The Shakiest Affirmation: Sources & Deeper Reading

I started The Shakiest Affirmation in 2019 for a data visualization final in my undergrad and refined it in March 2021 for my senior capstone. This post provides some of my process behind the project as well as sharing all the research sources I used, if anyone is interested. 

If you were hoping for some deeper reading about affirmative action, I would recommend taking a look at the #AffirmativeActionSyllabus2018-19 compiled by a research team at Colorado State University. I personally didn’t see it until after I finished my project, but I know it’s rich with knowledge and I look forward to learning more from it myself. The head researcher, Dr. OiYan Poon is a leading expert on the issue, and her interview in an Vox article (sourced below) was transformative to how I approached The Shakiest Affirmation. 

My Background on The Shakiest Affirmation

I’ve had a lingering interest in affirmative action in higher education basically ever since I knew I was going to college. As a Chinese American student, I found it was something like ‘common knowledge’ in our communities that my race would work against me when applying to competitive colleges. Too many Asians were aiming for Yale or Berkley so they’d hold us to a higher standard while other, less qualified minorities were getting bonus points just for being minorities. Or at least, those are the stories I was told. 

That narrative always seemed a little off to me, if only because it seemed like a very clumsy way to practice racism. That led me to doing my own research on the subject where I learned that popular perception of affirmative action is actually very, very wrong

I originally wanted this project to focus on public opinion of affirmative action in higher education because I thought there would be valuable insights into what was shaping people’s perceptions about the topic (or in the case of many people I knew: misperceptions). And it was valuable, in a way: It showed me that people don’t know jack squat about affirmative action despite having all sorts of opinions about it which, yeah, does lead to some misunderstandings. 

So while there is plenty to dive into on the politics and place of affirmative action in higher ed, I thought it’d be best if I started from square one. And I’m glad I did. 

In my research for this project, I realized how limited most public-facing material about affirmative action actually is. Most news media or accessible resources are targeted in ways that make none of them entirely comprehensive. My project is not different in the sense that it cannot cover everything in existence about the subject, but in terms of basic information, I sought to cover all the basic information.

I really do think The Shakiest Affirmation is one of the most thorough affirmative action introductions available. I hope it serves as a valuable resource for someone out there. 

Understanding Affirmative Action

Affirmative Action Timeline Sources

One of the main things I wanted to do with this project was create a streamlined and comprehensive timeline of affirmative action in higher education.

Because affirmative action also applies to government-funded employment, most timelines were a muddled mix of the two, despite the two having very different legal and cultural trajectories. Not to mention, they were still incomplete. Other timelines focused on limited elements of the history. Some details I had to pick out from the footnotes of an academic paper. 

Of course, by that point I was running on pure spite to complete a truly comprehensive timeline, one that filled in all the holes I was asking while reading other timelines. And I succeeded. I went out of my way to include every legal impact had on affirmative action in higher education, narrowing details down to: court cases, laws, percent plans, bans, general political climate, followed by some graphics to illustrate how the history fits together. 

General affirmative action timelines

Supreme Court and cases timeline

State bans timeline

White House on Affirmative Action

Miscellaneous Details

Use of Affirmative Action

Chang, Alvin. “Asians Are Being Used to Make the Case against Affirmative Action. Again.” Vox, Vox, 28 Mar. 2018. 

Not only is this piece visually colorful and rich with information, it was also highly transformative to my personal understanding of the subject and what was happening at the time with the SFFA v. Harvard lawsuit. I highly recommend reading it for a more contextualized article on how affirmative action is used in higher ed today.

Hirschman, Daniel, and Ellen Berrey. “The Partial Deinstitutionalization of Affirmative Action in U.S. Higher Education, 1988 to 2014.” Sociological Science, vol. 4, 28 Aug. 2017, pp. 449–468., doi:10.15195/v4.a18.

This is an open source article which I drew from directly to make my pair of infographics on the decline of affirmative action in competitive universities. The entire article is a fascinating read on how and potentially why affirmative action has fallen out of fashion. (Hint: It’s the legal and cultural backlash.)

Threat of Affirmative Action

Samson, Frank L. “MULTIPLE GROUP THREAT AND MALLEABLE WHITE ATTITUDES TOWARDS ACADEMIC MERIT.” Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race, vol. 10, no. 1, 14 May 2013, pp. 233–260., doi:10.1017/s1742058x1300012x. 

Baker, Dominique J. “Pathways to Racial Equity in Higher Education: Modeling the Antecedents of State Affirmative Action Bans.” American Educational Research Journal, vol. 56, no. 5, 6 Mar. 2019, pp. 1861–1895., doi:10.3102/0002831219833918.

More excellent research into the very much not race-neutral opposition against affirmative action. 

While Samson’s findings were frustrating in an unsurprising way, I found the Baker paper particularly fascinating because of all the state factors that could influence ban adoption (think demographics, partisanship, etc), the only consistent factor was white enrollment share. That is astoundingly bad. You can read a more pared down explanation of the findings here, in an article written by Baker

Learn More

Affirmative action is one factor, albeit a major one, in the fight for equitable admissions in higher education. I also worked on the Hack The Gates project (2019-2020) which put together policy briefs looking at eight different actions to improve equity in college admissions. I highly recommend seeing what they are about, if only to recognize the complexities of dismantling these structural inequities.


Understanding Affirmative Action in Higher Education

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