#NotYourWedge: Asian Americans and Affirmative Action by Grace Yia-Hei Kao

Asian Americans are making headline news as the nation once again grapples with affirmative action.

There are two precipitating incidents this time around:

  • A lawsuit, originally filed in Nov 2014, accusing Harvard University of discriminating against Asian Americans in admissions.


Predictably, these headlines have generated a fresh round of discussions about the propriety        (constitutional or otherwise) of using race as a factor in admissions decisions. While disgruntled white students have traditionally been the most vocal opponents of doing so (witness the “politics of white resentment” or “Becky with the Bad Grades” — the plaintiff in last year’s Supreme Court affirmative action case), the focus is now on Asian Americans: an unnamed Asian American student who was denied admission to Harvard in 2014 is a plaintiff in that ongoing lawsuit and some 64 Asian American groups also filed a complaint against Harvard in March 2015 with the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice.

      Photo credit: Harvard Public Affairs & Communications

While it is common to talk about high-achieving Asian Americans (à la the “model minority” myth) or to debate the merits of race-conscious admissions policies, the Harvard lawsuit has the following two novelties:

For one, it’s the first time that a private institution’s affirmative action policies have been challenged by the courts. The nation’s largest legal and civil rights organization, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, fears that the case “could lead to another fight before the Supreme Court,” which is why they joined the legal fight to defend Harvard’s current race-conscious admissions policies.

Secondly, it’s the first time that disgruntled Asian American applicants were specifically recruited to serve as plaintiffs (n.b., in the previous Fisher, Grutter, Gratz, and Bakke Supreme Court affirmative action cases, the featured plaintiffs were white and usually female). That members of the Asian American community were specifically targeted to serve as new poster children for purported “victims” of affirmative action can be readily seen by the following website (Harvardnotfair.org) that the president of the anti-affirmative action group suing Harvard (Edward Blum of Students for Fair Admissions) created in 2014.

What’s my response to all of this?

I must begin by acknowledging the ways I’m a stakeholder in these debates — as a fellow Asian American, parent of two (likely) college-bound kids, graduate of two elite private institutions (disclaimer: Harvard is one of them), and U.S. citizen who cares about the fair provision of quality educational opportunities for all.

In a nutshell, I stand with the ¾ majority of the Asian American population who supports affirmative action while fully acknowledge that race-conscious admissions procedures remain an imperfect mechanism to counter institutionalized racism.

Still, as a professional educator and ethicist since 2003, I have seen firsthand how increases in racial-ethnic diversity on campuses translates directly into enhanced learning outcomes for all.  To use a few examples drawn from my own experiences, there’s simply no substitute for having actual Puerto Rican students talk about the complexities of U.S. imperialism and colonialism, African American and Korean American students providing firsthand accounts of their communities’ responses to the 1992 LA riots, or students of either Cuban or Vietnamese heritage speaking of their family’s history of migration, wartime trauma, and beginnings in the U.S. as asylum-seekers or refugees.

Alex Wong / Getty Images

I also recognize how affirmative action policies benefited the Asian American community in the past (quick history lesson: the 1954 landmark case Brown vs. the Board of Education helped Asian Americans, not just blacks, overcome the legacies of de jure segregation in schools) and why particular sub-groups of Asian Americans still need it, which is why we must keep  the data on Asian Americans disaggregated.

So understood, I–together with so many others–have grown weary of the ways in which the “model minority” myth in general and current debates about affirmative action in particular involve the positioning of Asian Americans as a wedge against our African American and Latinx peers.

Finally, I share with Asian Americans Advancing Justice a sense of outrage about the announced use of this Administration’s Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division to further its anti-civil rights goals.

Admittedly, I’m not an expert on these topics, though can point you to folks who are.



On Tuesday, August 8 from 6-8 ET (i.e., today), a distinguished group of panelists will be discussing Affirmative Action and Asian Americans during a Twitter Town Hall.

Please help spread the word and participate by asking a question or making a comment with #notyourwedge.

*                *                *

Grace Yia-Hei Kao is Associate Professor of Ethics and Co-Director of the Center for Sexuality, Gender, and Religion at Claremont School of Theology. She is the author of Grounding Human Rights in a Pluralist World (Georgetown University Press, 2011) and co-editor, with Ilsup Ahn, of Asian American Christian Ethics (Baylor University Press, 2015). Learn more about her and her work on her personal website.

Author: Grace Yia-Hei Kao

I'm an ethics professor, author, Christian feminist, and married mother of two. Thanks for stopping by.

10 thoughts on “#NotYourWedge: Asian Americans and Affirmative Action by Grace Yia-Hei Kao”

      1. No problem. I liked how you discussed Affirmative Action issues for Asian Students at Harvard University. It’s not a surprise that Harvard University are doing that with admissions policies with Asians, because I was trying to apply for a supportive academic appointment at Harvard University, I’m African American and didn’t hire me. Don’t feel bad.


      2. As you probably know then, there are so many factors that selection committees must consider for admissions to schools or employment for jobs that it’s nearly impossible to isolate one’s race as THE defining factor that made the difference…

        Liked by 1 person

  1. “When California banned affirmative action in college admissions and relied solely on standardized test scores and grades as the definition of “qualified,” black and Latino enrollments plummeted. Whites, however, were not the beneficiaries of this “merit-based” system. Instead, Asian enrollments soared and with that came white resentment at both “the hordes of Asians” at places like the University of California, Los Angeles, and an admissions process that stressed grades over other criteria.”

    “Although you will never hear this from Mr. Sessions, men are the greatest beneficiaries of affirmative action in college admissions: Their combination of test scores, grades and achievements is simply no match for that of women, whose academic profiles are much stronger. Yet to provide some semblance of gender balance on campuses, admissions directors have to dig down deep into the applicant pool to cobble together enough males to form an incoming class.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Carol – indeed; thanks for pulling out that choice passage from that piece I linked to (“the politics of white resentment.”) Frankly the topic is huge and even a discussion of the UC’s + Harvard still keeps the focus on elite or highly-selective institutions when frankly we collectively should be talking about access to quality higher education across the board, not just at, say, top 50 schools.


      1. Carol – no worries (about duplicating the link). As to your question – during last year’s Supreme Court case (centering on the University of Texas at Austin), there was a lot of press about how affirmative action policies actually benefit white women the most, (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/affirmative-action-white-women_us_56a0ef6ae4b0d8cc1098d3a5) but honestly I don’t know the statistics for white men (whether high-achieving or under-performing).


  2. Thank you so much for this article, Grace. I must admit that as an African American, when I heard of this issue recently in the Bay Area re Chinese support of anti-affirmative action, my emotions and thoughts (intertwined) were doing overtime. I felt angry, and thought, “Not again!” I felt guilt because there is a negative past history between some Asian groups (at least in California) and African Americans, with both sides to blame for the trouble. I felt dispirited because until we all see the intersections of racism, understand the histories as presenting through a different process, yet yielding the same results, we will forever remain non-white people who have been subject to white supremacy. We may have to take our turn, in history, but this will happen.
    Again, much gratitude. I learned something reading this article. I am open, also, to how you must struggle within yourself, perhaps being torn because you can view different sides of the coin.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Rev. Terry de Grace-Morris: I can appreciate all of the emotions/thoughts you’ve been feeling. This is the twisted brilliance of using Asian Americans as a “wedge” — people of color then bicker/fight amongst themselves, leaving the racial hierarchy firmly intact with whites on top! While I’m not familiar with the particular history of struggle you name in the Bay Area, I do know that such tensions/misunderstanding/conflicts are real. Yes, there are indeed pockets of Asian Americans who DO resent affirmative action; I myself take comfort in knowing that they are the statistical minority. Thanks for writing!


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