On Tools and Wedges

Last week, a group called Students for Fair Admission, created by a man named Edward Blum, filed lawsuits against Harvard and UNC for employing racially discriminatory policies in their admissions decisions. The complaint against Harvard claims that the school has a strict quota on the number of Asian applicants it will admit, citing the fairly consistent numbers of Asians admitted each year despite changing numbers of Asian applicants. The case against UNC states that the school could achieve diversity through other means but is not doing so. Blum, it should be noted, seems to have dedicated himself to taking down affirmation action one school at a time. His group is also behind the Fisher v. University of Texas case, which involved a white applicant suing the school on similar grounds. This time, the focus of his case is around Asian Americans, something you don’t even need to read the complaint to see: the front pages of the project’s main sites all show pictures of Asian American (generally East Asian) students, and similar sites with similar pictures had actually been up for months now asking anyone who has felt discriminated against in the college admissions process to contact Blum’s group.

My initial reaction to hearing about this case was a fairly even mix of dread, frustration and not an insignificant amount of fatigue. This is a story we’ve heard before, one that follows in a long tradition of Asian American voices, images, and identities being coopted to reinforce oppression of communities of colour, to act as a wedge driving these communities apart. Once again, a very particular type of Asian American experience – one that fits into the narrative of the high-achieving model minority – has been plucked out and used as an example of how we’ve moved past race, or don’t need to consider it anymore, or are actually harming ethnic minorities by thinking about it too much. And once again, perhaps most frustratingly, we have another case of people talking about and talking for, but never really talking to, Asian American communities.

That’s what comes out for me most the more I read about this case. In calling for Asian American plaintiffs and building its case around supposed discrimination, Students for Fair Admission seems to be trying to present itself as standing in solidarity with Asian American communities. But nothing about what the group has done has shown that it has any interest in really engaging with Asian American and Pacific Islander (API) communities or individuals in a substantive way. If they had done so, maybe that would have led to some nuanced discussion about the huge heterogeneity in experiences and identities that fall under the umbrella of ‘Asian American’, or the many structural barriers that many Asian American communities face in accessing higher education. Or maybe that would have led them to contacting one of the number of Asian American groups that do actually oppose affirmative action (there are a few, unfortunately). The fact that the group didn’t seem to even go far enough to identify potential allies, let alone detractors, in the community that it purports to represent is highly indicative to me that they are only looking to use Asian Americans as props for their own particular ends, that is, ending affirmative action. And so once again we have the experiences of Asian Americans being held up and shown off to other people in power, to other marginalized groups, to anyone it seems, except Asian Americans themselves.

One final thing: I don’t mean to say that the individual plaintiffs who are involved in this case are necessarily being tricked, or used, or don’t know what they’re getting themselves into. The point of this post wasn’t to present a scolding ‘why don’t they know better’ to Asian Americans who oppose affirmative action. I do think there is a real need for Asian American groups and individuals on both sides of the issue to engage with each other (a great example of that here), and find a way to target sources of frustration or feelings of marginalization in API communities. And at the very least, I think we need to come together to say that we don’t need to have other people speaking for us and using our stories anymore.

Addendum: Because I’m apparently really into links with this post, here’s one to a whole bunch of Asian American resources/groups who support affirmative action and oppose Blum’s case.

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2 thoughts on “On Tools and Wedges

  1. Really interesting post, Marc, and a very interesting topic too. I think Blum is pretty sinister and his campaign is obviously based in very deep-seated racism. My question is kind of naive–do API advocacy organizations support soft caps on the number of API admits? While I obviously support affirmative action I also don’t see how capping the number of API students could possibly be a legitimate practice. Is there a way, or an effort even, to separate the desire to end anti-API racism in admissions without touching the core principles of affirmative action?

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    1. Not a naive question at all! I think for me fighting against anti-API racism in admissions and maintaining affirmative action both come down to recognizing the heterogeneity within the ‘API’ category. The model minority myth is driving both Blum’s use of Asian American plaintiffs in his case as well as, I’m pretty sure, any desire from schools to ‘cap’ API admits. Recognizing that there are API communities that experience really high levels of poverty and low educational attainment and many other structural barriers, and using affirmative action as a tool to support those communities, I think would go a long way to furthering both goals. This is sort of happening in the way that ‘Asian American’ and “Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander” are now two different categories at least, but more recognition of that diversity is definitely needed.

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