RSF grantees Jennifer Lee and Van Tran Publish Research on Asian Americans and Affirmative Action

October 17, 2019

RSF grantee Jennifer Lee (Columbia University) and Van C. Tran (City University of New York) are the authors of a new research paper, “The Mere Mention of Asians in Affirmative Action,” published in the Sociological Science journal in September 2019. The paper examines an underexplored aspect of Asian-American achievement, specifically the disparity in their workplace advancement relative to white counterparts.  The authors describe the unique predicament of Asian Americans, who achieve high levels of academic distinction and are overrepresented at elite colleges and universities, yet lag behind whites in attaining professional employment and do not earn as much as whites with comparable socioeconomic profiles. Lee and Tran’s research shifts the focus away from college and university admissions to examine Asians’ attitudes about affirmative action in the workplace. Using data from the 2016 National Asian American Survey, they examine Asian social, political, and economic attitudes and experiences. Their research presented three different types of questions about affirmative action to survey respondents—one which doesn’t include Asians (the control), one which suggests Asians are the victims of affirmative action alongside whites, and a third frame that suggests Asians are discriminated against alongside blacks. Their findings indicate that whites, rather than Asians, are the most likely to oppose racial preferences in hiring for blacks, and suggest less support for affirmative action among the most recent Asian immigrants. 

Lee and Tran also recently co-authored an op-ed article for CNN, “How Harvard Admissions Can Be a Barometer for Our Deepest Divides,” which addressed the recent case, Students For Fair Admissions vs. Harvard University, which alleged that the university discriminates against Asian students, holding them to a higher academic standard than other applicants. In their op-ed, the authors examine the fact that support for affirmative action in Asian communities is divided along generational lines, with the children of immigrants much more likely to support affirmative action than recent immigrants themselves. They introduce the idea of the “the false equivalency of non-white disadvantage, which treats all racial minority groups as though they are equally disadvantaged,” and note that Asians who were born in or have spent more time in the United States are less likely to believe this false equivalency. 

Jennifer Lee is Professor of Sociology at Columbia University and is an expert on immigration, the new second generation, education, and race relations. She was an RSF visiting scholar in 2011-12. Lee’smost recent RSF book with Min Zhou, The Asian American Achievement Paradox, was published in 2015. It received several American Sociological Association book awards: the Pierre Bourdieu Book Award, the Thomas and Znaniecki Book Award, and the Best Book Award on Asian America. She is also co-author with Frank D. Bean of the RSF book,The Diversity Paradox: Immigration and the Color Line in 21st Century (2010), which earned the 2011 Otis Dudley Duncan Award from the ASA. 

Van Tran is Associate Professor of Sociology at CUNY Graduate Center and leading immigration scholar. He was a contributor to the RSF book The Changing Face of Cities: Young Adult Children of Immigrants in Europe and the United States (2012). 

Lee and Tran’s research is an essential contribution to timely debates about the fate and future of affirmative action in the United States.


RSF: The Russell Sage Foundation Journal of the Social Sciences is a peer-reviewed, open-access journal of original empirical research articles by both established and emerging scholars.


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