Affirmative action, for an Asian American student like me in a Bay Area-adjacent town, served as a looming menace throughout my high school career, like the final boss of my Street Fighter adolescence. Just like so many of my prospective Asian American peers, I felt a crippling pressure to attend an “elite” university in order to fill the vacant pit that was my sense of self worth, but I knew one day I would have to face the monster of racialized institutional judgment. I could try and mark “prefer not to say” under Race, but my one syllable last name was a dead giveaway. My high grades and test scores as well as my artistic and musical extracurriculars all rendered me faceless among a mass of similarly talented Asian American peers in college admissions.
Back then, I didn’t know a lot of things. The whole world was this bubble that was the Silicon Valley: hyper-capitalistic, close but unimaginably inaccessible. When my mother first told me about the Harvard Affirmative Action lawsuit in 2015, we both felt that it was a positive harbinger for Asian American students across the United States.
But, that was before my world became a little larger and I realized my privilege. Before I learned about the ways in which inequality is woven into the fabric of American life, and especially so for Black and Brown bodies. Now, it is clear to me that Affirmative Action is imperative; this whole controversy is an interesting vignette into the politics of Asian American visibility and racial positioning within the white-black American binary.
As of October 15, 2018, Harvard University has been on trial at the Federal District Court in Boston for allegedly penalizing Asian American applicants in their admissions process. The lawsuit began in 2015 when several Asian American students sued the university on the grounds of discrimination. One such student was Michael Wang, who, after being denied admission to Harvard, wrote an opinion piece in the San Jose Mercury News paper that incited many of the older generation Asian American population to action.
I can understand Wang’s disappointment, his rage. After all, I had felt that despair just a few years ago when April rolled around and my mailbox was filled with thin envelopes of “we regret to inform you”s. But there is a difference between arguing for one’s civil rights and divulging one’s uninformed entitlement, especially when doing so is inevitably entangled in a complex history of silencing and exclusion.
Since I was very young, my parents, who had immigrated from China to Canada, and then to the US, had taught me that I needed to work hard in a way that was different from my non-Asian peers if I wanted to live a “good life.” The fabled “good life” was the light at the end of the tunnel of cello competitions, after school prep academy, SAT bootcamp, and my future diligent university years. The “good life” was reliant on a meritocratic rise to riches: first I needed to get accepted to an Ivy League University, and then land a high-paying job, and then happiness would open its privileged gates to me—finally, miraculously.
I wonder whether it was because of an understanding of our perpetual foreignness in America as non-whites or a naive pursuit for the mythicized American Dream that my parents pushed me so hard. Regardless, funneling through an academic pressure cooker education, feeling the magnetic pull of shiny glass-facaded, solar-powered neighbors in Silicon Valley, and internalizing the rigid worldview of immigrant parents, I, and many of my peers, naturally developed an intensely capitalistic determination that sharpened my work ethic and unhinged my moral compass. I began to rest my entire sense of self worth upon numerical statistics, hollow accolades, and the prestige of the universities I got accepted into. In the end, I yielded all of my power and potential to a gamble.
In writing this now, it is plain to see that the tunnel vision that I possessed was a byproduct of the competitive microcosm from which I came. It is obvious how sheltered and complicit not only I was, but many of my peers were and continue to be in perpetuating larger projects of anti-blackness and white supremacy by buying into this feud against Affirmative Action. Ignorance shelters many Asian Americans from violence, but this complicity only buries us further into the model minority myth, rendering us pawns in the chess game of white, Neoliberal American legislation and politics.
Such can be seen through Edward Blum’s involvement in the lawsuit against Harvard and Affirmative Action. A conservative attorney, Edward Blum helped consolidate the group that is suing Harvard: Students for Fair Admission. Not only is he acting as their leading attorney, but he also founded the whole organization.
In the past, Blum has filed lawsuits against several universities for unfair admissions, scouting specific rejected students in order to dismantle Affirmative Action’s exclusionary measures for white and Asian American students. What some critics therefore believe is that Blum is using Asian Americans as a political wedge. This of course comes as no surprise, given a long history of manipulation and puppeteering that Asian Americans have endured at the hands of White America, from coolieism to Japanese Internment.
Looking into Blum’s history, it is not unlikely that he could be rallying a newly-mobilized Asian American population for his own ulterior motives. In 1992, he ran for Congress as a Republican in Houston but lost to a Democratic candidate. But, instead of taking his loss and moving on, just like many Asian Americans involved in the fight against Affirmative Action, Blum decided to sue. He found that the city was laid out in a way that favored the Black vote and sued the state for violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The Bush v. Vera case would ultimately reach the Supreme Court and Blum would get what he wanted: a redrawing of Texas district lines in 1966. What renders Blum a more threatening force is his power in puppeteering and his ominous intentions.
In 2008, he defended Abigail Fischerman, a white student who was rejected from the University of Texas in a lawsuit that made it all the way to the Supreme Court. Blum not only defended her in court, but also waived all her legal expenses.
Blum allows his clients displaced agency: his effective services in return for their participation in his agenda for a race-blind America. Asian Americans have seen this throughout our history in the continental Americas;
This grappling with affirmative action is a good vignette for the larger positions and roles Asian Americans play in American racial politics. Not only do we tow the line between white and black, we also, as established in Moon Jung-ho’s Coolies and Cane, oscillate between other binaries of rich and poor, privileged and oppressed, citizen and “alien.” The inability to wholly fit into either or lends Asian Americans a distinct unease and a void of identity. In hyper-racialized America, our voices are often silenced, as background characters our issues are neither white nor black, so hold no real importance to anyone but ourselves. As mentioned in Bethany Lew-Williams’ The Chinese Must Go, there is a problem with comparing violence among different communities in terms of mere numbers. Because “the value of Chinese lives were so little and violence against them so abundant…most forms of violence seemed unremarkable” and therefore went unreported (18). Moreover, Edward Blum’s involvement in the lawsuit is reminiscent of other historical ploys in which Asian Americans have been used for the political ends of white people in causing disjunction and hostility among communities of color. The model minority myth has always served as a divisive measure, keeping Asian Americans and other communities of color from recognizing their common oppressor and uniting to fight it. The problem with viewing Asian Americans as honorary whites is that it erases a complex history of exclusion and incarceration, that work in dialogue and sometimes parallely with the histories of other communities of color. Rarely do we recognize in discourse today that the modern-day legal term “alien” was shaped by the violent racial politics surrounding Chinese unassimilability, also known as Yellow Peril. Nor do we recognize the generational trauma that haunts all those extricated from violent circumstances only to be funneled into other violent circumstances of captivity. The legacies of the brutality of race, slavery, and empire are felt by all people of color, in different mutations in every different era.
In the fall of 2017 I moved into a stiflingly hot and dusty dormitory at the very end of Fifth Avenue and began the most enriching and formative year of my life at New York University. Despite New York University not being up to the standards of my US-News-top-universities-rankings-addicted parents, I, much like Michael Wang, enjoyed my third-tier liberal arts college experience to a monumental degree. I did not truly realize that I had developed such selfish and complicit habits as a result of my Silicon Valley dogmatism until I had fled across the country to attend school among a much more diverse community of people, and approached my own kind again. I did not realize the ways in which our histories and sufferings as people of color intertwine with those around us, that we in fact have persisted and left our marks on this foreign land.
As I’ve learned over the course of a semester of delving into Asian American history and politics, Asian Americana is far from monolithic, simple, quiet, submissive, trivial. In America we have persisted through exclusion, incarceration, violence, and alienation. The Asian American tussle with Affirmative Action is one such example of our battle for visibility within the American black-white racial paradigm.
Written by Serena Shen