28 Asian Pacific American organizations
file support for affirmative action
at the U. S. Supreme Court
Interview with Vincent Eng
National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium
Vincent A. Eng is the Legal Director at the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium (NAPALC). On February 17, 2003, NAPALC and twenty-seven other organizations filed an amicus curiae ("friend of the Court") brief at the United States Supreme Court in support of the University of Michigan in the affirmative action cases Grutter v. Bollinger (law school case) and Gratz v. Bollinger (undergraduate case). (See full list of organizations below.) Both cases were heard by the Supreme Court on April 1, 2003. Their decision is expected to be released in the summer. This interview for In Motion Magazine was conducted by Nic Paget-Clarke, March 28, 2003. For background on the The History of Affirmative Action Policies - click here (will open in separate browser window for easy reference). To see a list of other interviews and articles about the two Michigan cases, click here.
"NAPALC is a national civil rights organization which focuses on a broad array of policy issues dealing with civil rights. What we do is, from the Asian Pacific American angle, ensure that Asian Pacific Americans have a voice on policy matter issues. Why we are interested in the University of Michigan case is that affirmative action is one of the areas that we handle." -- Vincent Eng
In Motion Magazine: Why did NAPALC file the amicus brief?
Vincent Eng: We fully support the University's program. It is clear that Asian Pacific Americans support affirmative action and support the University's program.
Specifically, we filed this brief in support of the University's program focusing on diversity as an important aspect. Although Asian Pacific Americans are not included in the University's program, the benefits of diversity have been proven time and time again to greatly enhance one's experience in education. Studies have shown that affirmative action to achieve diversity is good. It allows students to have a better understanding, a better tolerance of each other.
In addition, exit polling done during elections when affirmative action was at issue have shown Asian Pacific Americans' overwhelming support for affirmative action measures. For example, in California when proposition 209 offered the termination of use of race, Asian Pacific Americans in exit polling demonstrated overwhelmingly that they were against that proposition, 80 to 90 percent.
(From a legal perspective) we feel that the program that the University of Michigan has is extremely flexible and completely consistent with the current state of law under the Bakke decision.
In Motion Magazine: Can you expand on how the U. of Michigan program relates to the Bakke decision.
Vincent Eng: Under Bakke, the Supreme Court ruled that diversity could be a compelling state interest in allowing the use of race as a factor. And Bakke made quotas illegal.
Contrary to what President Bush, the Center for Individual Rights, Gratz and Grutter have argued, the University of Michigan program is not a quota system. Rather, it's very clear that the program is flexible. Out of 150 points total, 110 points are used for academic factors while only 40 points are awarded for non-academic factors.
Race is under that whole rubric of the 40 points but it is only one factor out of many factors that can be used towards those 40 points. Other factors include geography, legacy alumni relations, personal achievement, essays, leadership, service, socio-economically disadvantaged families, athletic scholarships. The list goes on.
Again, race is only one component of that. It's an important issue but it only represents a small percentage of the entire point system.
In Motion Magazine: Can you explain some more why it's not about quotas?
Vincent Eng: As I stated earlier, the Bakke program made quotas illegal. Using quotas means, for example, taking a specific number of minorities students, such as 10 Asian Americans, 20 African Americans, etc. This program has nothing to do with that. What this program does is assign points based on various factors, and based on those points a determination is made who are the best students to be admitted. There is no entitlement to any seat. Every student has an equal chance for every single seat in the University's program. It in no way amounts to a quota system.
In Motion Magazine: Can you say why you think it is particularly significant that your organization is supporting the Michigan program?
Vincent Eng: I think it is particularly significant that our organization, along with the 27 other Asian-based organizations, supports this because Asian Pacific Americans have often been used as a wedge group in the argument.
For example, it has been said that Asians would benefit from the elimination of affirmative action, and that Asians don't support affirmative action. There is even one organization, the Asian American Legal Foundation, which has filed a brief saying that Asians don't support affirmative action.
-- I want to comment here that that the brief we filed represents over two dozen Asian American national and local organizations from various interest groups, while the Asian American legal foundation is a small Asian American group focused solely on a single local issue. --
So, we felt it was extremely important to voice our concern, much like we did in the Sixth Circuit where we also filed an amicus brief. We found it disconcerting that Gratz and Grutter have used Asians as a wedge group and we wanted to set the record straight that we fully support affirmative action.
In Motion Magazine: On your Web site you mention that some people say that Asian Pacific Americans don't need affirmative action. Can you address that?
Vincent Eng: Yes. It is very clear when you look at areas such as employment and public contracting that Asian Pacific Americans still need affirmative action.
We suffer from a major glass ceiling issue. Asian Pacific Americans are severely lacking in upper management in the business world. That is one reason why you find in our brief that we have a cross-cutting sector of business groups, membership groups, civil rights, legal groups, and community-based organizations supporting affirmative action.
Although the statistics show that Asian Pacific Americans in the aggregate have done well in higher education, certain Asian Pacific American groups still need some type of assistance. For example, Southeast Asian groups claim about a 25-50 percent poverty rate and have not done as well in higher education. However, under the University of Michigans program a Southeast Asian American candidate could be eligible for the same 20 points awarded for race under the socio-economically disadvantaged point awardance.
In Motion Magazine: And some people say that Asian Pacific Americans are harmed by the policies?
Vincent Eng: Correct. Some people say that Asian Pacific Americans are harmed by the policies but that also is totally untrue. Some say that in the University of Michigan program Asian Pacific Americans are not considered minorities and therefore are not eligible for those twenty points. But, Asian Pacific Americans are eligible for those same exact twenty points, for example, if they are socio-economically disadvantaged. A person can also receive them if, for example, he or she is an Asian in a predominantly African American high school. There are many different ways that they can secure the same exact 20 points and to say that they are harmed by the policies is a gross misstatement.
In Motion Magazine: In your amicus brief you point out that some have used the notion that Asian Pacific Americans are a "model minority" as proof that affirmative action is not needed. Can you talk a little about that?
Vincent Eng: Asian Pacific Americans suffer from the "model minority" myth that they are excellent workers, excellent scholars, that they are able to achieve everything that they would possibly want. This is patently untrue.
As I stated before, we can see in areas of, for example, employment that the glass ceiling is still an issue. Looking at our federal government, there are very few Asian Pacific Americans in the upper ranks who have the SES, the Senior Executive Service ranking. In businesses, Asian Pacific Americans are often seen as good workers but when it comes to being put in positions of decision-making they are often not included.
For another example, one thing that we do at NAPALC is monitor television diversity. We see that in the networks Asian Pacific Americans are rarely represented, either in front of the camera or behind the camera -- much like the Latino and African Americans' situations.
When you start breaking down the "model minority" idea and looking at studies and figuring out where Asians are it's clear that the "model minority" is a myth.
In Motion Magazine: What is your assessment of where the University of Michigan cases fit into the history of the civil rights movement in the United States?
Vincent Eng: This is one of the most important civil rights issues that the Supreme Court will be dealing with in the 21st century. This ranks up there with other cases that we all read about in law school, or see on television, such as Brown v. Board of Education. This will be a defining moment for the Supreme Court on civil rights issues. I think that if the Supreme Court does not find in favor of the University of Michigan program it will be a major setback for civil rights in America.
In Motion Magazine: What is your assessment of civil rights in the U.S. at this time?
Vincent Eng: Post-9/11, we are seeing a general and continuous roll back in civil rights. Civil rights are being eroded every day by the courts and by our government. We are definitely not in a good state.
We are seeing a lot of surveillance and questioning done under the guise of national security. Most recently, for example, we have the FBI monitoring Iraqi families under the guise of protecting them from hate crimes.
We have individuals such as Representative Howard Coble (R-NC, 6th District) who basically supports the internment of the Japanese (in World War II).
It is not only in the courts that civil rights are being rolled back but some of our leaders, our congressmen, are making very, very troubling statements.
The thing is for individuals to work to assert their rights.
In Motion Magazine: Why is affirmative action still necessary in 2003?
Vincent Eng: Affirmative action is still very necessary in 2003 because diversity is an extremely important issue. Race matters -- contrary to what President Bush and others have stated.
Just recently, a study of resumés showed that individuals with African American or Latino sounding names were not getting interviewed while those individuals with Caucasian sounding names with the same exact qualifications were receiving interviews.
We still have issues in our society and until those issues are resolved affirmative action is needed. Specifically in higher education, affirmative action is the way to ensure a diverse student body.
Published in In Motion Magazine April 1, 2003.
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