Asian American resentment against affirmative action (SCA5)

A case of performative allyship for the BLM movement

Aroshi Ghosh
Jun 28, 2020 · 5 min read

The recent 2020 protests in favor of the Black Lives Matter movement were unique in that they unified people from many minority communities, especially young Asian Americans, who defied their parents to challenge the systemic racism prevalent in this country. See article on how “Young Asians and Latinos push their parents to acknowledge racism amid protests.”

Credits: Instyle magazine (Asian Americans show a united front in support of BLM movement)

Yet, this allyship took a hit when the University of California’s Board of Regents voted unanimously to support restoring affirmative action in California after the protests. If this measure passes, it would reverse the 1996 passage of Proposition 209 to ban affirmative action at the state’s public institutions. In 2014, when there was a proposal to reinstate affirmative action, the Chinese American community took a lead in opposing it and started a Change.org petition that gathered over 115,000 signatures. In my own Indian American community, there is considerable skepticism about the fairness of a system that considers prospective students’ race, ethnicity, gender, and national origin in the admissions process to highly selective universities. So was this show of solidarity temporary and dissolved quickly when the avenues of economic advancement through academic success were challenged.

If we want to be real allies to the Black community and the BLM cause rather than play at performative allyship, Asian Americans must research how the principles of affirmative action really operate and explore the underlying causes of resentment that prevents us from looking at the bigger picture of racial injustice. Instead of supporting one camp or the other on SCA5, we must ask the right questions to understand the nuances for Asian support of BLM and the antipathy towards SCA5 within our communities.

The strongest criticism against SCA5 or affirmative action is that Asian American children strive so hard to be successful, yet even with perfect SAT/ACT scores, stellar extra-curricular activities, internships, community service, athletic camps they are rejected by schools like Stanford, Harvard, and Princeton, while candidates from other minority groups sail through the admissions process with lower statistics.

Being branded as the model minority i.e. achieving a higher degree of socioeconomic success has resulted in many Asian Americans internalizing the notion of being superior to other ethnic or minority communities. In reality, this image is a myth, a strategy used to drive a wedge between minority communities and pit them against each other.

Interestingly, the term “model minority” was coined by a White sociologist William Petersen in 1966, when he wrote in The New York Times about how a stable family structure and the ethos of hard work helped Asian Americans “to overcome the discrimination” and “achieve success in the United States”. P. Kasinitz’ article counters the validity of this image and highlights how many Asian American communities are not doing so well in reality and how it is, in fact, detrimental to the well-being of the younger generation from these communities as they are pressured by parents and peers to live up to unrealistic ideals.

Being a student at one of the more competitive high schools located in the affluent community of Almaden in San Jose, CA, I have personally witnessed this phenomenon in action. Stressed-out students struggling to compete with each other and trying to hire the best counselor in the hope of securing admission to their dream school is a widespread trend. Sometimes, this pressure takes on more sinister overtones when it results in cheating scandals or suicides. Counselors often recommend Asian kids to appear less Asian in their activities to have a shot in the competitive arena of college admissions. Maybe it is time we realized that the model minority myth is not sustainable and maybe we should open our eyes to a flawed system that merely encourages hostility against one another in a war of attrition where no one really wins.

Image credits: Psychology Today

After the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States, many Asian Americans had to face the brunt of racism because the coronavirus had originated in China. The stereotype of the model minority quickly evaporated and many Asian Americans were victims of violence and verbal insults. You probably remember the Japanese internment during WWII, when 120,000 people of Japanese origins were put in concentration camps. You may have heard about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that suspended Chinese labor migration to the US and excluded them from citizenship. California’s Alien Land Law discriminated against Indian men from Punjab due to which they married Mexican women and transferred the land in their name just to be able to farm and earn a living. And, most of us witnessed the post 9/11 backlash against Arab and Middle Eastern Americans. It is important for all ethnic communities in the United States to realize that a fundamental change in the system can only be achieved if we unite with each other and strive for equity. Otherwise, we will always be seen as “foreign” or the “other”.

Credits: THINK magazine (Protests against attacks on Asian Americans after the COVID-19 pandemic)

If Asians are such natural allies for the BLM movement and the rights of other minority groups in the United States due to shared experiences of discrimination, why are they excluded from the “defined minority group” for affirmative action like Hispanics or Pacific Islanders?

While I agree with affirmative action, I feel that the way it is implemented may warrant a change.

It is my belief that economic factors are stronger indicators of the need for affirmative action rather than racial classification. By clubbing together diverse ethnic communities along racial lines, we are playing into the “divide and conquer” strategy of the establishment. Immigration policies shift continuously and there may be significant gaps in education, income, and socioeconomic status within Asian, Black, Latino, and other minorities. Interestingly, Southeast Asian Americans are known to face “poverty at 11% higher level than the national average” and 57 percent of Cambodian Americans and 53 percent of Hmong Americans have very poor access to education through quality children’s schools. See article. This suggests that class equality is a bigger problem than racial inequality when it comes to access to education because leveling the playing field through affirmative action actually benefits only the upper-class African Americans or Hispanic Americans.

This does not mean that we refrain from standing by the Black or Brown members of our community in their moment of struggle. Rather, it implies that we must change the premise of the debate. Instead of arguing that affirmative action is biased towards Asian Americans, we must work together to implement affirmative action using an economic model. Ultimately, the economic standing of an individual’s family should be the deciding factor in all attempts to level the playing field rather than race.

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