Why I support affirmative action: An open letter to Chinese America | #NoLiesNoHate #edu4all

affirmative action signs

Dear Chinese America,

I love you more then you’ve ever really understood. When people ask me who I am, I proudly say I am Chinese American. And, while I may not be that great at being Chinese American — I don’t speak Mandarin very well, my Cantonese is worse, and yes technically I am Chinese Canadian — you’ll tease me for it, but you’ve never truly held it against me.

My whole life, I’ve associated you with honour; with respect; with dignity; with discipline; with intelligence; and above all, with love: love for one’s parents, one’s children, one’s elders, one’s friends, one’s community.

And that’s why I’m so disappointed right now. That’s why I just don’t understand why you’re saying the stuff you’re saying.

Like you, my mom and my dad immigrated to North America. They left home before I was born to come here, with nothing but college degrees, a couple hundred dollars, a mattress to sleep on, and a dream.

Many immigrants dream of the Golden Mountain. My mom’s dream  was of me. She dreamed of coming here; to have kids like me and my sister; to give us an education; to give us a happy childhood; to give us a life.

More simply, she dreamed of opportunity — a fair chance to prove what she was capable of, and to give that same opportunity to us.

And that’s what affirmative action means. It means opportunity.

About forty years ago, Asian Americans were underrepresented minorities in North America. When my parents first came to North America, there was strong racism against Asians, and it was really hard to land a job as a fresh immigrant from Asia. Being an immigrant meant you didn’t have the same skillset as people trained in North America — you couldn’t speak English as well, you might not be able to type as well, or answer phones as well. On paper, there were many reasons why you might not appear to be as qualified as American candidates, or you might even not score as well on standardized tests. Immigrant kids tend to get lower grades in English or in exams that are administered in English: but that’s because they are ESL kids, and not because they aren’t trying as hard as English-speaking American kids. And some people were also just plain racist.

Because of these inherent problems, 40 years ago, Asian Americans (and particularly Chinese Americans) were huge beneficiaries of affirmative action programs — in colleges and in the work force. In the 1960’s and 1970’s, colleges and employers were recruiting and admitting Asian Americans, as well as Blacks and Latinos and others, under (among other programs) race-based affirmative action policies. My dad’s first job was with a major software company, and he got it because he was highly skilled in programming, and also because the company was looking to hire Asian employees (to eventually break back into the  Chinese market).

My mom arrived in North America without being able to speak a word of English. Her only marketable skill (she’s a trained entomologist in insects native to Taiwan) wasn’t marketable here. She had a much harder time then my dad finding her first job in North America. Because she couldn’t speak English, she couldn’t read or write in English, she couldn’t type, and she couldn’t answer phones, she couldn’t compete in any quantifiable measure as a job candidate. Finally, one job gave her a chance — and again, it was in part because of affirmative action. Thanks to an employer who was willing to give my mom the benefit of a doubt and hire her despite her non-existent English language skills, she was able to land her first job as a secretary, where she learned to type as well as some basic English. From there, she was able to eventually land a second job — again, in part through affirmative action — where she eventually was able to teach herself programming and (many decades later) become head of IT.

My parents are immigrant success stories. They came to North America with nothing, and worked their way to upper middle-class, because of hard work, sweat and tears; but they are also immigrant success stories because they were given the chance by affirmative action programs to prove what they were capable of. Affirmative action programs looked beyond the quantifiable impacts of my parents’ race, their class, and their language skills had in reducing their on-paper credentials. Affirmative action was America’s assurance that my parents would have the opportunity to compete, even if they were starting from an unequal starting position.

I can trace my own successes as a child and an adult to both my parents’ hard work, sweat, and tears; but also to how affirmative action programs helped my parents apply those characteristics. Thanks to everything my parents had to endure —  as well as the programs that helped them compete in face of racism and classism — I’ve had the privilege of a comfortable childhood, great schools, and a budding career, and I couldn’t be more thankful to my parents for it.

Sadly, the playing field still isn’t level everywhere, even for Chinese Americans. I’ve written previously about biases that limit advancement of Asian Americans to faculty positions and higher; affirmative action policies today continue to consider the racial identity of underrepresented Asian Americans, as well as other minorities, when making faculty hires and when applying promotions in private companies. Affirmative action programs today continue to benefit Asian Americans seeking jobs and trying to break through America’s bamboo ceiling.

Asian American women are least likely to receive tenure and become full professors.
Asian American women are least likely to receive tenure and become full professors.

Affirmative action has been historically critical for Asian Americans, including Chinese Americans, to give us the opportunity to prove ourselves, and continues to be necessary for us now, even though our numbers on some college campuses suggest that as a community we may no longer be severely racially (though we may still be class-based) excluded from accessing a college education at those schools. Arguably, we (middle-class Chinese Americans) have largely “made it” when it comes to breaking into college admissions; but in other areas, we still need — and benefit from — affirmative action programs.

Affirmative action is also necessary for many other racial groups to make gains. Precisely because I understand exactly how much the opportunity my parents had access to has resulted in success for my family, I want to protect that opportunity for others.

Unlike my parents, most Blacks, Latinos, Native Americans and Southeast Asian Americans didn’t have the benefit of a college education earned overseas to kickstart a career as a new immigrant in America. Many of these underrepresented minorities (URM) don’t live in states like  California or New York City — or in affluent local neighbourhoods within these states — where localities invest in public education. In the neighbourhoods where many URM kids live, public schools are treated less like places of learning and more like centers where students are placed in a holding pattern until they are 18, where many are sabotaged — often by their own teachers or guidance counselors — by the wrong-headed idea that all they should look forward to is a minimum wage job or jail. There is virtually no access to textbooks or school supplies; there is a dearth of energized and talented instructors; public libraries are underfunded and falling apart; and the notion of AP courses and extracurricular activities are a joke. And, this happens even in middle-class predominantly-URM schools that receive far less resources than predominantly-White schools in the same school district (thus nullifying issues of class).

At every turn, America has denied URM kids the tools they need to achieve academically, and they have done this in part because of these kids’ race.

Yet, we blame deficiencies in work ethic or intellect when URM students don’t perform as well on standardized tests, not racism. We fault them for scoring less well on “objective” measures of aptitude (while ignoring the evidence that these “objective” measures are anything but), rather than to be monumentally impressed by the work ethic it takes to score 90% as well when armed with 25% of the resources of others. If Chinese Americans value hard work, how can we not value this?

If a Chinese American didn’t get into their college of choice, why do we assume the URM kid who did must have been “less qualified”?


How can we, Chinese Americans who have benefited so dramatically from affirmative action, and who have used those afforded opportunities to prove ourselves and pass that success on to our children, now turn around and say that other beneficiaries of affirmative action today are less qualified by virtue of benefiting from affimative action programs? My parents weren’t unqualified when they were hired over White competitors; but they needed affirmative action to get the opportunity to prove that fact to their employers.

Since the passage of Proposition 209, our current metrics in California of assessment for college admissions assumes equal access for all high school students to necessary resources where none exists. Our current system rewards high school students who — through a combination of both hard work and opportunity — perform well on “objective” tests; and punishes other high school students who underperform predominantly due to the lack of opportunity and resources.

Our current system is the appearance of a level playing field when it’s clearly not. Instead, our system is one that protects advantaged kids from having to compete in a  levelled playing field against disadvantaged kids; it is a system that reinforces the denial of opportunity — opportunity that has been so critical for Chinese Americans — to others. And some Chinese Americans have positioned themselves to defend this system.

SCA5 does not implement racial bias into college admissions, as affirmative action didn’t do prior to Prop 209. It will not deny Asian Americans access to college, as it didn’t do in the early 1990’s, when Asian American admissions was at 42% (nearly three times their state-wide population), and had risen at a faster rate then it has since the passage of Prop 209.

From Joint Policy Report on Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and Higher Education Diversity
Left-hand graph represents AAPI admissions under affirmative action, and right-hand graph represents AAPI admissions to Berkeley following removal of affirmative action. From Joint Policy Report on Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders and Higher Education Diversity

SCA5 will revert UC college admissions to the pre-Prop209 process: a holistic review system that includes race as one of over 900 factors to assess students, to ensure that URM high school students can fairly compete despite having access to fewer educational tools and resources. It is a system that, in essence, gives a URM applicant a teeny tiny bit of credit for having done more with less. It is a system that is currently employed throughout the country to fairly admit thousands of Asian American students to elite colleges, and into classrooms also populated by highly competitive students of other diverse backgrounds.

black-graduation-rateSCA5 won’t let unqualified URM kids skate by, no more so then affirmative action gave a pass to “unqualified” Chinese Americans. SCA5, and race-based affirmative action gives URM kids who have overcome to the best of their abilities the institutionalized iniquities that persist into today, the opportunity they need to excel at college.

And, the results may surprise you: at elite private universities, where race-based affirmative action is practiced, the graduation rate of Black students approaches 100% and is steadily improving in other universities. When given the opportunity to prove what they are capable of in a college setting, URM students are demonstrating that they have the exact same work ethic and intellect as their Asian and White peers (even as the nation is slow to recognize it).

As a Chinese American student, I have learned as much from my peers as I have from my teachers. Inviting hard-working and qualified URM students — who otherwise have limited access to a college education — isn’t just beneficial to these communities. Access to college through affirmative action programs won’t just benefit communities like Southeast Asian Americans where 85% of adults haven’t had access to a college degree.

As a Chinese American, being able to learn alongside kids who are different from me has made me a better student, has taught me how to think abstractly and critically from divergent perspectives, and has better prepared me for a globalized international world. Studies have shown time-and-time again the value of classroom diversity on quality of education, and yet we Chinese Americans continue to oppose these measures that would strengthen the quality of college education for our kids. As a Chinese American who has had a chance to learn in a diverse classroom, I have been forced to think outside of my own narrative and my own self-interests; insodoing, I have become a smarter, better, more caring person who is well-equipped to tackle all the challenges the world will throw at me.

In the end, I think that’s what my mom was dreaming of giving me in the first place when she came here.

Affirmative action is a complex topic and an imperfect solution. It is not a panacea for racism, and shouldn’t be debated as such. But affirmative action, as it would be restored by SCA5, should be implemented alongside measures to improve general federal and state-wide investment in our schools and our students. Neither solution is likely to alone reverse the impacts of racism and classism on our fellow Americans; together, they are a good start. SCA5 should be recognized for what it is — a chance given to people the system has failed. 40 years ago, those people included us.

As a Chinese American, I believe strongly that our community is better than this. I believe we are not the self-interested and misinformed voters they are making us out to be. I believe in Chinese American principles of love, caring, and sacrifice: not just for ourselves and our children, but for our entire community. I believe it is our selflessness, not our selfishness, that defines us.

I’m asking you, Chinese America: please remember how important the opportunities afforded to us by affirmative action programs have been to us and our families, and how we have through hard work converted those opportunities into success. Please don’t stand in defense of a system that would deny those same opportunities to others.

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  • Junwei

    Very interesting blog. Let me express my opinion on affirmative action from my Sino-German perspective. My arguments maybe a little disturbing for a political correct US American, but I am a realist and I now something about politics and economics of discrimination.

    Chinese American feminism should not support affirmative action, because you will backstab women interests.

    We have to distinguish minorities types between two branch of minorities inner minorities and transnational minorities: inner minorities (African-American, Native American) and transnational minorities like Taiwanese Americans and Chinese Americans from PR China or the ASEAN countries.

    Inner minorities are only of interest in domestic policy and for local labour market supply. Transnational minorities have bigger implications for US domestic and foreign policy, because of transnational entrepreneurship, transnational remittance corridors, visiting friends and family tourism, social remittances like political ideas and cultural remittances.

    Let me start my argument with the strongest point:

    Security concern

    Chinese American and also all Asian American must get the most of the slots in the education system with all means necessary by merit and by voting power.

    We all know that the Pivot to Asia localize the bulk of US military in the Pacific and US foreign policy motivate Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam,…to upgrade their military for the aim of containment of China. The USA tries also to create a TPP free trade zone. There plenty of regional conflicts about small islands who can trigger a great power war. The only factor that can prevent a great power war is economic interdependence. Affirmative action must prioritize on Asian American students and Mexican-American students to enhance economic interdependence in the TPP free trade zone. Black students and native american students are of no interest.

    We know from the extraction of patent datas that there are ethnic groups like Taiwanese American, Chinese American and Indian American who have high numbers of inventors and transnational entrepreneurs. These people are founders of enterprises in the USA and their country of origins and they create a interdependence of the US economy and the economies of Pacific Asia. These ethnic inventors and entrepreneurs have a tendency to cite one another in their papers and their patents.

    We have monthly remittance time series from the world bank that show us that remittances to China, Vietnam, India and Philippines since the 1970s that this foreign currency stream are significant for smoothing economic recessions and paying debts to the World Bank and the IMF. The remittances are invested in consumption, housing and education. The Asian American immigrants who remit money do not only are responsible for the educational success of their own children but also for better education outcomes of children in their country of origin, because they finance the education of children in their wider kinship group in the country of origin directly and they contributed to a better tax base with investments in the housing markets which leads to better revenues on real property tax for funding of local public goods like education.

    The Visting Friends and Family Tourism contributes to the foreign currency income of the country of origin. Many countries in Pacific Asia are debtor countries and they need reliable foreign currency income streams from immigrants remittances and diaspora tourism to upgrade their infrastructure, education system and to pay their debts. Tourism and remittances have a regional multiplicator for local employment. No such economic effect exists for inner minorities like Black Americans and Native Americans. So we want that poor Pacific Asian immigrant and US-born Americans get all the benefits from the US education system, because it contributes to transnational economic justice in the Pacific rim. Please do not forget that actually the riches and goods of Walmart are actually produced by female workers around the Pacific rim who are victims of the economic might of Walmart who dictates low prices and force them to work long hours. The remittances and Visiting Friends and Family Tourism help their state to provide them with public goods from the tax revenue out of this ressource streams. It is unfair to take away their share of public goods just because Black American and Native American want US citizenship priviledge without work contributions.

    We also need the optimum of all affirmative actions slots to educate future leaders for the Pacific century and avoid the horror of the 1st and the 2nd World Wars. We know from political science that Jewish American, Irish-American and Greek American use their ethnic vote to influence capital transfer, foreign aid and military aid in Europe during the Cold War. We must actively seize the roles of these Atlantic diasporas for the Pacific Asian diasporas for the containment of China and the containment of aggressive, unnecessary moves from the US military complex.

    The USA and their Pacific Asian allies are getting in a great power rivalry with China and Russia. But actually no single Pacific Asian ally have an interest in a great power war. We need responsible Pacific Asian politician to advocate a balanced view on military and economic rivalry and they should have an ethnic affinity to important US Pacific allies – this means they should be bi-cultural Japanese-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, Indian-Americans, Fillipino-Americans, Indonesian-Americans, South-Korean Americans and Taiwanese americans where the US military have bases. We do not give up any slots for ethnic groups like Irish-Americans, Jewish-americans, Greek Americans and Italian-Americans, because the Cold War in Europe is over and there are no war cloud in Europe anymore. So Asian America must get their share of political influence.

    We also have no political interest to give slots up for Native or Black Americans. Their US citizenship priviledge make them better of than the female workers of Pacific Asia who make their clothes, feed them and lend credit to them. From a standpoint of justice: ethical persons choose the rule that benefit the worst of Pacific Rim societies the most: these group are actually female workers in the sweatshops of Pacific Rim. So if we choose a rule to benefit the worst-off groups of Asian American who channel their economic and cultural capital through the migration corridors to benefit the worst-off group of female workers in Pacific Asia, we get a triple-dividend: fairness for the producer, fairness for women and fairness for race-discrimination.

    The BRICS Bank attacks the dominance of the Petrodollar system which give the USA an advantage and enable the low interest policy of the FED. The USA cannot finance their huge military without for very long. They must redistribute the burden of defense spending among their Pacific Asian allies. Because of the huge amount of cheap Chinese labour, this redistribution should be organized with a redistribution of technology, capital and skilled labour, so that the Pacific Asian allies get a tax base to finance greater share of defense spending. Only some groups of Asian America have significant amount of inventors and transnational entrepreneurs: Taiwanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans and Indian Americans to motivate the governments and venture capitalist firms to invest in their ventures. They are the only useful groups for the containment policy of China – who can make sure that China will rise peacefully. Scientific discourse needs social capital and friendships, we know that we need a threshold of scientific diaspora population size to get a high probability of patents and ventures. Too much diversity destroy the informal scientific discourse among associates.

    An analogical argument works also for Mexican-American. Mexican-American are a labour diaspora. The budget of an entire Mexican province Zacatecas are in a similar order of Mexican-American remittance volume. The remittance corridor of Mexican-American and Mexico city multiply the income of the poors and diminish the effect of buying of votes. Local politics become more democratic. Mexican-American are like Asian American a transnational minority. And you can expect that the US government/US corporation will relocate some of the manufacturing assets in South China to Mexico, because of the TPP free trade zone to moderate the rise of China. Similar cases are Dominican American, Cuban American…but they are actually of less interest from an economic and political standpoint to US pivot to Asia.

    It is very strange to lump Hispanic American who are a true transnational minority with inner minorities like Black and Native Americans together as if they share any important interest.

    The USA is still captured in a black-white binary. We can observe different coalitions between racial groups in the Southern border of the USA. Blacks have of course no interest in opening the border fro undocumented Mexican immigrants. They will join white racist discourse to prevent easier immigration from Mexico and they will oppose the naturalization of undocumented Mexican immigrants. Black leaders and Black poor fear the flooding of the inner cities with Mexican immigrants and the enhanced competition for jobs and housing. They have an incentive to use racism and xenophobic rhetorics in colation with whites to harm them even if they live as undocumented immigrants in the USA for years.

    Asian America cannot tolerate racist black-white coalition against a Hispanic transnational minorities, because we share similar concerns about undocumented immigrants in our communities: there are hundred thousands of them: Chinese, Indians, Vietnamese,…Chinese and Korean small business employ undocumented Mexican immigrants for years within their ethnic niche economies. We cannot exploit them further. They have children and kinships in the country of origins too.

    The US agroindustry expoits undocumented Mexican immigrants and saison workers for years to get cheap food. Only with the extreme exploitation of undocumented migrant Mexican farm workers it is possible to reduce wage-inflation and continue with the low wage policy that make local labour markets competitive in the US states. With the fall of the Petrodollar and the expansion of bilateral currency swaps in oil and gas trade without the USD. The Southern border of the USA will get more permeable to get the undocumented migrant farm workers in a cutting-throat competition to get cheaper food and a low wage inflation and low interest rates. Blacks and Native american will never help them even if they profit from the exploitation of undocumented Mexican migrant farm workers, but we have an incentive to help them. We know that the naturalization of undocumented Mexicans will spillover undocumented Asian immigrants and strengthen our voting bloc. Asian American and Hispanic American are already building coalitions in some towns against the black-white voting bloc. Of course Japanese Americans, Korean and Taiwanese Americans know that Japan, Taiwan and South Korea have incentives to relocate some manufacturing assets to Mexico to survive in the TPP free trade zone. We want to make sure that the Mexican American voting bloc have enough votes to influence the trade diplomacy of the USA towards Mexiko in coalition with a coalition with diasporas of Pacific Asian trading powers.

    Please think also of the concern of transport workers like the Filipino seafarers and Mexican truckers. Filipino seafarers send almost their entire income to their kinships in left-behind seafarer communities. Mexcian truckers deliver the goods from outsourced manufacturing plants in Mexico to the US. The US and Japanese maritime employers and trade fleets are known to oppress Filipino seafarers on ground of race disgust. The Pacific trade cannot work without these transport workers. If we help Blacks and Native Americans to get the slots of Filipino Americans and Mexican Americans or any other transnational minority, the remittance streams to Philippines will be more dependent on Filipino seafarers. The labour export strategy of the Philippines will get more aggressive and the Philippines authorities will be more motivated to turn a blind eye towards human and labour rights violation. The Philipines will also get an incentive to market Filipinas as nurse and export them to Western countries, Gulf countries, Japan, Hong Kong,…and they will export female housemaids that are basically house slaves. Why ? Because these measures diversify their remittance income and the Philippines are very dependent on remittance for their economic model. So you better do not speak in the name of all Asian American women.

    The port cities along the Western US shore are transformed into huge logistic complexes. The investment in port cities are necessary to outsource manufacturing plants to low-wage countries around the Pacific Rim. It is impossible to help poor blacks with affirmative action and labour market regulation. The US corporation will always relocate their plants to circumvent labour market regulations within the TPP free trade zone. And their run-away shop strategy are supported by tax incentives around the Pacific Rim and the combines Pension funds and life insurance contracts of the US workers and white collor occupations who provide the equity capital for outsourcing strategies. Black and Native American agenda are destined to fail.

    We also want to make sure that the black-white binary which dominates race relation belongs to the past – that means that we have an interest to support the rise of Hispanic America as the largest minority voting bloc, because this groups suffer ostracism in the black-white binary and share common concerns in domestic and foreign policy. Only Hispanic immigration can get big enough to prevent the GOP and the Democrats to use anti-immigration rhetorics which limit our political power. The high outmarriage rate of some Asian American groups diminish our voting power and we do not know how great the political loyalty of the HAPAS from white-Asian marriages are in reality. We must opt for naturalization of undocumented Asian immigrants to prevent identity and community politics from collapsing, but not for tribal reasons – it is for the best of all people in the Pacific Rim.

    Raced-based Affirmative Action only helps better-off blacks – because black middle class and black poors are lumped in the same group. Race-based affirmative action neglects the influences of the neighborhood, family type, minority population size and the institutional socialization of their parents in the education facilities of the US region or the migration sending region. It is always unfair to other groups.

    Actually market engineers give us a proof that affirmative action hurts everybody. See the work of Scott Kominers from a market engineering perspective on inequality in admission policy.

    Even if you are convinced that experimental economists have an narrow perspective, you can consult Gary Becker human capital investment theory in family. Or if he do not convince you, you can read George A. Akerlof and Rachel E. Kranton theory of identity economics that theorize the utility function of education investments of insider and outsider identities e.g. jocks, nerds, burners among students.

    Then you can read the natural experiments with housing voucher programs who try to isolate the effect of the neighborhood in education.

    Next you must read the stuff economists write about the internal labour market segmentation theory and the role of cultural capital and racism.

    Then you compare the results with immigrants from Diversity Visa lottery schemes around the world. There is a randomization of education level, migration sending region and occupation groups. It is a natural experiment. Immigrants are always better than racialized inner minorites regardless of self selection bias of immigration. They become even better if they migrate in a stable family union.

    If you want to help Black poor and Native American you must reconstruct the whole pipe of education production function. Establish a housing voucher program, construct an affordable housing market, change parental monitoring of education, change the school governance, change teacher identities, change student identities, change the labour market design and restrict competition from whites and immigrants. This program sounds very difficult for me if you only have a very loose minority coalition as pressure group. We must take away vast amount of other people income to make it work.

    Change alliance towards the various Hispanic groups with a preference for Mexican-Americans. If your combined voting bloc are great enough to prevent a election victory of the GOP or the Democrats without you – you are in a good position to demand administration positions in education, trade and fiscal matters. The administration staff survive the change of party majorities.

    If there are enough common interest between immigrants and poor blacks and Native Americans – you can start to change the agenda with your enhanced voices in the administration of education, trade, labour market regulation, fiscal and trade policy. But do not help black politician to implement their agendas. They are our temporary adversaries, because they oppose naturalization and their relative decline towards the role of the second largest minority and they have a stake in the upholding of the black-white binary.

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