On February 3, 2021, the U.S. Department of Justice voluntarily dismissed its lawsuit against Yale University challenging its race-conscious admissions program—marking another reversal under the new Biden administration.

In October 2020, the Justice Department under President Trump accused Yale of discriminating against Asian American and white applicants. The investigation into Yale stemmed from a complaint filed by the Asian American Coalition for Education in 2016, which also issued complaints against Dartmouth College and Brown University. Alleging that Asian American and white applicants are disadvantaged by race-conscious admissions policies, the Asian American Coalition of Education advocated for the elimination of consideration of race and national origin in admissions decisions.

Asian Americans have taken center stage in the latest battles over affirmative action, yet their voices have often been muted in favor of narratives that position Asian Americans as victims of affirmative action who ardently oppose the policy. Drawing on national surveys of Asian American registered voters from 2014, 2016, 2018 and 2020, we focus squarely on their attitudes, and advance a new democratic narrative of Asian Americans—the majority of whom support affirmative action in the domain of education.

Not only do the majority of Asian American registered voters support affirmative action, but support has been remarkably consistent since 2014, despite high profile challenges that have targeted both Yale and Harvard.

Three Main Takeaways

  1. Asian American support for affirmative action has been consistently high since 2014.
  2. The majority of registered voters among all Asian American groups surveyed supported affirmative action in 2020, and the direction of the trend since 2016 is positive. This is precisely the opposite of what one might expect after 6 years of high profile campaigns by the Students for Fair Admissions—an organization founded by Edward Blum representing an anonymous group of Asian Americans—and other opponents of affirmative action.
  3. Among all Asian American registered voters, Chinese Americans demonstrate the highest levels of opposition to affirmative action related to higher education. Despite this general pattern, most surveys show that Chinese Americans more split than strongly opposed to the policy. Moreover, support for the policy among Chinese Americans has increased since 2016.

The Role of Asian American Organizations

How do we explain the consistently high support for affirmative action among Asian Americans and the increase in support among Chinese Americans? Prominent court cases over affirmative action have provided an opportunity for Asian Americans to learn more about the policy and current law. Asian American organizations such as  Asian Americans Advancing Justice and its affiliates, Chinese Americans for Affirmative Action, and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund support affirmative action with public campaigns, education, and legal advocacy. New organizations have also emerged to help Asian American communities to better understand affirmative action and to challenge myths and misinformation. For example, the WeChat Project launched when a group of college students mobilized to write essays in English and Chinese to encourage intergenerational dialogue on affirmative action, as well as share information and counter misinformation and fake news.

While Chinese Americans’ support for affirmative action wavered the most among Asian groups between 2014 and 2020, the shift in attitudes since 2016 is remarkable. The majority supported affirmative action in 2018 and 2020.


Summing Up

Asian Americans have consistently demonstrated support for affirmative action, and their attitudes have remained remarkably stable since 2014, with strong majorities expressing support for the policy.

Although the most prominent Asian American voices on the topic of affirmative action are often opponents, these grass-roots organizational efforts underscore that political mobilization is taking place in ways that are more aligned with the views of the broader Asian American community.

About the Data

The data are based on surveys co-sponsored by AAPI Data, APIAVote, and Advancing Justice-AAJC with Asian American national samples of registered voters. The surveys were conducted in English, Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese in 2014, 2016 and 2020.  Surveys were conducted via phone in 2014 and 2016. Surveys were conducted on phone and online in 2018 and 2020.

Analyses are based on the survey question: “Do you favor or oppose affirmative action programs designed to help Blacks, women, and other minorities get better access to higher education?”