In support of affirmative action: Members of Asian American Students in Action speak out

8

The Asian American Studies Movement at the College stands firmly in support of affirmative action. We recognize Michael Wang ’17, who has voiced support for ongoing efforts to dismantle affirmative action, as a former member of the Asian American community at the College; consequently, we realize the importance of holding those in our community accountable for their anti-Blackness and classism. We will not stand for Michael Wang’s egregious actions, and we are taking the necessary steps to address them, both within the College community and at large.

The history and philosophy of Asian American Studies (AAS) is premised on challenging hegemonic structures of thinking. As part of the umbrella of ethnic studies, AAS traces its origins to the student activism at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley the late 1960s, when coalitions of Black, Latinx, Indigenous and Asian American student activists recognized the disciplinary violence of their Euro-centric curriculum, and organized strikes to push for its dismantling. As a discipline, ethnic studies challenges white privilege and interrogates instruments of racial violence. Thus, it is inextricably linked with the restorative project of affirmative action, which considers race in the college admissions process, for not only does it seek to incorporate the knowledges of those marginalized, but it also aims to mobilize higher education in a project of reparations. Any representation without redistribution is then but a guise that upholds the status quo.

The first wave of Asian American admissions into academic institutions is directly indebted to the efforts of Black and Brown activists in the 1960s and 70s. Pushed by the leaders of the Black Panthers, NAACP, Third World Liberation Front and many others, the U.S. government in 1964 signed into law the Civil Rights Act, which prohibited discriminatory practices based on race. Institutions of higher education were required to develop affirmative action programs specifically geared towards hiring qualified “minorities,” which, as defined by the Department of Labor, included Black, Latinx, Native American, and Asian American people. As designated beneficiaries of affirmative action, many Asian Americans gained admission to reputable schools in the 1960s and 70s. Helen Zia, a prominent Asian American activist, writes in her memoir Freedom Dreams that affirmative action — and the legacy of coalitional, Black-led activism during the Civil Rights era — allowed her, and many others like her, to go to college.

Claiming that it would be fairer if colleges did not consider race during admissions because only the highest-achieving and “worthiest” students should get into top schools, opponents of affirmative action dangerously neglect the problem of structural inequality. The notion of an “equal starting point” is hardly realistic in a country founded upon genocide and enslavement. Structural inequality — whether that be racist zoning laws or financially inaccessible extra- and co-curricular activities — means that many students are not afforded the opportunities to discover their passions and fully develop their academic strengths. Countless studies have shown that these inequities lead to unequal outcomes.

It is often remarked that all people are born equal, but it is patently wrong to claim that all people grow up under equal circumstances, and it is egregiously wrong to believe that all people will achieve their full capacity without access to the same resources. The point of affirmative action is not only to be fair, but is also to enact justice in a systemically unjust and unequal society. Affirmative action enables people of all races and of all socioeconomic statuses to represent themselves in society by claiming positions of power.

Asian Americans have long occupied a place of instability and contradiction in our country’s racial matrix, characterized by Claire Jean Kim in Racial Triangulation as a wedge, in service of white people, to divide minorities against each other. Anti-affirmative action activists echo this logic when they claim the primary beneficiaries of affirmative action, like Black and Latinx folk, are taking Asian Americans’ spots in the college admissions process. However, ample research suggests that it is in fact white applicants who would benefit the most from abolishing race-conscious admissions, not Asian American ones. Despite the language of affirmative action opponents, which characterizes college admissions as a “zero sum game,” as Michael Wang puts it in an interview with Buzzfeed, and requires someone “to lose for someone else to win,” in fact, the only real winners of anti-affirmative action are white applicants.

The flagrantly anti-black rhetoric which has surrounded Asian American complaints against affirmative action — that affirmative action benefits Black and Brown students at the cost of Asian American students and that all recipients of affirmative action are somehow “lazy” or “unworthy” —  reveals a dangerous failing on the part of our community. The collaboration between Edward Blum and the “Asian American Coalition for Education,” of which Wang is a part, sees the alliance of a white supremacist with a group of predominantly upper-middle class, light-skinned, East Asian American men. Their efforts have the effect of maintaining a strict order racial hierarchy not only in the academy, but the world at large. Their unsubstantiated claims —  about “merit,” “worthiness” and “equality” —  display ignorance of structural injustice.

On behalf of Asian American Students in Action, we stand for students of color — especially Black, Brown and Indigenous students, who have historically been denied the promise of higher education — and reaffirm our commitment to working with members of our community to dismantle anti-blackness and classism. In line with our mission and ethics, we firmly uphold affirmative action.

This op-ed was written by the members of Asian American Students in Action: Lilianne Au ’22 is from Honolulu H.I. Her major is undecided. William Chen ’19 is an economics and math double major from Carmel, I.N., Jonathan Deng ’21 is a prospective economics major from Houston, Texas. Rhea Jiang ’20 is an art history major from San Diego, C.A., Serapia Kim ’19 is a political economy major from Los Angeles, C.A., Audrey Koh ’21 is a prospective American studies and English double major from Los Angeles C.A., Amber Lee ’21 is a prospective environmental studies major from Boston, Mass., Suiyi Tang ’20 is an American studies and comparative literature double major from San Francisco C.A. Kevin Yang ’22 is from Shanghai, China. His major is undecided.

8 COMMENTS

  1. The best way to end the political polarization in the country and bring people together is to make all decisions based on race, and to constantly harp on ancient racial discrimination, and to denigrate white people, especially white men. So, thank you for your contribution to healing our divisions.

  2. I would appreciate the article being made more clear–it opens with calling Michael Wang’s actions “egregious,” but the only further mention of them is one quote and affiliation with a specific organization. Would you please be more specific about which of Michael’s actions are being labeled as such? “Egregious” is pretty strong language and at the very least should be followed up with a carefully constructed and specific case. There’s certainly lots of good content here, but very little of it is actually related to Michael, and I think when you open with such a strong condemnation it behooves you to follow that up.

  3. Such a lazy response to chalk up the Asian American students’ complaints as “anti affirmative action”. Anyone who is familiar with how Asians are treated in the admissions process understands they are RACIALLY discriminated against. It doesn’t matter if you grew up poor, are from a single-parent household, or if you lost all your limbs in an accident: if you’re Asian, your admission chances are hurt. If that doesn’t strike you as a problem worth solving, I don’t know what to say. Liberal institutions are supposed to champion these kinds of causes. The solution might not lie in ending affirmative action, and you shouldn’t try to end the discussion by acting like that’s the only option.

    Liberals are worried that accepting more Asians would compromise their conception of diversity that’s skin-deep. I hope people can see through the argument put forth in articles like that above… it’s a straw-man argument.

  4. Yes, we can acknowledge that admissions system does have biases against asian americans, but is the solution really to punch down and dismantle affirmative action? Affirmative action was put in place to rectify the injustices inherent in the system and culture against disadvantaged group. If you’re alive in the great fucking year of 2018, ya’ll should know that these systems are still functioning like clockwork, and we need to create opportunities for discriminated groups more than ever.

    To me though (an Asian American), as much as I am sympathetic to asian americans and way racial stereotypes impact them in college admissions, whatever credibility this “movement” had was lost as soon as a conservative white lawyer well known for targeting civil liberties became the representative for the case and cause. Nobody is going to believe that the lawsuits’ aim ISN’T to dismantle affirmative action, or that it’s not meant to break down policies that help black and brown people overcome the systematic barriers against them succeeding.

    Ya’ll might be okay playing the white man’s game as long as you end up the winners, but count the rest of us out. And if you want to be thought as having interesting personalities, “racist” technically does fit that description.

  5. The biggest issue is not that colleges give preferential treatment to URM applicants, but rather that they set a higher bar for Asians than for whites. So you are right that removing race-based affirmative action alone may not help because those extra seats could be given to whites, not Asians. But race-blind admissions, which would eliminate both race-based affirmative action and unfair bars for Asians, would. Asians are, for instance, the largest racial demographic at Caltech, UC Berkeley, and UCLA, which employ race-blind admissions. Race-blind admissions is what the lawsuit is trying to achieve.

    Moreover, wouldn’t affirmative action based on geography, socioeconomic status, and other demonstrable hardships solve for “zoning laws and financially inaccessible … activities”? While race does affect SES, the issue is not race but rather SES, and that is what affirmative action seeks to correct. URMs would still benefit disproportionally from this policy, because as you said, they are victims to “structural inequality … in a country founded upon genocide and enslavement,” but it would be fair*. The lawsuit does not argue against non-race-based affirmative action. In fact, the group that filed the lawsuit explicitly claims that Harvard has not sufficiently explored admissions methods other than race, like geography or SES, which can also create diverse student bodies. UCB and UCLA do employ these methods, and their Latinx enrollment rates are comparable to that of Harvard’s.

    Maybe some supporters of the lawsuit are racist, and you should call them out, but the lawsuit is not. Just my two cents, as a dark-skinned Asian American Eph.

    *I’m not making claims about admissions policies at universities like Georgetown, because reparations to the descendants of a university’s slaves is a different issue.

    • EDIT: I think the lawsuit doesn’t even argue against affirmative action based on race or anything else. Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t the judge throw that part out? It’s only trying to prove that college admissions are unfairly biased against Asians. I really don’t understand how any fair-minded person, let alone Asian Americans, can be opposed to this. You are also misconstruing Michael Wang’s position, which he clarified in an op-ed published before this article. Moreover, most Asian Americans do support affirmative action in some form — you’re blowing an issue out of proportion in order to posture yourself morally. Finally, I don’t know what you mean by “ample research.” I’m pretty sure it doesn’t exist. This article is poorly researched, lacks nuance, and, I hope, not reflective of the student body at Williams.

  6. 1) You have the leeway to say these things b/c you were accepted into colleges of your choice. What about the Asian American students who haven’t gotten into college, who have to put in the extra hours after school so that they can compete not with all candidates, but EXCLUSIVELY with Asian American candidates since there’s an artificial limit on the number of Asians accepted. What about the impoverished Asian Americans who have to struggle over extra hurdles because preferential treatment is now stacked a. in favor of rich kids and then b. in favor of poor kids who aren’t Asian?
    2) A better system to implement is a decision hierarchy based on CLASS, not race. Students who are poor should be given breathing room and preferential treatment, not because of their ethnic background. If you’re a poor white kid living in Trump country vs a rich black kid whose dad has made it, who do you think should receive affirmative action?
    3) A consequentialist ethical stance clearly doesn’t hold either since if Asian Americans, blacks, and latinos all started on a level playing field in the 1970’s – 1980’s with affirmative action in place, why is it that ONLY Asian Americans have been able to break the income barrier? If AA hasn’t worked for 40 years maybe try something that addresses the root of the problem, instead of the symptoms.
    4) You’re telling me the recent news about Harvard’s admissions practices aren’t discriminatory against Asian Americans?? You have interviewers that speak about how Asian Americans are “hardworking yet uninteresting and indistinguishable from other Asian Americans.” People that say “he comes across as the hard worker, rather than the outstanding scholar.” I don’t think I’m uninteresting. I don’t think my Asian friends are uninteresting. And most of all, I despise the stereotypes that are associated with Asian Americans that we all have shit personalities because we work hard. The federal case is not about bringing down blacks or latinos, it’s about fighting for our identity against a system that reinforces ridiculous stereotypes.
    5) If you really believe admissions is NOT a zero sum game, then removing affirmative action policies should make no difference since everyone can win. The reason they are in place is because the college process is a zero sum game, and the only people that can rejoice playing the game are people that won. You won. Your friends that wrote the article won. Never forget that there are Asian Americans that are not in your shoes (or my shoes), and that maybe if they had the extra push, they could’ve succeeded as well.
    Would be happy to hear your reply. Shoot me an email; I would love to read the ample research about how only whites would benefit.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here