irrefutable evidence not only of America's vast promise but also of its declining emphasis on race.

Asian Americans' median family income of $43,000 and 42 percent college completion rate surpass those of any other racial or ethnic group in the country, including whites. They have an impressive record of entrepreneurship and their devotion to family stability, as measured by the percentage of children from two-parent households, is unmatched.

But Asian American activists are quick to add that their success is not all that it seems. There are huge educational and economic gaps within the diverse Asian American community, with Chinese and Japanese Americans generally better off than those with roots in Southeast Asia.

Also, they note, Asian Americans as a group tend to be better paid because they are better educated. A more careful perusal of the data, for example, shows Asian Americans with a college degree earn less than whites with equal educational credentials.

And despite their high educational achievement, Asian Americans comprise only 0.3 percent of the senior-level managers in Fortune 1000 companies, receive a tiny share of government contracts and are underrepresented in a range of jobs, from journalist to college professor.

Many Asian Americans see those disparities as the modern legacy of the discrimination they have faced in this country, including the Chinese Exclusion Act, which prevented Chinese immigration to the United States for decades; laws banning Japanese ownership of farm land; and the forced detention of Japanese Americans during World War II.

"It is clear that we still need affirmative action," said Akemi Matsumoto, a community college counselor and leader in the No! 200 campaign. "Our hard work doesn't always pay off."

The battle over Initiative 200 comes at a critical time in the anti-affirmative action debate. While race-based programs have suffered key defeats in the courts, repeated efforts to roll them back by state legislatures, by Congress or by voter initiative have almost uniformly failed.

Which is why the simmering dispute in Washington state marks a pivotal moment in the years-long struggle over the issue, and why it is being so closely watched. The initiative has received strong support not only from the state's Republican Party but also from deep-pocketed national groups intent on abolishing affirmative action. Backers of the initiative have received $178,000 -- almost half their overall funding -- from the American Civil Rights Institute, a group formed by Ward Connerly, who led the effort to abolish affirmative action in California.

A February survey by an independent polling firm found that 69 percent of registered voters were inclined to support the measure across the state, which has an 83 percent white population. But where Asian Americans stand on the issue is harder to ascertain because there is no reliable polling data analyzing their sentiment.

Most of the state's Asian American elected officials, including its Chinese American governor, Gary Locke (D), have come out against the initiative. And a coalition of Asian American civil rights and cultural groups are working to defeat the measure.

"There are a lot of myths about Asian Americans and affirmative action," said Seattle City Council member Martha Choe (D), a vocal opponent of Initiative 200. "There has been an attempt to use us as a wedge, but the fact is that we are direct beneficiaries of affirmative action."

Yet however deep the support for affirmative action is among the Asian American political leadership, the level of backing among the rank and file is far less certain.

Albert Ting graduated from high school in suburban Seattle in 1988 with a 3.9 grade point average and an impressive 1370 on his Scholastic Achievement Test. But when he applied to the engineering program at the University of California at Berkeley, Ting was initially enrolled only in the school's extension program, which prevented him from living and taking classes on campus. He questions whether he would have been kept out had Berkeley not used race as a factor in admissions. On a campus where Asians score higher than any other group, the bar for those students ends up being raised in the name of racial diversity.

"There were a lot of Asian students in the extension program," said Ting, 27, who eventually graduated from Berkeley's engineering school and now works as a programmer for Microsoft Corp.

As Ting considers Initiative 200, that experience looms large in his mind. "Affirmative action should be about getting people to a level where they can compete," he said. "We are all kind of hurt because of the focus on fixing symptoms, rather than the root causes of problems. The answer is not to have people who are more qualified not admitted to schools."

It is a message that others have used in an effort to rally Asian American opposition to affirmative action. Near the end of his unsuccessful 1996 presidential campaign, former Sen. Robert J. Dole (R) broke his silence on the issue by delivering a speech in support of California's Proposition 209 before a largely Asian American audience.

Ultimately, the effort to build Asian American support for California's Proposition 209 was largely unsuccessful: As many as 61 percent of the state's Asian Americans voted against the measure, according to exit polls. Yet, by some gauges, Asian Americans appear to have benefited from the measure, at least when it comes to college admissions.

In the huge University of California system, there have been steep drops in the number of black and Hispanic undergraduates admitted for next fall, but the number of Asian American admissions has remained steady. Meanwhile, there have been sharp increases in the number of Asian Americans admitted to the university system's top professional schools while admissions for other minorities plummeted.

"In many ways, Asians under affirmative action as it has been practiced for the last 25 or 30 years are becoming as victimized by quotas as Jews were in the '20s, '30s and '40s," said John Carlson, chairman of the Initiative 200 campaign.

On the sprawling, tree-lined campus of the University of Washington, the state's premier public university, Asian Americans make up 22.1 percent of the student body. And many of them believe they had to meet a higher standard than other minorities to get in.

But some also write off such hurdles as the price one pays to ensure broad racial diversity.

"It is unusual to see people of color in positions of authority here, which can be discouraging," said Kieu-Anh King, a Vietnam-born student who graduated last week. "Holding everybody to equal standards is something everyone is in favor of on one level. . . . But looking at the classroom climate and the lack of diversity here, you see the need for affirmative action."

After taking a year off, King hopes to attend graduate school in public policy at Princeton, Harvard or the University of California at Berkeley. For that, he credits more than his own hard work. He says Connie So, one of his few Asian American professors, not only cajoled him to apply, but steered him to a minority fellowship program that will pay the bill.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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