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.

Now, to be sure, it is no small task to speak from liminality to multiple audiences and in multiple conversational contexts, be they mainstream, pan-AANHPI, intergenerational, inter-ethnic, or intra-ethnic. Still, the audience I speak of here bears distinct relevance because among Asian American opponents of affirmative action they are the most prominent and most organized.

Yes, I’m talking about ethnic Chinese, especially those dwelling in the more affluent cities of the San Gabriel Valley and Silicon Valley, hotbeds of anti-affirmative action organizing among huaren. And the elephant in the room? Fears that affirmative action might indeed not be in the interest of ethnic Chinese. (Bonus points if you guessed GOP politician Bob Huff!)[1]

To our detriment, proponents of affirmative action typically overlook or ignore these fears; rarely do we acknowledge them as the primary motivation for opposition to affirmative action. That must change. If we endeavor to do more than react to opposition, if we hope to proactively strengthen and sustain progressive AANHPI movements, we cannot shy away from this challenge.

To project whether or not affirmative action will in actuality be to the detriment of ethnic Chinese – in terms of college admissions – is a task beyond this piece. And such analysis will vary with each particular policy proposal. But whether it’s the Harvard lawsuit, or SCA5, or AB1726, at the heart of the matter is the worry that ethnic Chinese will be boxed out by affirmative action (or as one person put it, “become the sacrificial victims of multiculturalism”), a worry rooted in deeper fears so strong such that the outcomes of affirmative action, projected or actual, are reduced to minimal relevance.

For many ethnic Chinese Americans, the following is familiar: carefully chosen residence in well-funded, well-resourced school districts; hours upon hours within sterile SAT-prep walls, perfecting practice test bubbles; high-priced educational consultants to assist, not with developing self-awareness, but with manufacturing a personality pleasing to colleges of choice; volunteer hours invested in expertly curated portfolios with hopes of Ivy League returns. With affirmative action, they fear that the return on their investment will be less than what was promised.

But why such investments in the first place? In places like the San Gabriel Valley where “aspirationally named tutoring centers such as Little Harvard and Ivy League” abound, these investments are not so much about obtaining quality higher education as they are about admission to elite colleges and universities. Although affirmative action’s ethnic Chinese opponents often use the language of meritocracy, their obsession with elite institutions reveals some recognition that meritocracy is a myth, if diplomas from elite institutions are to safeguard against employment bias, and if lofty SAT scores are to allow entrance into these elite institutions when for others their last name is enough. Similarly, professions in fields such as medicine, law, and engineering – perceived to be more “objective” in nature – are believed to “shield” from discrimination.

In a sense, admission to elite schools validates the price of immigration. (And in some extreme cases, where parents give their children first names such as “Stanford” and “Princeton” – yes, this is a thing – it validates even more than that.) Many ethnic Chinese Americans are not very far removed from great instability: wars, colonialism, revolutions, regime changes, martial law, massacres. Given these transnational, intergenerational, and all-too-often unnamed traumas, it makes sense that entry into nothing short of “elite” institutions are anointed as immigrant rites for the security, stability, and salvation of generations to come.

When the anxieties run this deep, appeals to pan-AANHPI interest will not mollify – especially if more recent ethnic Chinese immigrants have little (if any) sense of pan-Asian American, much less pan-AANHPI, identity. The fierce opposition to data disaggregation makes this abundantly clear. And so we arrive at the quintessential question for those committed to coalitional and pan-AANHPI work: what happens when the interests of individual ethnic groups diverge?

When they occur (and they will occur), divergences must first be acknowledged; ignoring them won’t make the World Journal op-eds, the WeChat missives, or the angry phone calls to legislators go away. Rather, by being real about both the interest divergence and the deep anxieties of the opposition, progressive ethnic Chinese have an opportunity to pull at these threads to further unravel the creation myth of meritocracy.

As noted above, the overachievement needed to quell anxieties and grant stability lays bare the inherently inequitable nature of this society. Meanwhile, the divergence of interest – whether real or merely perceived – stems from differential material conditions and access produced by the interplay of hyper-selective immigration, racial hierarchies, coethnic networks, White flight, housing discrimination, residential segregation, ethnic Chinese banks, access to overseas capital, co-curricular infrastructure, and more. But so what? asks the ethnic Chinese American opponent to affirmative action. Even with the help of certain advantages, why should ethnic Chinese be penalized for having worked and struggled and sacrificed to create these optimal conditions?

In a society where the market is god, where interests are atomized, and where education is commodified, advocacy for affirmative action must reach even deeper, troubling the very hearts of opponents, moving the question beyond self-, coethnic-, and panethnic-interest, and to issues of collective morality. Affirmative action is not a whole solution for the great iniquity of educational inequity. But underlying this debate are fundamental questions about who we want to be, how we define success, and what kind of society we want to live in.

Can we envision living in a more just society, which, under current circumstances, necessarily means that the more advantaged will at times be asked to make sacrifices? Can we envision co-creating a society where those of us who hold particular advantages are willing to support a policy that might mean sacrificing admission to elite schools so that others can gain admission to good schools?

The aggrieved do not want to hear about how they hold advantages. This is not to suggest that ethnic Chinese, even the class-privileged, are free from any and all disadvantages. Nor is it to suggest that we possess White privilege. But we did not (and do not) enter innocent circumstances. Disparities in both public and private (e.g., district foundations) resourcing for K-12 schools are no accident. Through a policy arsenal consisting of housing discrimination, city incorporation, gerrymandering school attendance zones as well as district boundaries, not only is residential segregation, and therefore school segregation, upheld, but resources are also intentionally extracted away at great scale from schools made up predominantly of Black and/or Latinx students.

However, ethnic Chinese were not the ones who did this. And I would wager that many, if not most, of the anti-SCA5ers are unaware of just how insidious the origins of their Blue Ribbon schools are. Furthermore, entry into what are now well-established ethnoburbs was not gained without struggle.

So it might not be the responsibility of ethnic Chinese to undo all that hath been wrought. But can we envision being people who, even so, actively seek the flourishing of others, even when their interests don’t converge with ours? Even when it requires much of us? Even while we have struggles of our own?

Whether or not affirmative action is reinstituted, and regardless of its actual impact on ethnic Chinese, tutoring centers will continue to hawk their message of scarcity, telling parents that they need to enroll their children earlier and earlier. School foundations in the most affluent districts will continue to pass the plate around and scare parents into even larger donations by preaching of the damnation sure to come with the Local Control Funding Formula. The educational arms race will go on. (And from Palo Alto to San Marino, this is not without its own dire consequences.)

What if we broadened our definitions of success, our validations of immigration, beyond the institutions that adorn our resumes? What if we encouraged our students to develop holistically, not primarily to improve admission odds, but for its own sake? What if success meant co-creating a just society, rather than a relentless and narrow pursuit of individual status attainment?

At the same time, there is a certain privilege that affords one to ask the above questions. For class-disadvantaged ethnic Chinese, even those fortunate enough to attend top school districts, the educational arms race leaves them in the dust. When class-privileged ethnic Chinese voices are the loudest, students who were propelled to the top by a cadre of tutors and consultants get lumped in with students who climbed to similar academic heights, but who all the while played surrogate parent to their siblings, crewed the family small business, and worked hours after school to save for college. Because racism in the U.S. leaves little room for multidimensional understandings, the opposition to affirmative action signals to broader publics that ethnic Chinese no longer need affirmative action, thus further marginalizing class-disadvantaged ethnic Chinese.

The organizing in recent years around affirmative action and Peter Liang has been described as a “coming-of-age” of ethnic Chinese political power. But a better political maturation means a sober assessment of both the ways our communities are disadvantaged and the ways our communities are better established, of how differential access plays out within our own communities, of where our aspirations are situated in the midst of oppressive institutions and structures – in the U.S. and globally. It means developing moral-political visions that see the individual and ethnic selves in relation to others, and acting accordingly.

I opened with discussion of what might be unconvincing to affirmative action’s ethnic Chinese opponents. This, too, will be unconvincing to many. But these are grounds core to the debate. The logics we use in this debate are themselves political, with bearing on more than single issues. It is folly to think that interest-based appeals, though practical and necessary, are adequate to sustain racial justice movement building. Interests can intersect, but they also come to crossroads.

This debate is about much more than affirmative action. There’s a reason, after all, many of the same anti-affirmative action organizers were also behind pro-Peter Liang organizing (with some now leading Chinese Americans for Trump). Neither the logics of self-interest nor those of shared interest will do. This is a matter of naming, of calling on, of contesting, of shaping the moral imagination of ethnic Chinese communities. For the soul is at stake.

[1] There are many necessary and important points of discussion when it comes to AANHPIs and affirmative action. Here I specifically address the debate within/as it pertains to ethnic Chinese communities, with the acknowledgement that ethnic Chinese communities are not monolithic, and this analysis will at times inevitably overgeneralize.

Felix is a public policy graduate student who helps curate Critical Policy Blog and blogs intermittently at Broken Yellow Lines. His writing has previously appeared on Deadspin and Dime Magazine.

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