Editor’s Note: Jennifer Lee is professor of sociology at Columbia University and president-elect of the Eastern Sociological Society. Van C. Tran is associate professor of sociology at The Graduate Center, CUNY. The views expressed here are theirs. Read more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

A new academic year is underway, and universities nationwide await the verdict in the latest case placing affirmative action on trial.

Jennifer Lee
Van C. Tran

In Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, the plaintiffs allege that Harvard discriminates against Asian applicants by holding them to a higher academic standard, and rating them poorly on personal characteristics in order to artificially suppress their rate of admission. Their solution, expressed in a suit that the plaintiffs hope will reach the US Supreme Court, is to ban the consideration of race and ethnicity in all admissions decisions.

Missing from the current debate is a fundamental question that the plaintiffs chose not to raise: should we treat non-white groups as equally disadvantaged? Alternatively, should we account for the different kinds, degrees and consequences of non-white disadvantage?

Asians are divided on this issue. Supporters argue that affirmative action is necessary to address past discrimination against African Americans, and to create diverse schools and workplaces that reflect the racial and ethnic demography of the US population. Opponents decry the moral failing of an antiquated policy that privileges group membership over meritocratic ideals, in which Asians are the newest victims.

Our new research shows that the divide among Asians is generational. Based on the 2016 National Asian American Survey, we found that Asian immigrants are least likely to support affirmative action. By contrast, Asians born in the US with parents who were also born here – the so-called later generation – are most likely to do so. In fact, later-generation Asians are more likely to support affirmative action than Asian immigrants by a factor of three.

What explains the difference between foreign-born and later-generation Asians?