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.
- An internal memo from the Justice Department’s announcing its intentions to pursue “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university 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.
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.
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.
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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.