The Forgotten Minorities of Higher Education

What affirmative action means for low-income Asians

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Photos by Max Whittaker
Illustrated by Andrea Ucini

If you are driving east on Florin Road toward Luther Burbank High School in Sacramento, you will pass under a pedestrian bridge that has a message permanently affixed to it: “If you dream it, you can do it.”

It’s the kind of message I have seen in neighborhoods where aspirations far surpass resources — and in that way it is fitting. More than three-quarters of students at Burbank qualify for free lunches. A fifth of students come from households where Hmong is the primary language. The school has one of the highest concentrations of Hmong students in the city.

It was here, last year, that school counselor Janet Spilman and teacher Katherine Bell dreamed up a scheme: They would get every eligible senior to apply to college — any college. “It wasn’t just the 4.0s,” Bell told me in December, sitting in the light-filled front office. “It was the 2.0s and everyone who was within one year … of being eligible” to apply. In the end, they wrangled about 400 students into the school’s two computer labs, sat them down and walked them through the application process.

The massive undertaking taught Spilman and Bell a lot about what was keeping students from making post-high school plans: Many Hmong students had no idea they were “college material.” Some said they had thought about college but no adult had ever spoken to them about it. Others fretted about the finances and negotiating with parents who expected them to remain home.

When Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard in 2014 over its race-conscious admissions policies, only one member of the organization was described in detail, a young man who, according to the lawsuit, deserves a seat at the university. He is the son of Chinese immigrants, attended one of the nation’s top high schools, was captain of the tennis team and got a perfect score on the ACT. By contrast, Hmong students at Burbank come from a community with a childhood poverty rate of about 40 percent statewide.

“Some Asian Americans came to the United States to escape communism, authoritarianism, war, and poverty, while others simply sought out greater opportunities. Some Asian Americans come from highly educated families, but many others do not,” Students for Fair Admissions noted in its complaint. But Harvard officials, the group went on, “lump all Asian Americans together in the admissions process” by taking into account race when whittling down the roughly 40,000 applicants for a class of 2,000. In an effort to create a diverse student body, Harvard holds Asian Americans to a higher standard than other races, the group argued. The result is “a remarkably low admission rate for high-achieving Asian-American applicants.”

Harvard says that its admissions process considers race in the context of a candidate’s whole life story — not independent of it — and lets applicants distinguish themselves. “Harvard doesn’t have quotas,” said spokeswoman Rachael Dane. “Students of one racial category are not competing against each other.” In a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Harvard, a group of social scientists also singled out applicants like the kids at Burbank High who don’t fulfill the model-minority stereotype “but nevertheless have the potential to make enormous contributions to the campus community.” Such candidates, the brief went on, “benefit greatly from holistic review processes like Harvard’s.”

A judge heard arguments in the fall and had not issued a ruling as of mid-March. During the trial, Students for Fair Admissions argued Harvard punished Asian American applicants by giving them lower “personal ratings” than those of other races, accusing admissions officers of evoking stereotypes of Asians as sharp and studious, but not sociable. (Harvard disputed the analysis.) Edward Blum, a conservative activist who founded the group, told me in an interview: “Race is not just a light thumb on the scale, but it is a dispositive thumb on the scale.”

As a remedy, Students for Fair Admissions wants the court to declare Harvard’s admissions practices unconstitutional. But it goes further: It wants an injunction that would bar Harvard admissions officers from learning the race of applicants — a prohibition that might force students to scrub any mention of their race in their applications. If the case advances through the courts, it could have wider implications. President Trump’s Justice Department has backed the fight, and the Supreme Court’s shift to the right has raised the odds that a majority of the justices could vote to abolish or curtail the use of race in admissions at colleges across the country.

Implicit in the argument made by Students for Fair Admissions is that ending racial considerations in admissions would ultimately benefit the kids at Burbank High. And yet, in the coverage of the Harvard lawsuit, and indeed in almost any story on affirmative action, you rarely hear from this group — the ones without the Tiger Moms and the private SAT tutors — or from the high school counselors like Spilman and Bell who worry less about whether their students will appear “too Asian” and more about whether they even know how to apply to college. Decades after the myth of Asians as a model minority took hold, we seem unable to escape it.

Keng Thao, an 18-year-old student at Sacramento's Luther Burbank High School, was born in a refugee camp in Thailand.

As I followed the Harvard lawsuit, I wondered whether the debate around it would be different if Harvard were not in the Northeast but in a place like Sacramento, one of the few places in the country that captures the diversity of Asian America and the pitfalls of the model-minority stereotype. The California capital has also existed in a post-affirmative-action world for more than 20 years, thanks to Proposition 209, which ended race-conscious admissions policies at state schools. And it happens to be my hometown.

The family of my dad, Albert Balingit, arrived there more than six decades ago from the Philippines, settling in the Meadowview neighborhood when he was a child. At the time, Meadowview was one of the few communities that did not explicitly bar nonwhite families from moving in — though individual homeowners could refuse to sell to them. Elsewhere, real estate agents had formed pacts to keep nonwhite buyers out of centrally located neighborhoods like Land Park, and some homes had deeds that barred nonwhite people from ever setting foot in them. My grandfather, though, managed to find someone who would sell a house to him.

My dad shared a cramped home with some assortment of his seven siblings and other Filipino families or distant relatives who were down on their luck. His father worked as a janitor while he flipped burgers, sometimes sneaking food for his mother and younger siblings. When he started at Burbank High in the late 1960s, the country was roiled with racial tension that spilled over into the school’s hallways. My dad was on the college preparatory track, one of the few students of color preparing for an education after high school. But as graduation approached, a counselor advised him to become a carpenter, which was a bad idea since he was a strong student and to this day can’t drive a nail.

Instead, after a stint at community college, he transferred to the University of California at Davis, just outside of Sacramento, where he would start the first club for Filipino students, called Mga Kapatid, the Tagalog phrase for “brethren.” He became a leader in the movement to bring ethnic studies to the campus. And after he graduated, he was accepted to the law school, which placed him in the ranks of Asians in this country who today, as a group, are better educated than white Americans, and out-earn them, too.

But these superlatives obscure the extreme poverty among some subsets, in particular refugees whose stories get lost in the averages when they are included with more-established groups from places like China and South Korea. In 2014, for example, nearly 40 percent of Hmong had less than a high school diploma. Asian Americans are now the most economically divided racial group in the country, with the wealthiest 10 percent earning more than 10 times the amount of the poorest 10 percent, according to a report from the Pew Research Center. And that gap is growing: Rich Asians are getting richer, and poor Asians are staying poor.

You can see this trend playing out in Sacramento, where Southeast Asian refugees have settled in poor communities like Meadowview, while Chinese and Japanese families have decamped to newer housing developments in wealthier neighborhoods in adjacent Greenhaven. Recent arrivals from Laos, Bhutan and Myanmar are more likely to have come because they were displaced by war or religious and ethnic persecution. Many are Hmong, a mountain tribe in Laos whose members in the 1960s and 1970s were recruited by the United States to battle communist forces taking over their country. When the Americans pulled out of Laos in 1975, the Hmong had to flee or risk execution. Many were slaughtered, and those who survived ended up in camps in Thailand, where they languished for years, sometimes decades, waiting to immigrate to America. Once they arrived, they were deeply unfamiliar with modern American life, and some were forced to abandon farming and hunting.

Asian Americans are now the most economically divided racial group in the country, with the wealthiest 10 percent earning more than 10 times the amount of the poorest 10 percent.

Mai Xi Lee, the director of social-emotional learning for the Sacramento City Unified School District, remembers the day she left Laos. She was 5, and her mother slaughtered a chicken and gave her the prized drumstick. Then, her mother told her to pack. Within an hour, they were marching with Lee’s siblings toward the Mekong River. They made it to Thailand, where Lee spent a few years in a refugee camp before immigrating here.

Lee told me her story as I sat in her air-conditioned office in the Sacramento City Unified headquarters. A longtime educator, she has become an advocate for Hmong schoolchildren. One of her battles has been to get the district to tally performance measures for Hmong children separately from their Asian peers. It has been a longtime fight for many Southeast Asian advocates, who want to raise attention — and draw resources — to where their communities are falling short.

“When we look at Asian data, it is absolutely misleading, and I don’t think that there is great awareness of the tremendous differences even [among Asians],” she said, “what it means to be a refugee versus what it means to be an immigrant.”

She bristles at the notion that Students for Fair Admissions represents Asian Americans. Blum, the group’s founder, had previously challenged affirmative action at the University of Texas. For that case, he recruited a white female plaintiff who said she was rejected from UT because of her race. When that suit failed, Blum tried again, this time arguing race-conscious admissions policies penalize Asian Americans. He recruited members of Students for Fair Admissions through websites like HarvardNotFair.org, which features a stock photo of a college-aged Asian woman sitting on the floor next to a bookshelf. She wears jeans and a forlorn look. “Were You Denied Admission to Harvard?” the website asks. “It may be because you’re the wrong race.”

He found support for his crusade among well-educated and wealthy Chinese Americans in places like Silicon Valley and the San Francisco Bay area, people who had grown suspicious when their high-achieving children were rejected from top-flight schools. They spread the word of their fight through WeChat, a Chinese messaging program.

In Lee’s eyes, it is Students for Fair Admissions, not Harvard, that doesn’t recognize socioeconomic diversity among Asians. “It’s very specific groups filing this lawsuit, and yet we’re all being clumped together,” she said. She is skeptical that eliminating race from college admissions decisions will benefit Hmong students, young people who, like her, grew up poor and in households where no English was spoken. “It will definitely hurt them,” she predicted.

At Burbank High, Katherine Bell wonders how admissions officers will be able to do their job without considering race. “How do you do that without erasing history and identity and self?” she said. “One of the strengths our students potentially have is their story.”

She talked about how her own upbringing informs her work with Hmong students. She grew up in San Francisco and attended Lowell High, one of the most exclusive public schools in the state. She was the only white student in her clique of mostly affluent, high-achieving Chinese and Japanese classmates — “the quote-unquote ‘right’ kind of Asian,” Bell says.

Lowell High was also one of the early sites of Asian American resistance to affirmative action. In the late 1990s, a group of Chinese parents successfully sued to get the school’s racial quota system — which permitted no single racial group to exceed 40 percent — dismantled. The number of Chinese students at the school has soared, and the number of black and Latino students has plummeted.

In many ways, Bell wants Burbank to be the antithesis of Lowell. As she sees it, nearly all schools fall into one of two categories. “Do we exist as an exclusive institution, and that is how our identity is constructed,” she says, “or do we exist as an inclusive institution? Knowing that in some ways that’s more work because of the students who need extra support financially and academically?”

Ten or 15 years ago, that meant supporting Hmong girls and boys who married and began having children in high school. It meant making parents comfortable with the idea of their children leaving home. Linda Yang, a counselor at the school who is Hmong, told me that Hmong parents are sometimes incredulous at the notion of scholarships. When one of her students got a full scholarship to UC-Davis, her parents brought in the letter to ask her if it was a hoax.

The number of Hmong students at Burbank is unclear — about 30 percent of the school’s 1,700 students are Asian — but it has one of the largest concentrations of Hmong students in Sacramento. Some of them are zoned for Kennedy High, which sits in a more-affluent area on the other side of Interstate 5. But they prefer to come to Burbank, they told me, because they feel more comfortable around students who speak their language, understand their cultural obligations and face similar challenges.

I met with about a dozen Hmong students in an empty classroom on the edge of campus. Some of them are aware of the stereotype that Asian Americans are well-off, a notion that makes them conscious of their own station in life. Keng Thao, an 18-year-old who was born in a refugee camp in Thailand, highlighted the difference between him and wealthier Asians using a footwear metaphor: “You see some Asians wearing Jordans. I’m wearing flip-flops.”

Many of them speak Hmong at home, abide by Hmong customs and rituals, learn Hmong history at school and are surrounded by Hmong peers. Many also have responsibilities that conflict with homework and sometimes interfere with college aspirations.

Angely Vue, a high school senior, explained the expectations Hmong girls face. “You have to be a perfect Hmong daughter,” she said. As the eldest child, she was charged with caring for five siblings; in large Hmong families, it’s not unusual for the eldest girl to serve as a sort of second mother to her brothers and sisters. That meant cleaning, supervising and cooking — often boiled chicken and rice — and then ensuring the younger children were bathed and put to bed. And all that came before homework. “It’s not as if you can put those things aside,” Vue said.

For boys, there are rituals and lengthy funerals to attend, and sometimes they are expected to earn money to support their loved ones. Many families still expect a “bride prize,” a payment to the bride’s family upon her marriage, often worth thousands of dollars. The mother of Nathan Yang, a senior, suggested to him that he hold off on marriage. “She told me, ‘Don’t get married, because we can’t afford it,’ ” Yang said, laughing.

I asked what it would mean for the students if admissions officers could not consider their race and if they weren’t able to share anything about it on their college applications. They said it would be nearly impossible. “I want them to know that I’m Hmong so they can see that I don’t have money to pay for a private tutor,” Vue said. “Even though I don’t have that help, I still study really hard and still worked hard to get to where I am.”

Her classmate, Samantha Vang, who squeezes in homework in between caring for a 3-year-old sister and shifts at KFC, put it more succinctly: “It’s what makes me me.”

Burbank High School senior Samantha Vang. The school has one of the largest concentrations of Hmong students in Sacramento.

I spoke to Blum by phone several weeks later and told him what the students had said. He said he couldn’t comment on exactly what barring admissions officials from considering race would mean for applicants — that is, whether it would bar them from mentioning their race in applications. But he said he found it worrisome that teenagers would consider their race and ethnicity as central to their identity. “Do we want to elevate our race and our ethnicity to the most existential part of who we are?” he told me. “I think we’re at a very bad gateway if that’s how 17- and 18- and 19-year-olds are viewing themselves in the greater context of America and this society.”

He also said it was wrong for admissions officials to think they can make assumptions about the financial or academic barriers a candidate faces based on what racial box they check. “There are lots of Vietnamese whose dads are corporate lawyers and whose moms are architects. There’s lots of Chinese kids whose dad is working in a Chinese kitchen in the Bronx,” Blum said. (Dane, the Harvard spokeswoman, said that the admissions committee considers all of those factors and does not assume anything about a candidate’s financial background based on his or her race.)

Instead of race, Blum argues, Harvard should lend more consideration to a student’s socioeconomic status, to give students with the odds stacked against them a fighting chance. An expert hired by Blum’s group, Richard Kahlenberg, testified that emphasizing socioeconomic diversity would keep classes racially diverse. Kahlenberg, who declined to comment because of the pending lawsuit, produced models predicting how campus diversity would shift if Harvard stopped using race and giving preference to legacies or children of employees, and started giving more weight to socioeconomic barriers. His models showed that the number of disadvantaged students would radically rise, and there would be fewer black students and more Asians.

OiYan Poon, an education professor at Colorado State University, disagrees with Kahlenberg’s perspective. Admissions officers who are considering an applicant’s socioeconomic status but not their race might never learn that they don’t speak English at home or that they’re refugees — barriers to academic success that exist independent of how much money their parents made.

“There’s still this blanket perception, like: Why do Asian students need support?” Chao Vang says.

I asked Yukong Zhao, a Chinese immigrant who worked in business development for Siemens, and who helped form the Asian American Coalition for Education in 2014 with the goal of eliminating race-conscious admissions in the Ivy League, about the situation of lower-income Southeast Asians who believe his efforts would harm them. He said he’s sensitive to the disparities in the American education system that disadvantage poor students, but that the solution is to address those disparities instead of letting more members of underrepresented groups into elite schools.

Zhao and others who support the lawsuit cite an internal Harvard study unearthed by the litigation that estimated that Asian Americans would constitute 43 percent of the student body if only grades and test scores were considered. (In 2018, 23 percent of students admitted to Harvard were Asian American.) They also note that Asian enrollment increased at California’s public colleges after affirmative action was barred in 1996.

But that’s only part of what has happened since Proposition 209 passed. The data also suggests that the current approach does not benefit all Asians equally. One caveat in measuring the impact that Prop. 209 has had on worse-off Asian American groups is that the University of California system began tracking Asian subgroups only after its passage. But it is clear that some subsets have done better than others. According to U.S. Census Bureau estimates, those who are Chinese account for about 4 percent of California’s population, but they make up 13 percent of domestic UC students. Hmong account for 0.25 percent of the state population and 0.21 percent of UC students. The gap is wider at the most selective campuses: Chinese students make up about 16 percent of UC-Berkeley’s domestic students, whereas Hmong account for less than 0.10 percent.

In addition, it isn’t clear to what extent — or even whether — Asian Americans as a whole have benefited from Proposition 209. In her research, Poon has found that the increased number of Asian students at UC schools “was most likely caused by significant demographic shifts in the state and a higher yield rate among admitted [Asian] applicants” — not by Prop. 209. Then again, not everyone agrees that Prop. 209 has been fully implemented: Recently, an affirmative action critic filed a lawsuit alleging that UC is still considering race in admissions.

Chao Vang is a staff member coordinating equity programs on campus at Sacramento State.

Before leaving Sacramento, I stopped by Sacramento State, which sits on a leafy campus east of downtown, hemmed in by the American River. The university is part of the California State University System, which is separate from the UC system. It makes a point of welcoming students who might have never considered college and who arrive with a host of challenges: first-generation students, refugees, undocumented youths.

Chao Vang was one of those students. The seventh of 10 siblings, he grew up in Stockton, Calif., and is now a staff member coordinating equity programs on campus. He wrote his dissertation on the outcomes of Hmong students at Sacramento State, and what he found was deeply disheartening. The number of Hmong students on campus grew exponentially, from 153 in 2005 to 1,075 11 years later. But they were rarely graduating within four years. None of the Hmong students who began at Sacramento State in 2007 or 2008 graduated within four years. In 2016, just 1.3 percent of the Hmong students who started four years prior graduated. (The university’s overall four-year graduation rate is about 14 percent.)

A survey of nearly 500 Hmong students in 2014 and 2015 found that nearly all of them lived off-campus and about half were living in households with seven or more people. Nearly half were working more than 20 hours a week, and about 70 percent reported feeling depressed on campus. The phrase “achievement gap,” usually used to describe the performance gap between white and black students, has taken on a new meaning for Vang: the gap between Hmong students and other Asian students.

The challenges of groups such as the Hmong get overlooked, he explains, because Asians are not considered underrepresented minorities at California’s public universities, so they don’t qualify for the same resources that black, Hispanic and Native American students do. As I followed Vang through campus, he pointed out initiatives that target other minority groups: Black students can retreat to the Martin Luther King Jr. Center; Latino students have the Serna Center, named for the late Sacramento mayor Joe Serna Jr.; and there is a Dreamer Resource Center for undocumented students. “There’s still this blanket perception, like: Why do Asian students need support?” Vang said.

We found Hmong students congregating around tables outside the offices of the Multi-Cultural Center. Inside, I met Robert Yang, a sociology student who grew up in Sacramento. He is one of 11 children and has older siblings who went to college, but he says he was not always on that trajectory. His father was diagnosed with cancer when he was in high school and, overwhelmed with work, school and his home life, Yang fell into a depression.

I visited Yang a few days later at his home, a three-bedroom ranch-style house that he shares with his parents, a younger brother and an older brother who is disabled. The front sitting room was sparsely furnished, dominated by a shrine on the wall opposite the front door. It was covered in gold paper, with ceremonial items placed on its mantel — including eggs and teacups. Another wall was covered with photos taken before they had left Laos, of his parents in traditional Hmong clothing made of intricately woven fabric. His father, John, a shaman, also had several blown-up photos of himself and his wife posing next to their prized possession: a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Yang told me he had planned on studying that day, but instead he had to help his father sacrifice some chickens in preparation for the Hmong New Year. The rituals are intended to ensure that ancestors are cared for in the afterlife.

He recalled another time when he missed class to represent his family at a days-long funeral of a distant relative. He said he can’t imagine omitting race from the story he shared with admissions officials. Growing up in poverty, and knowing that his parents had worked so hard to provide for him, inspired him to get his grades up so he could go to college. It is shaping his academic future, too: Sociology has given him the language to understand the difference between the world he grew up in — which emphasizes community and family — and university life, which pushes him to pursue his own intellectual passions. Eliminating race from the admissions process, he said, “takes away from the individual who is actually applying. It takes away from their story. It takes away from who they are.”

Moriah Balingit is a Washington Post staff writer.

Credits: Story by Moriah Balingit. Photos by Max Whittaker. Designed by Christian Font. Illustrated by Andrea Ucini. Photo Editing by Dudley M. Brooks.