Asian Americans and the Legacy of Antiblackness

Can racial minorities be racist against other racial minorities? While this question has largely been debated in semantic terms, resting on the fact that racism, which defines race as a power structure, means that racial minorities can be prejudiced against each other but not racist. However there is without a doubt that certain racial minorities have perpetuated and benefited off of the racist power structures that oppress other racial minorities. The racialization of minorities in America is often seen as binary. However there are ways in which race, privilege, and hierarchy are not consistent across the experiences of different racial and ethnic groups. There is no more poignant example of this complexity than in the case against Affirmative Action in Harvard undergraduate admissions undertaken by the Students for Fair Admissions.

One useful theoretical frame in better understanding the racialized historical context of this case is  group interest theory, “based upon the premise that different racialized groups have incompatible goals, especially if they are competing for limited resources.” While this theory certainly governs the asymmetrical relationship between racial minorities in the U.S. and white Americans, who monopolize and exclude racial minorities from resources, it also suggests that racial minorities compete over the same pool of resources amongst themselves. This theory immobilizes solidarity and collaborative resistance among racial minorities, but yet it is a perception that pervades interactions between racialized groups. This is particularly relevant to the interactive racialization of Asian and Black communities in America. Within the asymmetrical system devised by white America, excludes all people of color as a whole, those subject to the system are constrained into adopting a realist perception of opportunity, one that is governed by a zero-sum game mentality. Within this system, marginalized groups vy for what limited opportunities they are allowed, perceiving opportunities achieved by other groups as opportunities no longer available to themselves. This effective method of social control obscures the malfeasance of the larger system, which none of the racialized groups are ultimately responsible for.

The Students for Fair Admissions’ case against Affirmative Action in Harvard undergraduate admissions is an extension of a deeply rooted legacy of white America’s social control over people of color, in which white America facilitates antiblackness within Asian communities. While this efforts have been successful because many Asian American communities buy into the potential benefits to the Asian-American community at the expense of the Black community, those efforts ultimately reify structures of white supremacy that disenfranchise Black people and Asian-Americans.

While there is no doubt that a nuanced understanding of the Model Minority mythology oppresses and undermines our agency of self-formation as Asian Americans, there are ways in which Asian Americans have benefitted from the pseudoscientific notion that particularly East Asian Americans are pathologically superior to Black Americans. In the post Civil War era, Asian immigrant laborers benefited off of racialized notions that they were more obedient and hard-working laborers than Black slaves. Plantation owners argued that the Chinese laborers were “docile, submissive and hard-working, unlike African Americans.” This mechanism of social control created competition, leveraging racialized minorities against each other. White plantation owners and white politicians surmised that a sustainable way of maintaining their hierarchy was to foster other racial hierarchies that conformed to and were microcosmic of white supremacy. Thus, competition between Black and Asian communities, which gave way to interracial prejudice, became a cog in the greater machine of American white supremacy. However, it must also be acknowledged that the model minority mythology has not been applied symmetrically across all Asian Americans; South Asians and Southeast Asians historically and empirically do not benefit from this mythology as much as East Asians if you compare admissions statistics and gross income.

Asian Americans continue this legacy by contributing to anti-blackness by means of colorism, the appropriation of black culture, and the policing of black bodies and black neighborhoods. The American system was built upon antiblack racism via slavery; any benefits that Asian Americans receive from that system means that Asian Americans benefit from antiblackness. Antiblack racism continues to be reproduced through institutions like the housing, education, the criminal justice system, and the electoral college. The confluence of this network of institutions collectively targets, disenfranchises, and excludes Black communities from participating in civic society. The emergence of the ABG or “Asian Baby Girl” archetype is a newer addition to appropriation of Black culture by Asian Americans. Gold chains, hoop earrings, bantu knots, and exclusively dating Black men are the typical characteristics of this new phenomena, which chooses and imitates aspects of Black culture that are deemed trendy. The taking of Black culture without any appreciation or acknowledgement of the oppressive structures that shape and limit Black expression is cultural exploitation, enforcing the legacy of white America and other minorities profiting off of Black culture.

The last method of participating in antiblackness that I will be examining is support for colorblind policies and contiguously against Affirmative Action. There is a prevailing idea among Asian American communities that race conscious policies are harmful to them, that it in fact “penalizes” white and Asian students. This notion was capitalized on after a sociological study at Princeton by Thomas Espenshade and Alexandra Radford, whose findings implied that black students who scored 1000 on their SATs would have the same chance in admissions as a white student who scores 1310 or an Asian-American student who scores 1450. What the anti-affirmative action movement unknowingly or knowingly ignores is the legacy of antiblackness in all American institutions, which has massively disadvantaged Black communities in all areas of mobility, including education, income, and mortality. Affirmative action, in principle, seeks to rectify these systemic disparities, that for generation Asian and white communities have directly benefited from. In opposing legislation that seeks to rectify this disparity at the benefit of the Asian American community and the expense of the Black community, many Asian Americans propagate anti-blackness. However, the ultimate beneficiary of the anti-affirmative action movement is not even Asian Americans, but white Americans. This case, which presents as being an initiative of the Asian American community alone is being bankrolled by Edward Blum, a conservative white anti-affirmative action activist, whose ultimate goal is to eliminate the factor of race in admissions period. In actuality, this case is really about advancing white supremacy, which uses Asian Americans as a pawn, as has been a practice since Asian immigrants came to America and were coerced into competition with Black slaves.

What Asian Americans in support of the plaintiffs of the Harvard case against Affirmative Action miss out on is the idea that all forms of racial oppression are interconnected. Racism against any racial minority reifies white supremacy and the marginalization of all other racial minorities. The East Coast Asian American Student Union and many other like organizations have named the plaintiffs of the Students for Fair Admissions as contributing to anti-blackness specifically for pursuing an end to Affirmative Action.

“We need to contribute in the labors to educate non-black Asian folks on why their actions perpetuate antiblackness. The education needs to come from the place of compassion and empowering the voices for black folks instead of speaking up on their behalves. Moreover, this is often overlooked but if you are able, contribute resources and money to support those organizations that help with future reparations for black folks, fight for anti-blackness, and support policy changes that could help combat structural racism… We must support policy changes that combat structural racism, like the prison industrial complex, the criminalization of marijuana, the arming of police with military-grade arms, and redlining. We must resist movements that are inherently anti-black, such as… arguments against affirmative action.”



Written by Olivia Mayeda