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

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.