From Self-Interest to Collective Morality: How We Must Reframe the Discussion on Affirmative Action in the Asian American Community

San Gabriel Councilman Chin Ho Liao speaks against SCA?5 at a protest. (Photo credit: Pasadena Star-News)
San Gabriel Councilman Chin Ho Liao discusses SCA5, a California bill that would have reinstituted race-conscious affirmative action in the state, at an anti-affirmative action protest. (Photo credit: Pasadena Star-News)

By Guest Contributor: Felix Huang (@Brkn_Yllw_Lns)

When the matter comes under contest, affirmative action’s Asian American advocates readily point to disparities in higher education access for particular Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. According to a 2015 report on AANHPI higher education in California:

  • Filipinx, Thai, Laotian, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander students are admitted into the University of California (UC) system at rates significantly lower than the general admit rate.
  • Filipinxs, Native Hawaiians, Samoans, Guamanians/Chamorros, and Fijians are, relative to their overall population, underrepresented in the UC system.
  • Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong, Guamanian/Chamorro, Samoan, and Laotian adult individuals (25 years and older) possess bachelor degrees (or higher) at rates lower than the overall state average of 31%.

The importance of noting these disparities cannot be overstated. However, to one particular Asian American audience, this may be thoroughly unconvincing. Persuasive as they might be to a broader audience, the typical pro-affirmative action argument from AANHPI advocacy groups fails to persuade some Asian Americans who oppose affirmative action because they leave an elephant in the room unaddressed.

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California’s Proposed Bill to Disaggregate AAPI Data Significantly Weakened in New Amendments

Attendees at a recent rally in support of AB1726, a data disaggregation scheduled to reach the CA Senate floor soon. (Photo Credit: @DiverseElders / Twitter )
Attendees at a recent rally in support of AB1726, a data disaggregation scheduled to reach the CA Senate floor soon. (Photo Credit: @DiverseElders / Twitter )

After months of increasingly vitriolic debate that divided the AAPI community, California Assembly Bill 1726 (AB1726) was significantly amended on Friday. In its original version, AB1726 was the culmination of years of lobbying work by California’s AAPI advocacy community, and it would have put in place measures to disaggregate healthcare and higher education data to reveal disparities faced by Southeast Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in the state. Using the same ethnic options offered by the National Census, AB1726 would have expanded the ethnic self-identification choices offered in demographic studies conducted by state departments related to healthcare and higher education.

Last year, AB1726’s predecessor, Assembly Bill 176, passed the California Legislature with near unanimous bipartisan support and the backing of several local California advocacy groups, only to be vetoed by Governor Jerry Brown. This cycle’s AB1726 was expected to pass the Legislature with similarly minimal resistance, until it faced inexplicably intense backlash from grassroots Chinese American groups that had originally organized around SCA-5 (and protests against Jimmy Kimmel) in the state. What emerged was a vocal, deeply inflammatory, arguably paranoid resistance to AB1726, wherein opponents suggested while the bill was still in Committees that it would create a “backdoor” to reinstitute race-conscius affirmative action in the state.

How a data collection bill designed was supposed to circumvent California state law prohibiting race-conscious affirmative action in higher education remains unclear to me.

Yet, no one can deny this grassroots conservative Chinese American movement’s growing clout.

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We Cannot Disregard Data: How Opposition to Data Disaggregation Hurts AAPI

Protesters rally behind #AllCACounts (Photo Credit: SEARAC)
Protesters rally behind #AllCACounts (Photo Credit: SEARAC)

In California, a battle over data disaggregation has reached a fevered pitch.

Earlier this year, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) advocates worked tirelessly in conjunction with state legislators to draft and advance Assembly Bill 1726 (AB1726, nicknamed “The AHEAD Act”), which would disaggregate healthcare and higher education data pertaining to the AAPI community using the same guidelines as the federal Census Bureau. AB1726 is the second effort to pass such a law in the state of California; Governor Jerry Brown vetoed an earlier data disaggregation bill passed with near unanimous support in 2015.

In April, I wrote about why we need data disaggregation. I noted the broad diversity of the AAPI community that creates vastly unequal access to services such as education and healthcare for many specific AAPI ethnic groups. Yet, those ethnicity-specific inequities are often lost by state and federal data collection systems that treat AAPIs as an ethnically homogenous group. That invisibility, in turn, protects and preserves structural injustices faced by many AAPIs. Data disaggregation is not just an important issue; it is one of the core civil rights issues facing AAPIs today.

As far as I’m concerned, it’s a “no brainer” for AAPI advocates to support data disaggregation. Previous efforts to disaggregate AAPI demographic data — including, most notably, successful efforts to disaggregate Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in Census data as a separate racial category  — have yielded a plethora of valuable data concerning these communities. Activists have subsequently mobilized to develop programs specifically focused on the NH/PI community. For a community long damaged by our invisibility, AAPI must agree: efforts to improve data collection around the AAPI community are a good thing.

So, how can one possibly oppose The AHEAD Act?

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150+ AAPI Civil Rights Organizations Join National Open Letter in Support of Affirmative Action

affirmative-action-meme2

Less than one week after an Asian American group (comprised of predominantly Chinese American organizations) announced that they had filed a complaint to the Department of Education against Yale University, Brown University and Dartmouth College alleging anti-Asian bias in the school’s admissions policies, the national AAPI civil rights community has responded with a clear message: these conservative Chinese American opponents of affirmative action do not speak for all us.

Today, over 150 of the nation’s AAPI civil rights organizations came together in an open letter of support for the continuation of race-conscious affirmative action. In recognition of the critical role that race-sensitive admissions has played — and continues to play — in creating access to higher education for underrepresented groups, our community’s civil rights institution has reaffirmed our unwavering defense for classroom diversity and education access for all.

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How a Yale Prof’s Defense of Offensive Halloween Costumes Reveals a Hostile Campus Climate for Students of Colour

Yale Law School (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Yale Law School (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This country’s prestigious colleges and universities have a serious race problem.

At the University of Missouri, student athletes have walked off the sports field in solidarity with other students of colour protesting numerous racially intolerant incidents, including Black students enduring racial slurs on the streets and a residence hall being defaced with feces in the shape of a swastika. At UCLA, a student was photographed attending a Halloween party in Blackface, only the latest of such incidents that occur annually. Multiple lawsuits alleging North Carolina Central University, University of Illinois, and St. Mary’s College created racially discriminatory environments for faculty and students of colour. University of Oklahoma Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) members were videotaped in March singing one of the frat’s traditional songs that describes a lynching, and SAE frat members reportedly subjected a Black student to racist slurs at Duke University.

At Yale University, SAE members threw a “Whites Only” party last week with students reporting on social media that a person posted at the door of the party turned away visibly minority Black and Latino students, as well as someone rejected as “gay”, and openly said the party was only admitting “White girls”. Just days later, Professor Erika Christakis (wife of the Master of Silliman College) emailed Silliman residents with a jaw-droppingly tone deaf defense of offensive Halloween costumes. In her digital screed, Christakis lamented university “censure” of racist behavior, and argued that Halloween should be a time when offensive transgressions should be celebrated. She questioned if it was really “appropriative” for a White child to engage in racial cross-dressing as Mulan (yes), and if she was engaging in fetishism when she purchased a sari — because it was “beautiful” — on her last trip to Bangladesh (also, yes).

In a head-spinning display of White privilege, Christakis wrote: “Am I fetishizing and appropriating other people’s cultural experiences? Probably. But I really like them, too.”

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