On The Basis Of: The impossible fight for affirmative action and the inherent irony in the rise of the Asian American right


The history of racial discrimination in this country has by and large rested on ironic terms. One can argue that since the time of Columbus, Western ideals have been met by sheer force, violence, and domination. All of which translate into progress, which then translates into steps towards a better society. Despite the immeasurable rifts the Trump presidency has created within this country, it has done an equal (if not larger) damage to the flawed US appeal of freedom and of equality, exposing the frail and unsubstantiated history that builds the backbone of this country. Reality since 2016 has proven bleak—outrage over systemic issues like immigration reform, gun violence, #MeToo has proven the strength of white superiority. It is consistently a battle between the oppressor and the oppressed; customarily the oppressor is the white majority, those usually in positions of power who adopt conservative views so not to jeopardize their privilege. The issue of affirmative action—which, like the list of issues previously mentioned, is also an issue with historical prominence that has seen renewed interest—has complicated the perceived dynamic of the oppressor/oppressed. Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, a case originally filed in 2014 and brought to Boston Federal District Court this past October, by arguing for the minority (Asian Americans) with the same reasons that have historically been used against minorities, has exposed looming contentions between minority groups in the US.

The impossibility of color-blind politics and the flawed US desire for progress:

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.” This statement, part of an exhaustive, passionate dissent given by Justice Sonya Sotomayor following the 2006 Guttner v. Bollinger Case, made in almost ironic response to Chief Justice Roberts assertion of “colorblindness” in race-based politics in admissions. In 2006, the Supreme Court came to a 6-2 ruling, upholding a Michigan ban on affirmative action in admissions to the state’s public universities; Michigan remains among the eight states in the US that have placed bans on affirmative action. O’Connor and Roberts are essentially posing an argument that is similar at the root: a racially and culturally diverse campus is beneficial to all, no one should be discriminated on the basis of race. However, in Robert’s rebuttal, he stood firm on the idea that “colorblind” admissions may be the only way out of the debilitating effect of reinforcing race differences. The ideal of a “color-blind” society is a contentious topic; over the years, it’s been said to have originated from the Civil Rights Movement. The white majority—usually those arguing against issues like affirmative action on campus—have co-opted the idea of a “color-blind” approach as one that is working in favor of minority groups, specifically African Americans. However, colorblindness is an ideology that legitimatizes specific practices that maintain racial inequalities—police brutality, housing discrimination, voter disenfranchisement, and others. (Bonilla-Silva, 65) It is, therefore, an approach that not only perpetuates inequality but is an approach that is rooted in classism—only a certain demographic, with a specific level of privilege, are able to adopt a color-blind approach.In a 2015 Atlantic article, writer and professor of sociology Adia Harvey Wingfield brings in the studies of Karyn McKinney, Eileen O’Brien among others to refute a statement made by American journalist Conor Friedersdorf—who himself is white, upper-middle-class, with an elite education—that “emphasizing whites’ group identity as whites (rather than individuals) is counterproductive. Wingfield argues that though this is a compelling argument, it contradicts itself: “as whites came to understand themselves as members of a racial group which enjoyed unearned privileges and benefits…[they] forged a different sense of identity built on antiracism.” Wingfield urges that society be cognizant of their race and by doing so, will not have the luxury of remaining complicit; we are not all the same, and in ignoring our differences, we shy away from disparaging issues. How has this argument shifted since the 2015 Harvard case, what are the specific to Asian American factors that have entered the conversation? In The Retreat from Race, Takagi asserts that “understanding new multicultural realities…forces us to confront the multiethnic realities of post-civil rights politics.” She warns that the topic of Asian Americans in this discourse is a delicate manner and points to a need for accuracy when depicting Asian American lives, experiences and circumstances. One can argue that the inclusion of Asian Americans within the affirmative action discourse has disrupted an otherwise clearly defined dual-argument and a more nuanced, varied approach to the discussion of race-based admissions politics will presumably warrant productive further steps. This, however, has not been the case as the nature of supreme court cases renders the possibility of an argument that wasn’t black-and-white impossible—it is either affirmative action stays or it’s banned. By arguing that Harvard ban race-based admissions, Asians—specifically 1st generation east-Asians fighting for the future of elite education for their children (most of whom are US citizens)—ironically drive themselves into a dead-end, and perpetuate their already monolithic appearance within broader white US culture. The appeals of a monolithic, interchangeable Asian demographic mirror those of a “color-blind” approach to politics. Lisa Ko, writing for the NYTimes on the Harvard affirmative action case, warns against outdated views of Asian being the group that has most successfully achieved the American dream. That white conservatives strategically use this image of the Asian American to further their exclusion of other minorities they view as “less than.” However, even these stereotypes are created through a tunnel. “That’s partly because of who has access to that media and partly because [the American dream story is one that] white Americans feel more comfortable with, because it still puts them at the center,” writes Ko. Similar to the dangers of moving towards “color-blind” society, adopting a stiff monolithic view of Asian Americans—their achievements, their needs, and what kind of immigrant they represent—allows US to continue to erase a past history of exclusion, incarceration, segregation (See: Civil Rights Movement, Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese Incarceration) It mirrors the way in which the US erases its own history in the face of progress. The levels that this erasure happens on are manifold: a standard K-12 education does not cover the depths of exclusion history in the US, most don’t even touch on immigrant issues in the US. A society that has grown up accepting what only a select few feed feel that the “color-blind” mentality is a way forward—America has insisted progress, even on the base of false ethics, is progress nonetheless. Moving towards a color-blind society means moving towards acts of violence done onto one person because of perceptions of their color (See: Vincent Chin murder). Siding with white conservatives out of a sense of safety, which I dive into in later paragraphs—perpetuates a puppet game, where the white majority can decide when you’re a pawn to advance racism or when your being discriminated against.

Higher-education statistics since Grutter v. Bollinger:

A close examination on the numbers from 2003 until close to the filing of the Harvard case proves the plaintiff’s point—that despite a change in number of applicants, Harvard has consistently enrolled the same percentage of Asians. However, evidently, with Asian Americans taking up near 50% of the total demographic leaves a string of other minority vying for even one spot in the other 50%.  In 1991, American professor Donald Deskins, found that between 1976 and 1984, Black student enrollment declined 5.2 percent while that of Latina/o students increased 23.4 percent and that of Asian students jumped a striking 83.9 percent. The rise reflects immigration and related demographic changes to the broader population as well as the rise of what the US present as the “exemplary immigrant.” What graphs like these, often found in articles regarding the Harvard affirmative action case, fails to account for is the class difference that exist within these communities. The argument for or against affirmative action becomes further complicated when taking into account the socio-economic class groups that exist within the Asian American community. As Lisa Ko mentions, “In recent years [2018] in New York City, Asians have consistently ranked as the minority group with the highest poverty rate.” And again, to rehash Ko’s argument, it is often those without the power in society (i.e. lower-class, underprivileged) that don’t get to air out their stories, their side of the argument. This plaintiff’s argument comes from a skewed sense of safety—that of elite Asian American immigrants, specifically of an older generation, who felt as if they have made it through the struggles of immigration (struggles US history have consistently done unto them) that they are deserving of equal privileges, regardless if those privileges are decided by the white majority.

How elitism and racism perpetuate each other (recent Asian American protests shadowing the Harvard case, all of which both feed and complicate the argument):

The issue of class, and where it factors in, is evident as you scroll through the list of signatories of specific affirmative action cases regarding Asian Americans. In 2016, the Asian American Coalition for Education filed a complaint to the Departments of Justice and education for “unlawful discrimination against Asian American applicants in the college admissions process.” The complaint was filed against three elite universities: Yale, Brown, and Dartmouth. Of all three, investigations have happened at Yale since the filing. Of the 132 signatories, among the first 5 include “Custom Mansion Owner Association of Diamond Bar” and “Chinese America Association of Orange Country” both organizations run out of minority-majority towns—towns where the Asian American minority is nearly half of the city’s makeup. Not only are they minority-majority, these towns are known to be upper-middle-class, with many having achieved their American dream and their residents have consistently voted against the grain of the state as a whole—that is, electing majority Republican representatives and council members. In a recent Refinery29 profile of Ling Ling Chang titled “Asian-American, Immigrant, & Republican too?” the journalist positions Chang’s conservative ideals to the era in which her generation came to the US: “ She is emblematic of a wave of Asian immigrants who came to the US following a series of policy changes beginning in the late ‘60s that gave preferred status to people with specific professional skills and a high level of education” That these high-achieving wave of immigrants were then used to justify comparably low-performance levels from other minority groups who did not arrive on similar circumstances highlights the irony in these Asian American groups now hiding in the safety of the white conservative majority. This year in Diamond Bar, a Korean-American former Republican state assemblywoman Young Kim is running to replace Representative Royce, a republican congressman that has retired.

This past year, a wave of conservative protests from Asian American communities have surfaced. In April, in response to official announcements of emergency homeless shelters being placed in Irvine and Laguna Niguel, both wealthy neighborhoods with a growing percentage of immigrant Asian Americans, “No Tent City” protests broke up. “Did you see how we created a presence to keep our neighborhoods safe? Look at those crowds! It was like Chinese New Year,” commented Kelvin Hsieh, manager of a high-tech company in the area, part of groups of Asian Americans that rallied and eventually won their case in keeping homeless shelters away. Though they worked to push homeless groups away, many mentioned their empathy: “None of us are rich. We all have mortgages. We all work hard to have what we have, and we want to assist finding a long-term solution for the homeless.”


The often-contradictory political beliefs and ideals that Asian American immigrant groups in the US hold is evident beyond affirmative action cases. They seem to rally for things that put their privileges at danger, often citing that these privileges were hard-earned; however, they are often stuck in a fishbowl situation with those in power—those that place Asian Americans in whatever role best benefits their white, conservative ideals. With the increasing divide in interethnic minority groups, there is also a divide within intergenerational immigrant groups: the 1st generation immigrants and their children who grow up in the U.S. The responsibility to promote awareness, engage in conversation and reform are often placed on the 2nd-3rd generation immigrant populations, and an equal and diverse education begins with an equal and diverse student body. “The racial crisis in us higher education does not begin or end inside university walls…” writes Mitchell J. Chang and Peter N. Kiang. “Neither should the commitments of Asian Americans, in all their complexity with all their contradictions.”


Written by Jingwen Zhuang