• Yilun Cheng

Asians Must Fight for Affirmative Action


Photo Credit: San Francisco State University

It’s time for Asian-Americans to peel off the “model minority” label and call out conservative interest groups for pitting us against Black and Brown people. Harvard, Yale, University of Texas, University of North Carolina…One by one, the country’s top schools are under fire for allegedly discriminating against white and Asian students in their admissions process. But what is on trial here is not only the much-needed diversity programs in the face of appalling educational disparities among racial groups, but also Asian-Americans’ rightful place in a country that often reduces racism to a Black-white paradigm. In 2015, the anti-affirmative action organization, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), rounded up a group of Harvard rejects and sued the university for its supposedly discriminatory admissions policies against Asian applicants. In the following years, it continued to contest the policies at Harvard, North Carolina and the University of Wisconsin on similar grounds. The goal, according to the complaints, is to completely eliminate racial considerations in universities’ admissions decisions. Can we please acknowledge that this movement is neither orchestrated by, nor for, the Asian people? The leader of SFFA is, in fact, a white conservative activist named Edward Blum. In the past three decades, he managed to bring six anti-minority cases––most of which seek to undermine racial minorities’ voting power –– to the Supreme Court in order to set unpopular legal precedents. Blum has set up websites harvardnotfair.org, uncnotfair.org and uwnotfair.org to attract potential plaintiffs. On each homepage, the image of an innocent-looking, book-holding Asian student lays under his provocative call to action. Once again, Asian-Americans are used as pawns in conservative interest groups’ attempts to push their anti-Black and anti-Latino agendas. The framing that Asian-Americans are against affirmative action is a blatant lie. In reality, 70 percent of the Asian population supports affirmative action programs, and only 17 percent opposes them, according to the 2020 Asian-American Voter Survey. These lawsuits are distracting us from what is really hurting Asian students’ chances of getting into elite colleges –– legacy admissions. Court documents produced in the Harvard lawsuit show that “legacies,” or the children of alumni, have a 34 percent acceptance rate, nearly six times that of non-legacies. Such practices put racial minorities at a disadvantage. Forty-three percent of white Harvard admits benefited from legacy and athlete preferences, compared with less than 16 percent for Black, Asian and Latino students. Also buried in the lawsuits are the socio-economic and educational disparities across Asian subgroups. In California, for example, only 40 percent of Pacific Islander students have completed the required high school coursework for college entrance, compared with 76 percent of Chinese-American students. Lumping together a college-ready Chinese student, who has been enrolled in honors classes throughout high school, and a Cambodian student, whose family struggles to make ends meet, makes no sense. But most college admissions boards do it anyway. Last month, the U.S. First Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a lower-court decision to reject SFFA’s complaint against Harvard, but Blum promised not to give up until the case reaches the Supreme Court. In the meantime, the Justice Department recently sued Yale University using the same argument. At the heart of these lawsuits is an attempt to perpetuate the “model minority” stereotype –– a myth intentionally constructed to maintain white superiority and create divisions between Asian-Americans and other communities of color. In a 1966 New York Times article, sociologist William Petersen first coined the term to distinguish Japanese-Americans’ industrious and law-abiding nature from the “delinquency” of “problem minorities,” namely Black Americans. Since then, Asian people have been trapped in an impossible position, where the unique combination of their foreign origin and their supposed proximity to white Americans inspire hostility, fear and exclusion from all non-Asian groups. Now accounting for 6.8 percent of the country’s total population, Asian-Americans are still seen as a group of homogenous un-Americans with unfamiliar skin tones and hard-to-pronounce names -- politically docile and selfishly pursuing their own economic advancements at the expense of other minority groups. At this critical juncture, Asian-Americans need to stop entertaining conservative activists’ baseless allegations and side with Black and Brown communities to advance educational equity for all. To my Asian friends who are still buying into Blum’s false narrative, it won’t kill you to go to Brown instead of Harvard. Trust me. I went to UC Berkeley, and I turned out just fine.