Asian Americans Must Reject Being Used as a Wedge by Those Who Oppose Affirmative Action


Last Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for over an hour with regards to Fisher II, the second hearing of the anti-affirmative action case that centers around the plight of Abigail Fisher, a White woman who applied for admission to the University of Texas in 2008, and was rejected. (Incidentally, I am a co-signer of an amicus brief submitted to the Court in Fisher II in support of race-conscious affirmative action.)

The University of Texas employs a so-called “Top Ten Percent Plan”, wherein the school automatically admits students from each of the state’s high schools who score within the top ten percent of their graduating class. The remainder of available slots are filled through a holistic review process that includes race as one of several characteristics used to assess applicants. Fisher — whose high school grades were insufficient to yield her automatic acceptance to the University of Texas — contends that she was rejected under holistic review because she is White and therefore that the University of Texas violated her 14th Amendment rights. However, independent review of her application and the characteristics of other applicants in 2008 demonstrate that Fisher’s application package was weak in comparison to others in her year, and that her rejection likely had nothing to do with the colour of her skin.

Fisher is not the only plaintiff to transform angst over rejection from the school of one’s choice (despite what is perceived to be a strong application package) into a racial entitlement complex: a minority of Asian American applicants also oppose affirmative action. In 2006, Princeton hopeful Jian Li filed a complaint when he was rejected from Princeton; like Fisher, Li’s rejection had nothing to do with race, and was based entirely on a relatively mediocre applicant package compared to other applicants in his year. Some Asian Americans have even gone so far as to join a second anti-affirmative action lawsuit filed by Edward Blum — the conservative lobbyist behind the Fisher case — contesting that race-conscious affirmative action hurts the Asian American community. (This is not a position held by the vast majority of Asian Americans; most agree that race-conscious affirmative action is not harmful to Asian American college applicants.)

Nonetheless, conservatives are unabashed about their exploitation of the Asian American community in service of the anti-affirmative action agenda. Despite our community’s strong overall support for affirmative action, (White) conservatives are quick to use Asian Americans as the classic wedge minority to underscore the achievement gap between the Asian American “model minority” and those whom Model Minority Myth architect William Petersen pejoratively labeled in 1966 as so-called “problem minorities“.

Meanwhile, Asian Americans are also invoked by conservatives as shield against charges of racism: how could efforts to dismantle affirmative action be racist, they ask, if they portray themselves as champions of a racial minority? Of course, this is useful for conservative partisans because anti-affirmative action rhetoric manages to be shockingly racist. A popular canard for conservatives is a new pseudo-scientific theory called “Mismatch Theory” which purports to argue that race-conscious affirmative action places underqualified Black students into schools too advanced for them. Instead, Mismatch Theory argues that minority students would be better off going to what Supreme Court Judge Antonin Scalia called last week “less-advanced” or “slower-tracked” schools. Not only  is this an appalling repackaging of racist Bell Curve Theory, but Mismatch Theory’s key “research” has been debunked by the vast majority of scientists who have independently examined its findings. Mismatch theory is the higher education equivalent of climate change denial.

Nonetheless, conservatives have taken to positioning themselves as the champions of collective “Whites and Asians” in their vengeful attacks on race-conscious affirmative action. This is no more evident than in a recent Intelligence Squared – U.S. debate featuring conservatives Roger Clegg (president and general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank that opposes affirmative action) and Stuart Taylor, Jr. (author of Mismatch) arguing that race-conscious affirmative action violates the 14th Amendment. Debating opposite them was Deborah Archer (Director of the Racial Justice Project and professor at New York Law School) and Erwin Chemerinsky (Dean at UC Irvine School of Law). I had the opportunity to listen to this debate (and about six other IQ2 episodes) during an exceptionally long drive from Toronto last night.

What becomes clear upon listening to conservatives try to frame their attacks on affirmative action as philanthropy for the Asian American community is how much of a pretense this moral outrage truly is: when pressed upon the issue of protecting Asian Americans, conservatives fall apart. In fact, it quickly becomes clear that conservative anti-affirmative action activists know almost nothing about the Asian Americans whose interests they claim to want to defend. In the IQ2 debate, Clegg and Taylor seem genuinely befuddled — and then angry — to learn that the Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander community is not a monolithic whole of high-achieving students. They are dismayed when confronted by Archer with the inconvenient facts: that the vast majority of Southeast Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander groups do not demonstrate the same performance in high-stakes testing as some East and South Asian American groups; that these groups are underrepresented in higher education; and, that the elimination of race-conscious affirmative action by Proposition 209 in the mid 1990’s has demonstrated no significant increase in the enrollment of Asian Americans in the California public university system. I would add to Archer’s effective treatment of this issue that Asian Americans (of all ethnicities) have historically been direct beneficiaries of additional consideration under race-conscious affirmative action in higher education, and remain so in professional settings. Finally, I would point readers to a recent article in the New York Times documenting the tangible benefits of a racial diversity on cognition. Affirmative action helps Asian American students because a diverse classroom improves learning and education for all students.

The simple fact is this: conservatives pretend to care about Asian American interests in affirmative action, but they only do so as long as Asian Americans compliantly enact our role as the “model minority” in their anti-affirmative action framing. When we reject this characterization of ourselves as their obedient wedge — because, y’know, we’re not and won’t be made out to be anyone’s model minority — the conservative arguments fall apart. Early in the debate, Clegg and Taylor make sweeping reference to “Asians” as natural allies to Whites on the issue of affirmative action. When challenged with a more authentic portrait of the AANHPI community that dismantles this broad model minority stereotyping, Clegg and Taylor make a series of largely incoherent sputterings, and then essentially cease to refer to Asian Americans throughout the remainder of the debate.

The simple fact is this: conservative attacks on affirmative action are about shutting off access to elite institutions of higher education for underrepresented minorities. Right now, conservatives focus on two models: a pure meritocracy based only on high-stakes testing, or holistic review limited to socioeconomic status; both approaches would effectively eliminate racial diversity in future freshmen classes. Some Asian Americans favour these models because they earnestly believe that equal access to higher education for Asian Americans requires the exclusion of other racial groups. However, we must not allow ourselves to be misled into thinking that an anti-affirmative action campaign launched by White conservatives seeks to expand higher education access for Asians: a study showed a few years back that White adults who support a purely meritorious system adjust their definitions of merit to limit Asian American access (creating what we would call “negative action”, not to be confused with affirmative action) when they are preemptively reminded of the Asian American community. Right now, we are talking about closing off higher education access for non-Asian people of colour. When they come for us, there will no longer be anyone left to speak out.

There are ample reasons for Asian Americans to support affirmative action at such high rates as we do. Our community has benefited from race-conscious affirmative action in the past. Moreover, we continue to do so: whether we are part of ethnic groups that receive additional consideration or not, all of our students benefit from the racial diversity that can only be created by small, non-determinative awareness of applicant race during holistic review.

The stakes for Asian Americans could not be higher. I have blogged at the intersection of the AANHPI community and higher education access for years now, and I have never been more pessimistic about affirmative action’s chances before the Supreme Court than I am right now. I believe that the Supreme Court is poised to eliminate race-conscious affirmative action in their decision on Fisher II.

I also believe that this will be a wrong-headed decision that will only serve to do the same thing to this nation’s universities as has already occurred in California: Black, Latino, Native American, Southeast Asian American and Pacific Islander students enrollment will drop dramatically, while White student enrollment will increase and there will be no measurable impact on East and South Asian American students. The vast majority of the nation’s students of colour will be silo’d away from our flagship schools, while all students attending our elite academic institutions will lose preparation for entry into our increasingly multicultural world. In a nation that still bears the scars of slavery, Jim Crow, and residential redlining, this will only serve to re-institutionalize a system of separate and unequal schooling for our nation’s Black and other non-White students.

How could some within the Asian American community enthusiastically promote our own political exploitation and reinforce our status as the Right’s favourite model minority in service of this racially dystopic and unjust vision of the future?

Those who oppose affirmative action say they are fighting to create equality. This is not what equality looks like to me.

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