Sociologist Jennifer Lee

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Professor Lee, who’s written extensively on race and social inequality, discusses the erosion of affirmative action opportunities for higher education.

Jennifer Lee's research projects stem from her interests in the intersection of immigration and race/ethnicity, with much of her work focused on the ways in which contemporary immigrants affect native-born Americans. She's a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine and author of Civility in the City, co-author of The Diversity Paradox and co-editor of Asian American Youth. She's been a fellow at Stanford's Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and at the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture and a Fulbright Scholar to Japan. She's also been a visiting scholar at the Russell Sage Foundation.


Tavis: California and Michigan are just two states that have dismantled affirmative action as a tool in determining entrance to state colleges and universities. That’s a decision, I should say, that has rankled many. And in California, it’s actually pitted one group against another, Asians against African Americans, specifically.

Joining us now, Jennifer Lee, professor of sociology at UC, Irvine, who’s written extensively on race and social inequality. Professor Lee, good to have you on the program.

Jennifer Lee: Delighted to be here.

Tavis: I want to jump right in in the time that I have here. What is happening in California, specifically where you have these groups now, namely Asians and African Americans, who are being pitted against each other? Kind of unpack that for me.

Lee: I would say it’s more than just Asian Americans and African Americans. It’s about Asian Americans, Latino Americans, African Americans and Native Americans.

So there was an initiative called Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 which was killed by a strong and vocal minority of Asian Americans who did not want to overturn Proposition 209 which would allow universities at state level to reconsider race in admissions.

Their argument – this is a small vocal minority of Asian Americans who argued that, if you allowed universities to reconsider race in admissions, their numbers would be hurt, that there would be quotas placed on Asian Americans. And those things are just not true.

And one of the things I did want to point out is that this is a vocal minority who opposes affirmative action, that the 2012 national Asian American survey shows that 76% of Asian Americans support affirmative action policies.

Tavis: In fairness, though, they’re being sort of stirred up, there’s a bunch of money – I think I’ve seen these commercials.

I’m sure others have seen these commercials that really are about the business of trying to seek out Asian Americans who have a beef against the system – that my sense is can be used in cases, lawsuits to come down in the future, that would make this even more contentious than it already is.

Lee: That’s an excellent point and I think that Asian Americans have not necessarily been behind all of those beefs, that these are very orchestrated, very deliberate attempts to use Asian Americans as a wedge against affirmative action and to pit Asian Americans against under-represented minorities like Latino Americans and African Americans and Native Americans.

And I would really like to underscore the point that the majority, the vast majority, of Asian Americans actually support affirmative action policies.

Tavis: What are we missing when we look at it from a sociological perspective as opposed to the way we tend to see it, which is through the lens of pure politics?

Lee: I’m so glad you asked that question. I think sociology has a lot to offer in this regard. First, I would like to say that, when most Americans think about affirmative action, the first thing that comes into mind is race and should we consider race in admissions for higher education.

But the strongest beneficiaries of affirmative action have been women and particularly white women. And that’s something that we often forget.

There are also a number of affirmative action policies for different groups like the children of alumni of colleges, these legacies who are getting a boost because of their status as children of alumni. So there are a number of different policies that help different groups that are not racialized minorities.

But I think most Americans become very uncomfortable thinking about race and affirmative action because it requires that we really think about the history of race relations in the country.

And it also forces us to acknowledge that we’re not a post-racial society and that there are different groups that face different kinds of disadvantages from the start.

And I would say that, in terms of college admissions, when you think about it, one of the strongest sociological points is that a child’s level of education is determined in strong part by his or her parents’ level of education.

So the fact that you see inner-generational disadvantages and advantages operating shows that we’re not just this meritocracy, that it’s not just about hard work or perseverance, which is kind of the dominant ideology behind the American dream.

Tavis: Then there are those – I hear your point, but there are books, best-selling books by people like Amy Chua and others, who make an argument that’s a little bit different…

Lee: Oh, very different.

Tavis: That Asian Americans end up advancing because they drive their children. These Tiger Moms and others drive their children to be successful. There’s nothing wrong with coming from a family where excellence is an expectation. But it doesn’t write such a beautiful narrative about other families.

Lee: You know, I think that’s an excellent point that people like Amy Chua and her husband, Jed Rubenfeld, have really looked at culture and pointed to group culture as an explanation for group outcomes.

I would argue a couple of things. One, there’s a recent study that has just been released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics that shows that, when you control for family income, that families across racial and ethnic groups invest the same amount of resources in their children’s education. So is it about culture or is it about class?

I would also say that an important element that’s missing in a lot of these culturally essentialist arguments is that let’s look at the groups who come to the United States.

Let’s look at Asian immigrants, for instance, and in particular, say, Asian. Indian, Chinese, Korean immigrants. They tend to be highly selected members of their group. So just to give you an example of what that means, Chinese immigrants in the United States, 53% have a college degree or more. In China, only 5% have a college education or more.

So those who are immigrating to the United States are the most highly educated. They have the most resources. They’re able to invest those resources in their children. They’re also able to set up supplementary education systems for their children that also help Chinese Americans more generally.

So is it really about Tiger Mom practices or is it about which groups have the privilege of having resources?

Tavis: Again, we know what the politics of the affirmative action issue – we know what the politics are. I wonder, from your vantage point as a sociologist, whether or not there are tools that we can use to help us better have a conversation about corrective programs like affirmative action in a multi-cultural, multi-racial, multi-ethnic society?

Or are the politics just going to rule this thing from top to bottom and all the other disciplines that might have something to say about this issue just get ignored?

Lee: I hope that’s not the case. I’m not that pessimistic. I mean, the fact that you have me on your program indicates that sociologists and academics more generally have a voice in this matter. So I do appreciate your putting us on air.

I would say that there are a number of different things that we can think about that would privilege all groups, including Asian Americans, and I would say affirmative action is one of them.

I think the ethos or the perception is that all Asian Americans are high-achieving and successful. But if you look at the Asian American category, there are a number of Asian American groups who are low-achieving, who have very high poverty levels.

So if you look at Cambodians, Laotians, Hmong Americans, they have very high poverty levels and about a third of them don’t even graduate from high school. They have higher high school dropout rates than Latinos and African Americans.

So when I think about race conscious admissions and whether I support them, I support them because they would benefit all groups and they would certainly not disadvantage any groups.

I would also say that some of the other research that I’ve done with my colleague, Min Zhou, who’s a sociologist at UCLA, one of the things we found is that the children of Mexican Americans make enormous progress and, in some ways, they’re the most successful group.

So if you look at how much education their children have attained compared to their immigrant parents, they double the high school graduation rate of their parents. They double the college graduation rate of their fathers and triple that of their mothers.

So when we looked at the most successful second generation Mexican immigrants in Los Angeles, one of the things we found is that they were most able to take advantage of public school resources.

So they were in AP classes, they were in college-bound courses, they had guidance counselors, teachers or coaches who were very instrumental in helping them navigate the college admissions process.

So when your parents don’t have the college degrees, you need to look at external resources to boost your education. And I would say investing more in education so that people don’t feel like it’s a zero sum game; people don’t feel like one group is losing out over another.

Tavis: What’s the price we pay as a society if we don’t figure out how to better navigate these difficult questions about how to level the playing field in this country?

Lee: I mean, our society is incredibly racially and ethnically diverse as a result of immigration and it’s going to continue to become diverse.

What kind of society do we want to live in? Do we want to live in a society in which certain groups continue to receive advantages and other groups we’re willing to just let go?

I think we benefit enormously from having racially and ethnically diverse student bodies, for instance. I know that, in my classes, the classes are intellectually much more rich and interesting when I have a student body that is composed of a number of different Asian Americans, Latino Americans, African Americans and white Americans.

So we as a society, I think, owe it to our youth to provide all of them the kind of resources to reach their potential.

Tavis: I appreciate having you on, Professor Jennifer Lee, sociologist, out of UC, Irvine. This debate about affirmative action, of course, a long way from over.

We will see what the next term of the U.S. Supreme Court – which case will be up next on the docket. But we know we’re going to come back to this time and time again. I appreciate having you on the program.

Lee: Thank you very much.

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Last modified: July 14, 2014 at 1:09 pm