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:
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.
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.
Last year, California was poised to return affirmative action to the state’s institutions of higher education via a state constitutional amendment that would have reversed the devastating impact of the referendum, Proposition 209, which ended affirmative action in the state in the mid-1990’s and which had a devastating impact on underrepresented minority enrollment in California’s public university system for over a decade afterwards. The amendment to restore affirmative action in California would have passed with broad Black, Latino, and Asian American support if not for sudden, torrential political backlash emerging from within the state’s Chinese American community that in effect halted the amendment in its tracks.
This reaction was confounding in part because numerous surveys have now demonstrated that in general, more than two-thirds of the Asian American/Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander (AANHPI) community supports affirmative action in higher education and professional sectors. This support occurs largely for two reasons: 1) many within the AANHPI community are still underrepresented on this nation’s college campuses, and 2) most AANHPI recognize the positive benefits that campus diversity efforts have historically provided and continue to provide for all students.
Yet, conservative lobbyists lost no time last year to infiltrate the vocal minority of Asian Americans who still oppose affirmative action, and those lobbyists have organized a series of new legal efforts to end affirmative action: late last year, Edward Blum — the mastermind behind Abigail Fisher’s Supreme Court case challenging the constitutionality of affirmative action — found some willing Asian American faces to launch a new series of lawsuits. This Friday, a group of over 50 Asian American organizations (which in particular still remains unknown) will hold a press conference at The National Press Club to announce their intention to file an administrative complaint to the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice alleging that Harvard University’s admission policies discriminates against Asian Americans.
In their press release, this group claims that their scheduled complaint filing is “the largest action taken by Asian Americans for equal college admission rights in 20 years, joined by more than 50 Chinese, Indian, Korean and Pakistani organizations all over the nation”. This quote is disconcerting for a few reasons. First of all, it suggests that this group of Asian American anti-affirmative action activists presumes to speak for the entire Asian American community despite our demonstrated popular support for (not against) affirmative action; and second that it presumes to do so while failing to represent the voices of Southeast Asian Americans or our Native Hawaiian & Pacific Islander allies.
In the last 48 hours, over 120 (and counting) groups (update: now 135+) that serve the AANHPI community around the nation have come together — along with hundreds of impassioned individuals — in a massive coalition to pen an open letter supporting affirmative action in higher education. Representing a broad cross-section of AANHPI civil rights leaders, this group reflects the AANHPI’s dedication to higher education access for all, and the important role that affirmative action programs play in educational justice.
This is perhaps the most exciting and satisfying report of negative data I have ever read.
Opponents have long argued that existing surveys showing broad support for race-conscious affirmative action among AAPI have obscured disapproval of these policies based on how the questions were worded; earlier studies asked questions regarding affirmative action broadly based on wording used by the non-partisan Pew Research Group. Yunlei Yang of the Silicon Valley Chinese Association criticized this methodology when he wrote for the LA Times in his op-ed (“Asian Americans would lose out under affirmative action“), saying “I find the poll question misleading and Ramakrishnan’s reasoning deeply flawed.”
That criticism was echoed on BigWOWO, where blogger Byron Wong wrote, “If [the poll’s question wording] is not a loaded question, I don’t know what is.” Among his other concerns, Byron went on to advocate for an alternative question wording that limited scope to college admissions, saying:
The basic premise is that had a survey polled Asian American (or specifically Chinese American attitudes) on affirmative action in college admissions, and asking whether or not these policies hurt Asian American acceptance rates, the answer would reveal a resounding majority opposition to race-conscious affirmative action.
Not satisfied, it seems, to simply disprove these nay-sayers, the primary investigators of this year’s surveys on Asian American political opinions have now “clapped back” with an abundance of evidence that almost completely dismantles these (apparently baseless) criticisms.
The question of how Asian Americans are impacted by affirmative action was a major topic of discussion earlier this year with the fight over SCA-5, and has returned with the filing by conservative partisan Edward Blum’s two lawsuits against Harvard and University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill seeking to end affirmative action on the basis that it discriminates against Asian American applicants.
The problem with Blum’s assertions are that he argues that the vast majority of Asian Americans oppose affirmative action (not true), and that all Asian Americans are currently directly disadvantaged by affirmative action policies (also not true). This latter point merits additional consideration: whereas Blum’s lawsuit treats Asian Americans as a monolithic group of high-achievers, the reality is that the AAPI community includes a broad range of Asian and Pacific Islander ethnic groups spanning a spectrum of income and educational opportunities. Yet, the specific needs of these (predominantly non-East Asian) ethnic groups are typically ignored by anti-affirmative action groups.
It is pretty much settled fact that well-represented Asian American students enjoyed high admission and enrollment rates at public universities such as the University of California (UC) system under race-conscious affirmative action, and that these admission and enrollment rates remained largely stable for most of the time after its abolishment; these data indicate that in the aggregate, race-conscious affirmative action hasn’t really impacted Asian American admission at the University of California. At elite schools such as Harvard University, Asian Americans are similarly well-represented at nearly four times our national demographic percentage — a fact that is included in Blum’s lawsuit as well as in many other sources.
However, is there an effect of affirmative action when Asian Americans are disaggregated by ethnic group? Specifically, does race-conscious affirmative action produce an observable benefit to Southeast Asian American enrollment for example? Conversely, does the absence of race-conscious affirmative action hurt Southeast Asian American applicants?
Since 2001, Reappropriate has been the web's foremost Asian American activism, identity, feminism, and pop culture blog!