The Volokh Conspiracy

Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent

UC San Francisco Diversity Office Deems Some Asians to be URMs

UCSF's "working definition" of underrepresented minorities includes Filipino, Hmong, and Vietnamese


As regular VC readers know, I've written a book about how America's racial classifications developed and how the classifications are defined and enforced. One of the many arbitrary aspects of the classifications is that they lump together "Asian American" groups that have nothing in common--such as Bangladeshi and Cambodian Americans--into the same classification.

In higher education, because "Asian Americans" on average are "overrerpresented," at best members of that classification do not benefit from URM status, and at worst are  subject to discrimination in admissions.

It turns out, however, that if one digs deep into the data, one finds that the "overrepresentation" of Asian Americans is primarily a product of the academic success of Indian, Chinese, Japanese, and (to a lesser extent) Korean Americans. Other Asian groups are anywhere from mildly "overrepresented" compared to their share of the population, or underrepresented.

Recognizing this dynamic, UCSF decided to include Filipinos, Hmong, and Vietnamese as URMs in its "working definition" of that category. But this raises its own questions. Why those three groups, and not Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Cambodians, Laotions, and other Asian subgroups who also are likely "underrepresented" in higher education, certainly relative to Filipinos, who have among the highest average incomes of American ethnic groups?

For that matter, why only break down the Asian category? Some Hispanic subgroups are "underrepresented" relative to population, but I'm not sure that Cubans Americans are; I'm pretty confident that Spanish and Argentine Americans are not, though it's hard to get such data.

Among African Americans, Nigerian immigrants and their children are almost certainly "overrepresented," so why not break down the African American/black classification more finely?

For Native Americans, why not distinguish between, say, those who grew up on reservations and within a Native American community and, say, tribal members who are only a fraction of Indian descent and have few if any ties to their ancestral tribe? (One can, for example, be less than 1/5000 Cherokee and still be a member.)

And of course, "white" is not a homogenous category. Appalachians, for example, are the least-well-off of any American group that anyone bother to study, other than Indians living on reservations. Why do they not count as "underrepresented?"

In short, UCSF's instinct, that it's unfair to lump all "Asian Americans" together, is sound. But the same instinct, followed to its logical conclusion, tells us that all the classifications used by USCF and other universities arbitrary lump people with vastly different backgrounds, experiences, and average group success together.