BY KARTHICK RAMAKRISHNAN AND JANELLE WONG
A lawsuit against Harvard University alleging racial discrimination has sparked intense interest in Asian Americans’ attitudes about race-conscious admissions and other policies to address racial diversity in college admissions and in other settings. Below, we highlight findings from Asian American public opinion data on this topic, in the hope that it can inform better news coverage of the issue.
Three key findings emerge from the survey data:
- Asian Americans have consistently supported affirmative action policies, with some differences in support depending on question wording;
- Support among Chinese Americans has declined dramatically over four years, while it has remained stable for other Asian Americans;
- Despite declines due to opinion change among Chinese Americans, nearly two-thirds of Asian Americans still support affirmative action.
The data we reference are based on telephone surveys conducted in English and several Asian languages in 2012, 2014, and 2016. The 2014 and 2016 surveys of Asian American registered voters were conducted by AAPI Data, in conjunction with APIA Vote and Asian Americans Advancing Justice|AAJC. The 2012 survey of Asian American adults was conducted by the National Asian American Survey.
1. Asian Americans have consistently supported affirmative action policies
There are different ways to gauge support for affirmative action—for example, with respect to jobs and higher education, either jointly or separately. The 2012 NAAS, for example, asked about support for “affirmative action programs designed to help blacks, women, and other minorities get better jobs and education,” replicating a prior question from Pew.
For consistency’s sake, the 2014 survey by AAPI Data and partners asked the same question to one third of survey respondents, and asked about “better access to higher education” and “better access to jobs and business contracts” separately to a third or respondents each. Finally, the 2016 survey by AAPI Data and partners asked about “better access to higher education” to one half of survey respondents and replicated another Pew survey question to the other half of survey respondents: “In general, do you think affirmative action programs designed to increase the number of black and minority students on college campuses are a good thing or a bad thing?”
Regardless of the question wording, a majority of Asian American respondents express support for affirmative action, including when it is applied specifically to the context of higher education.
2. A big divergence has opened up between Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans
Support for affirmative action has declined dramatically among Chinese Americans over a relatively short period of four years, while it has remained stable among other Asian Americans. The growing activism and opposition to affirmative action among Chinese immigrants has been well documented by scholars like Oiyan Poon, Karthick Ramakrishnan, Jenn Fang, and others, and we will continue to explore this topic in future blog posts.
3. Despite declines among Chinese, nearly two-thirds of Asian Americans still support affirmative action
Since Chinese Americans are the largest Asian ethnic group in the United States, the dramatic decline in their support for affirmative action has also meant a decline in support among Asian Americans overall. In other words, Chinese Americans are almost entirely responsible for the change in support for affirmative action among Asian Americans. Even with this decline, however, nearly two-thirds of Asian Americans supported affirmative action in higher education in 2016.
Karthick Ramakrishnan is a professor of public policy and founding director of AAPI Data. Janelle Wong is a professor of American Studies and senior researcher at AAPI Data.
2016 APIAVote/AAJC/AAPI Data Poll (National)
1,212 Asian American registered voters.Survey conducted in five languages (English,Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Vietnamese) and targeted the six largest Asian American groups, Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, Filipinos, and Japanese (together comprising 75% of the Asian American adult citizen population). Data were weighted to reflect the relative size of these Asian American groups and other demographic characteristics. Landline and mobile.
2014 APIAVote/AAJC Voter Poll (National)
1,337 Asian American registered voters. Survey was conducted in five languages (English, Cantonese, Mandarin, Korean, Vietnamese) and including Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, Indian, Filipinos, and Japanese. Data were weighted to reflect the relative size of these Asian American groups and other demographic characteristics. Landline and mobile.
2012 National Asian American Survey
4,269 interviews of Asian American adults (including 2,845 registered voters) from July 31, 2012 through October 21, 2012 with Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Hmong respondents. Survey was conducted in English and 8 Asian languages. Data were weighted to reflect the relative size of these Asian American groups and other demographic characteristics. Landline and mobile.
 For consistency of comparison, we present findings from registered voters in 2012, although differences in opinion on affirmative action between registered voters and adult residents in 2012 were not statistically significant.
 The 2012 NAAS also added variations that removed mention of “affirmative action” and/or added a diversity rationale. None of these variations produced any statistically significant differences in opinion.
 To provide consistency in comparing measures over time, we only include the support/oppose measure in 2016 rather than the good thing/bad thing measure in 2016. Only 23 percent of Chinese American registered voters in 2016 thought that affirmative action programs on college campuses to benefit blacks and other minorities were a good thing.