Asian Americans and Affirmative Action

The dispute raises fascinating intellectual questions about why racism affects minority groups in such different ways.

October 22, 2018

I remember going to see The Joy Luck Club during my first year in college with a group of students from my residence hall, all of whom were white. I don’t think I’d ever seen the intensity of parental expectations on screen in quite that way, an intensity that reminded me of my own family dynamics. I was wiping away tears as the film ended, only to hear the kids I’d come with say things like, “That was dumb … let’s go get Taco Bell.”

That was one of the first times I realized that my childhood and adolescence were Asian American in distinctive ways, and that stories like mine were rarely represented in literature, art and film. This meant at least two things: 1) I did not have the pleasure of seeing and exploring my own experience in artistic ways; and 2) other Americans were left in the dark about an important identity community in their nation.

As regular readers of this blog know by now, my interest in exploring the experience of being othered in America caused me to turn to minority writers, largely black folks. I ate up James Baldwin and Malcolm X, and did the translations in my head. They felt like outsiders in ways A, B and C; I felt like an outsider in ways D, E and F. These black writers and activists were like godparents to me, and I wondered why there were comparatively few such Asian American voices.

I’ve been thinking back to these experiences as I’ve been reading about the Asian American affirmative action wars at Harvard . I think it’s a fascinating situation because you have large and vocal groups of people who are part of the same broad ethnic category on different sides of an issue that is sacred to progressives. Among other things, this situation highlights that ethnic groups don’t march in monolith and they don’t always and easily line up with progressive positions.

I’m a bit skeptical of the progressive claims that the Asian Americans against affirmative action are simply being duped by white conservatives like Edward Blum (although I find Blum a pretty odious figure). The main reason for my skepticism is that a big part of the diversity progressive credo is to listen to people of color and their analysis of the situation. If we progressives only want to listen when those communities hold progressive positions and insist on claiming that conservative views among minorities are somehow inevitably the result of manipulation, then we can rightly be accused of only wanting to listen to ourselves in various accents. 

Generally speaking, I am a supporter of affirmative action in a "thumb on the scale" sense, meaning that I don’t like the idea of strict quotas, but I do think it is important for various sectors (higher education, the corporate world, Hollywood) to be proactive about addressing underrepresentation of minorities and historic oppression. It is important for a diverse society to have diverse leadership and diverse representation, although I think these values need to be balanced with other values.

Diversity progressives like me generally think that oppression and underrepresentation go hand in hand, meaning that where there is smoke (underrepresentation), there is fire (oppression).

This generally fits neatly into other categories that diversity progressives like to use: white folks and people of color. The logic goes, white people do the oppressing through racism, people of color experience it and are not only personally hurt by it but also shut out of important arenas like elite higher education. 

If this logic model holds, how then do we regard the situation at Harvard and other elite universities, where one group that is subject to racism (Asian-Americans) is way overrepresented and other groups subject to racism (African-Americans and Latinos) are woefully under-represented?

Amongst other things, I think the case reveals that the two-dimensional take on identity politics -- racism and white supremacy act on racial minorities in ways that create clear fault lines and simple solidarity blocks (like people of color vs white people) – is simply not true to reality.  

The world is (thankfully) both more interesting and complicated than that. It is important to remember that the category "people of color" includes the vast majority of the human race – just about everybody outside of the white populations of Europe, the United States, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. The category Asian American includes people who hail from nearly 50 nations, many of which are sworn enemies. There is a measure of usefulness in using these categories, but only if we recognize that they are shorthand and conceal all sorts of internal differences.

Situations where Asian Americans find themselves on opposite sides, like affirmative action at elite universities, are an opportunity to explore the fascinating internal complications of categories like "Asian American" and "people of color," and the diverse ways that racism affects various minority communities.

African Americans, for example, are underrepresented at elite universities. This is a problem and it needs to be addressed – both in the admissions process at those universities (for which I support some version of affirmative action short of strict quotas) and, more importantly, upstream, in the stunningly unjust manner in which public schools are funded.

But African Americans are not especially underrepresented in broader American culture. Sports, music, fashion, literature, film, television – everywhere you turn, black people are contributing, making life better and more interesting for all of us.

Asian Americans, on the other hand, have only recently broken through in these cultural arenas, at least in appreciable numbers and visible ways.

My advocacy/activist take on the affirmative action question is that Harvard ought to make sure that all racial groups in the United States are reasonably represented, both for the educational experience of its students and also because Harvard graduates a disproportionate number of elite leaders for our society, and a multicultural society needs a multicultural cast of leaders. Somehow, Harvard has to figure out how to shape racially diverse classes in a manner that doesn’t downgrade the "personality rating" of Asian Americans in the admissions process, which, if it’s true, is deeply offensive.

Hollywood, for its part, needs to make more films like The Joy Luck Club (which I liked a lot better than Crazy Rich Asians).    

But I think the more interesting questions are in those grey, complicated areas: how and why does racism affect various minority groups so differently (lots of Asian Americans in elite higher ed, not so many visibly in the culture; fewer African Americans at top universities, lots of representation in the culture).

What factors other than racism, such as community expectations, might be at play?

These are the questions that don’t lend themselves to easy answers or binary positions, but rather to rigorous research and deep thinking - the work that intellectuals are best suited to do.  


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