Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (#AAPI) Writing in Support of Affirmative Action | #NotYourWedge #AAPIforAffAction

This post was first published in November 2014. However, with resurgent interest in affirmative action and the Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) community, I have republished this post updated for 2017.

In 2014, two lawsuits were filed by conservative anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum hoping to challenge affirmative action policies by framing the debate around purported anti-Asian bias in selective universities’ admissions policies. In 2017, a memo leaked by the Department of Justice suggests that a major priority of the Trump administration will be to target colleges who use race-conscious affirmative action in their admissions policies, with conservative supporters specifically citing affirmative action’s allegedly negative effects on Asian American applicants.

Thus, the AAPI community finds ourselves once again thrust into the spotlight in the national affirmative action debate. Opponents of affirmative action suggest that these latest legal efforts are on behalf of the AAPI community. They suggest that most AAPIs are against race-conscious affirmative action, yet several studies reveal that more than 65% of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders support affirmative action, both in professional and academic settings.

It’s important that we accurately represent the political opinions of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on this issue. Specifically, we must render our community’s support for affirmative action visible.

In 2014, I aggregated a list of AAPI groups and writing in support of affirmative action. I have replicated and modified that list in this post, and will update it over the next several months with additional writing from around the internet.

Please feel free to link to this post as a resource regarding the attitudes of AAPI on affirmative action in the upcoming national debate on this issue. The abundance of this writing demonstrate clearly that while affirmative action is a polarizing topic within the AAPI community, there is strong and vocal support for race-conscious affirmative action in our community that deserves visibility.


Last updated: August 6, 2017

Non-Profit Organizations and Advocacy Groups

Blog Posts, Op-Eds & Other Writing
Posts are presented in roughly chronological order. For most recent writing, including writing published in 2017, scroll to the bottom.

[M]ost Asian American civil rights and community service organizations maintain that affirmative action is an important way to ensure equity and diversity in higher education, including among disadvantaged Pacific Islanders and Asian groups such as Cambodians and Laotians.

SCA 5 would make a small difference to highly represented student populations like Chinese Americans, but it would make a big difference to improve college access for other highly qualified but underrepresented students such as Hmong, Cambodians, Laotian, Samoans, African Americans, and Latinos among others. Not only would underrepresented Asian American and Pacific Islander students directly benefit from SCA 5, all Asian American students benefit from more diverse campus learning environments.

The benefit of broad public investment on communities of color will be magnified by affirmative action, and should therefore not be won at it’s expense.

SCA5 is an attempt to rectify the negative effect that prop 209 had on minority enrollment in California’s public colleges and universities by allowing race to be considered as one of many factors in admissions decisions. Such admissions policies are in place in many states across the country, and do not involve the imposition of quotas which were determined to be unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in the Regents of University of California v. Bakke decision of 1978.

[U]ntil I see Asians rallying with equal fervency against the unfairness of impoverished schools, the many Latino and black kids in underperforming school districts, living in areas of violence, drugs, broken families, and hardship, which, unsurprisingly, leads to it being much more difficult to do well in school (especially if you may be the first kid in your family to go to college), I am going to vote Yes on SCA5.

Affirmative action is more than desirable — it is essential to efforts to combat social inequality. It is a positive and proscriptive, if only partial, solution to toxic social inequalities that would otherwise continue to ossify. It’s time that California put itself back on a path toward social equity.

Ironically, many of the Asian Americans against SCA 5 are in the scientific community, where they see discrimination based on race or accent every day at their labs. For them, the remedy has been simple. They have always relied on working hard, scoring the highest in exams, and displaying their credentials to prove their worth and become successful.

It’s what they know, and it can make sense in some contexts. In a true meritocracy, maybe it should.

But even they know, it doesn’t always work in fighting the racism that people of color still face in America.

For true equity and fairness, SCA 5 and the repeal of Prop. 209 makes sense for all.

The debate over affirmative action raises unique considerations for Asian Americans.  While research has shown that a substantial majority of Asian Americans support affirmative action, some vocal opponents of SCA5 have claimed the bill would have dramatic negative consequences for Asian Americans applicants.  These claims are unfounded.  Speaking both as a law professor who has taught in the UC school system and as a proud Asian American, I believe that Asian Americans should support SCA5 in the California legislature and affirmative action in higher education nationwide. Here are ten reasons:

While I don’t agree with the protests against SCA 5, I do appreciate the fact that so many Asian parents are getting involved politically, signing petitions and voicing their opinions to their elected officials. Your pressure on Asian American State Senators caused them to withdraw their support of the bill, effectively preventing SCA 5 from going to the ballot this November. Perhaps your taste of participatory democracy will help you see that Asian America doesn’t just need engineers and doctors, but also elected leaders, journalists, and organizers. Take some time to learn about the history of Asian America and the leaders who have paved the way for us. Do your research, especially when it comes to matters of law and government. And most importantly, accept your children’s God-given talents and encourage them to flourish in their areas of interest.

While the student body need not be an exact mirror of the state’s population, as a state, we need to do a better job of educating students from underrepresented communities while ensuring that all communities feel heard and respected. Even within the Asian Pacific Islander American community, we need to be doing a better job of providing representation for Pacific Islanders and Southeast Asians in higher education. At UC Berkeley, the rate of admission of Pacific Islanders is even lower than the rate for underrepresented ethnicities as a whole.7

…Some might say that I am arguing against my own self-interest.  But I–an Asian American of Chinese and Korean descent and a son of the great state of California–am actually a beneficiary of the type of community that can be built by measures like SCA5. I am one of the lucky ones. Unfortunately, thanks to the California assembly, students at our public universities can’t say the same.

But this “hardworking immigrants” narrative is only a small part of the story. The opportunities my parents and I had were only possible because of the long fight for civil rights and political recognition led by black Americans. The university doors that I so easily walked through in 1995 were opened by civil rights activists who demanded access for all Americans, not just their own group. Yet many of the anti-affirmative action activists in the Asian-American community seem to have forgotten this important history.

There is a more important reason that Asian-Americans should support affirmative action: basic justice. In surveys, blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans report the same levels of expectation for graduating from college. Blacks and Latinos also invest as much in and value education at the same levels as Asian-Americans, once one controls for differential resources, such as income.

[R]acial diversity is necessary in higher education to create a healthy educational environment for ALL students. Affirmative Action IS NOT a quota system, and it will NOT let in more “underqualified” students. That’s crap. No school will admit any student that is not qualified for that specific school.

Affirmative Action will bring opportunity to the many that are just as qualified to have a rightful place in the UC system. Under-representation is the cold truth of the UC system right now, for blacks, Latinos, Native Americans, and yes, even for South Asians and Southeast Asians.

To all the AAPI against SCA5: The nature of the discourse is disappointing. SCA5 will NOT limit the success of Asian Americans in higher education, and it will NOT set a “quota” on AAPI admissions. Equal opportunity for all races in higher education is just and fair.

The white dominated reality of 21st century America requires people of color, including Asian Americans, to stand up for each other. I have been heartened by the many conversations and activists across the country that I’ve met over Twitter on these divisive issues, and the strength they show to stand in solidarity with one another.

Now, this solidarity needs to expand. Asian America can no longer afford to be quiet, and as recent developments have shown, we do have the force to invoke change when we stand up. We just need to stand up for the right reasons now to be on the right side of history.

This Article argues that although there are many real issues that result from the dramatically changing demographics of the country, the dilemma of Asian Americans and affirmative action should be understood as an issue which has been manufactured for political

If you couldn’t already tell from my last name, I’m Asian-American. During the admissions process, I didn’t exactly feel that my race helped me gain my acceptance letters. But do I think that abandoning affirmative action — that “forgetting” about race in the application process — is the route colleges ought to take? In short, no.

The model minority myth, perpetuated by this lawsuit, is among the latest weapons being deployed against Black and Latina/o students.

So how to address the problem – certainly not by throwing rocks at each other, perhaps in frustration over the misdirection of Fisher, but by coming together to discuss the issues, mediate our differences, and go forward on a critical issue for aspiring Asian American and indeed all students in the nation.

What [Edward Blum’s] lawsuit is really is just the latest attempt to derail an apparatus that has given hundreds of thousands of blacks, Hispanics and, yes, Asians a means to climb out of circumstances defined by our society’s historical racism.

As Asian-identified students attending UNC, we believe this lawsuit is misguided and ignores the importance of addressing racial inequalities and histories of discrimination in the United States, especially in the South. Although the current system isn’t perfect, education cannot remain a tool to continue elite and privileged white domination.

As a public institution, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill has a duty to reflect education toward state demographics — especially within a campus where Asian-Americans are over-represented at 15 percent of the class of 2018. We cannot ignore almost one-third of the state’s population who identifies as African-American or Latina/o. 

Though the lawsuit seems to fight affirmative action, it entirely lacks reasoning in the first place. Harvard University is a private educational institute that does not take public money as major funding source. Getting into Harvard requires applicants to meet some commonly agreed upon criteria, but they should realize that meeting those criteria, such as test scores and perfect GPAs, does not guarantee admission. Many colleges specify a variety of admission requirements but none of them openly says applicants will be admitted if they meet some or all of the requirements. The right of admission should be entirely reserved to colleges themselves, especially private colleges.

…I do not intend to take any stand on affirmative action, nor do I lecture colleges to conduct some specific admission requirements. I defend the rights reserved to colleges in terms of determining their own admission criteria and preferences.

[I]t’s far from clear whether the success of [Edward Blum’s] lawsuit would benefit Asian Americans. We have always been typecast as interchangeable, blank-faced robots, a stereotype that in my view will only get worse if we don’t strive to compete on the “holistic” scale. What is clear is that the legal challenge doesn’t reflect the wishes of the Asian American community.

A sizable number of Asian Americans feel that affirmative action, in college admissions or elsewhere, has hurt them personally. Still, as Asian American columnist and Harvard alum Jeff Yang points out in a recent column, a supermajority of Asian Americans, 69 percent, support affirmative action. So on whose behalf is the lawsuit being filed? Not the vast proportion of Asian Americans.

Despite the stories of disgruntled Asian Americans documented in the Harvard lawsuit, polling dataindicate that the majority of Asian Americans support affirmative action. Numerous studies also document that Asian American college students benefit from engaging with racial diversity during the college years, which prepares Asian American — and all — college students to compete in a global economy. These stories are heard less in the affirmative action battle, but they are no less important.

[T]he public has a very narrow view of what counts as an “excellent” college, often dictated by various national rankings, which artificially inflates the reputation of and rejection rates for a small set of institutions. By being among the most enthusiastic contributors to such market driven demands, as Asian Americans are already overrepresented at elite  institutions, we help sustain an educational industry that thrives on exclusion.

After all, approximately 1,800 Asian Americans are enrolled in undergraduate studies at Harvard whereas over 200,000 Asian Americans are enrolled in community colleges in California alone. Even if we doubled the enrollment of Asian Americans on each of the eight Ivy League campuses, they would still only serve a small fraction of Asian American students compared to community colleges that serve approximately 40 percent of all Asian American undergraduates enrolled in US higher education. In the long run, addressing issues such as high school drop-out, access to financial aid, community college transfer, or remedial education — which directly affect a greater number of Asian American families — will have a more positive and lasting societal impact.

I wouldn’t be an English professor today were it not for affirmative action… Far from being racist, the rationale for affirmative action is, in fact, antiracist. According to law professor Cheryl Harris, affirmative action has been the only institutional intervention against the entitlements historically derived from white identity.

Trying to pit Asian-Americans against American Indian, African-American, and Latino students is a divide-and-conquer tactic that is as old as the racial preferences that UNC participated in from its founding to the last decades of the 20th century when African-Americans were barred from attending Carolina. These are the racial preferences that have literally colored UNC for most of its life as a public state school.

Race-conscious affirmative action was first created to address the impact of systemic racism on all minorities—including Asian Americans—by removing barriers that stymie access to tools of upward mobility. For the last fifty years, affirmative action has directly benefitted Asian Americans, including the highly-educated East Asian community that includes many who currently oppose these programs. In the late 1900s, policies that would be described as affirmative action by today’s standards welcomed Chinese American students to many of the country’s predominantly white elite college campuses. Today, affirmative action continues to open doors for all Asian Americans (and other minorities) into spaces where we remain underrepresented, such as in academic graduate programs and in the workforce.

Americans of Asian heritage are no different than other Americans in wishing to live in a country where educational and work opportunities are open to all, not just a select few. The chances of making it to Harvard, becoming a university president, or having a seat on a corporate board are already slim and unequal at the starting gate. If we chuck affirmative action policies out the window, as the Asian-American plaintiffs would like, we are only narrowing the chances even further for nearly all Americans. And Asian-Americans who complain about racial bias and discrimination in schools will find that they have shot themselves in the foot when they confront bias, discrimination, and the bamboo ceiling in the workplace.

Asian Americans are not your wedge. We support equal opportunity in higher education. We support affirmative action as a mechanism to accomplish that goal. And in the ongoing battle over Harvard’s admissions policies, we hope that communities of color can come together to make their voices heard on this campus.

Given the many ways that affirmative action benefits Asian American students and their communities, we should see conservative solicitude for Asian Americans “harmed” by affirmative action as strategic rather than genuine. Conservative opponents of affirmative action have not, generally speaking, taken an interest in other issues that affect Asian American welfare in unique ways, ranging from employment discrimination to health care to immigration.

So why the conservative concern when it comes to affirmative action? The answer is that Asian Americans provide a convenient tool for opponents of affirmative action.  By framing opposition to affirmative action as concern for Asian Americans, opponents of affirmative action can protect the existing racial hierarchy — with white people at the top — while disguising their efforts as race-neutral rather than racially motivated.

The insertion of perceived “white discrimination” into Asian American perspectives on college admissions by people who are not Asian American is an attempt to use our struggles against racist national contexts to promote the very structures that have disempowered us.

Affirmative action opened the door to higher education for the pan-Asian community in the aftermath of the Chinese Exclusion Act—which was in force from 1882 to 1943—and Japanese American internment during World War II, at a time when systemic racism barred our grandparents and parents from accessing a better life for themselves. Now more than ever, when 12% of Asian Americans in the U.S. live in poverty and more than a quarter of Asian New Yorkers live below the poverty line, we must remember that our community as a whole made advances through affirmative action programs. Most of us have succeeded because of admissions policies that took our race, class, and unique experiences as immigrants and children of immigrants into consideration.

For that reason and especially during this challenging time, we must keep the doors of opportunity open for those who need a little more help to achieve their goals, as well as for the generations to come.

Concern about racial discrimination is understandable, but opposing race-conscious affirmative action overlooks past and present challenges that communities of color—including Asian Americans—face in higher education. It ignores the way Asian Americans benefited from affirmative action 50 years ago and how they continue to benefit from racial and ethnic diversity on campuses.

The US population is shifting to be more racially and ethnically diverse. A decline in white applicant admissions and an increase in students of color might be more of a demographic change than antiwhite discrimination.

Asian Americans should focus on elevating their voice to improve and shape education policy in a way that acknowledges and addresses systemic inequalities not just for themselves, but for all minorities.

Asian Americans should fight to end racial discrimination to benefit all Americans, including Asian Americans — but ending affirmative action will only work against us.

When white students cry out “discrimination” during conversations about affirmative action, they are complaining about a system that is almost always stacked in their favor. And Asian-Americans who support their claims are legitimizing a false narrative that ignores the unique challenges black and Latino students face in the American educational system.

In the end, being a minority in America is about more than just fighting for your own visibility– it’s about supporting the rights of other minority groups as well. We must stop labeling affirmative action as an attack on Asian-Americans, and instead recognize that it provides educational opportunities to those who need it the most.

Civil rights opened the door for Asian-Americans. Affirmative action ensured that that door was propped open wide enough for us to be represented in substantial numbers. And yet, now that many Asian-Americans — but far from all — no longer need it to be fairly represented on college campuses, nearly half of us are willing to see it go away.

As Asian-American scholars who support both holistic admissions and affirmative action, we assert that many Asian-Americans have been helped by affirmative action policies in higher education. In fact, may Asian-Americans could benefit from affirmative action after college, where they often face what’s known as the bamboo ceiling, which impedes their growth in corporate America.

These policies are needed.

Not all Asian-Americans have the socioeconomic advantages needed to compete in higher education. Holistic admissions and affirmative action protect the interests of underrepresented Asian-Americans’ access to a college degree.

There is something very odd about recruiting and handpicking Asian Americans to be the newest pawns in the affirmative action battle. Asian Americans don’t often receive the limelight, and I simply cannot imagine this is the way the majority of Asian Americans want to be viewed.

Community Leaders

  • Henry Der, former Deputy Superintendent of Public Instruction and former Chair of the California Postsecondary Education Commission – reported here
  • Judy Ki, Commissioner, California Commission on Asian Pacific Islander American Affairs – reported here

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