‘Bamboo Ceiling’: Study Tackles Asian Americans’ Affirmative Action


A new study puts Asian Americans front and center in the conversation on affirmative action, showing that education isn’t the only field in which affirmative action impacts the group. Researchers suggest that it’s time to look at how Asian Americans fare in the workplace.

“Despite being more likely to graduate from college than whites, Asians are neither more likely to attain a professional job nor earn as much as comparably educated whites, even after adjusting for age, gender, nativity, education, college selectivity, academic major, employment sector, and region of the country,” according to the study, titled “The Mere Mention of Asians in Affirmative Action.

The study was published in Sociological Science by The Graduate Center, CUNY, Professor Van C. Tran and Columbia University Professor Jennifer Lee. The pair utilized the 2016 National Asian American Survey to determine whether the group supports policies that appear to give preferences to black people but exclude Asian Americans in the labor market.

The study acknowledges the Asian Americans’ education advantage, but notes that the advantage doesn’t transfer to the labor market.

“Presumed competent, U.S. Asians evince exceptional educational outcomes but lack the cultural pedigree of elite whites that safeguard them from bias in the labor market,” the study reads. “In spite of their nonwhite minority status, Asians also lack the legacy of disadvantage of blacks that make them eligible beneficiaries of affirmative action.”

Thus, Asian Americans face what researchers have called a “bamboo ceiling” — “an invisible barrier to advancement akin to the ‘glass ceiling’ that women face.”

Tran and Lee found that Asians are divided on the issue. While supporters say affirmative action is necessary to address discrimination against black people by white people, opponents say the policy victimizes Asian Americans by privileging group membership over meritocracy.

However, it seems the divide among Asian Americans is generational, Tran and Lee wrote in an op-ed for CNN.

“We found that Asian immigrants are least likely to support affirmative action. By contrast, Asians born in the U.S. with parents who were also born here — the so-called later generation — are most likely to do so,” they explained.

This, they wrote, is likely because of what they call a “false equivalency of non-white disadvantage.” Asian immigrants view themselves as victims of affirmative action (aligning with whites) — due to the narrative that Asian Americans often excel despite their socioeconomic background and minoritized status. First-generation Asian Americans are also less likely to understand the historical origins of the policy.

“As non-whites, Asians have endured immigration restrictions, legal exclusion from U.S. citizenship, anti-Asian hostility, violence, prejudice and even internment,” the authors wrote. “But as non-blacks, Asians have escaped centuries of slavery, the legal codification of racial inferiority, the cumulative and intergenerational disadvantages that blacks have endured as a result.”

Meanwhile, later-generation Asian Americans are more aware of their class advantage over black people, Tran and Lee wrote in their CNN piece. They also understand that, “Asians may be a disadvantaged minority relative to whites, but they are also an advantaged minority relative to blacks.”