Four speakers on a panel sponsored by the Graduate School of Education (GSE) Saturday discussed what role socio-economic status and class should play in hiring and school admissions processes for Asian Americans.
Panelists, in a forum attended by more than 90 students, also debated whether affirmative action actually helps to increase diversity.
Recent attacks on affirmative action have led to major re-evaluations of current programs. President Clinton has ordered a review of federal race-based programs, and a state referendum in California proposes to eliminate all consideration of race in education, hiring and the awarding of government contracts.
Helen Hyun, a third-year doctoral candidate at the GSE, spoke of her dissertation research on class-based affirmative action at the University of California at Berkeley.
Hyun said conservatives have tried to portray affirmative action as a conflict between "meritocracy and egalitarianism," and have used Asian-Americans as "poster children" because some have accused the [University of California] system of capping Asian-American enrollment through quotas.
"It seems that class-based affirmative action favors whites and Asians," Hyun said.
According to U.C.-Berkeley, white and Asian enrollment would soar to 95 percent of the student body if affirmative action were eliminated in admissions considerations, she said.
Hyun said Asian-American are hard to classify because they tend to be "bimodally distributed" along ethnic lines. For instance, the average per capita income of Laotian-Americans is $4,254, compared with $22,079 for Filipino-Americans.
But Hyun said the California effort to end affirmative action is misguided.
"It assumes that racism has been transcended in society and that is clearly not the case for Asian-Americans," she said. "Class should never be a substitute for race."