AffirmativeAction-HERO

Dear Edward Blum, I Am Not Your Model Minority

Casey Chiang defends affirmative action, and explains real reason for Asian exceptionalism

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Words by Casey Chiang

The current debate on affirmative action extends a dangerous proposition to Asian Americans: that we embrace the infamous “model minority” myth.

In October, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments for two key affirmative action cases involving Harvard University and UNC-Chapel Hill. In both cases, the organization Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) seeks to eliminate race-conscious admissions, alleging that the practice discriminates against Asian American applicants.

On the surface, the case presents itself as an advocate for the rights of a wronged minority. Beneath, it is just another example of how the Asian American community is being used to defend racial hierarchies.

Despite not being a lawyer, SFFA president Edward Blum is the driving force behind these two cases. Having successfully gutted the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in 2013, Blum has developed a talent for orchestrating lawsuits that challenge the constitutionality of race-based policies, the aforementioned cases being the seventh and eighth of his to be heard by the Supreme Court.

Blum has been waging this war against affirmative action for some time now. In a previous attempt to outlaw the practice, Blum recruited white student Abigail Fisher, who was denied admission from University of Texas-Austin in 2008. With Blum’s backing, Fisher alleged that the inclusion of race in the university’s holistic review process disadvantaged her and other white applicants.

The case, at its core, was not about Fisher. Instead, it had a much larger agenda: to challenge race-based policies everywhere.

It was easy to see where Fisher’s argument fell flat. Though it’s true that students with lower scores than Fisher were granted admission, only five of them were Black or Latino, and 42 of them were white. Moreover, there were 168 Black and Latino applicants with similar or higher scores than Fisher who were also rejected from the university. Thus, it became apparent that the case, at its core, was not about Fisher. Instead, it had a much larger agenda: to challenge race-based policies everywhere.

Optically, a white girl crying racial discrimination did not play well. As Fisher vs. University of Texas made its way into headlines, the derogatory hashtag #StayMadAbby circulated on Twitter, often accompanied by Black students smiling in their graduation robes, sharing their academic achievements, and ridiculing Fisher’s case. In 2016, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Fisher and upheld UT-Austin’s race-conscious admissions practice as lawful.

In the wake of that loss, Blum sought to bring a new face to the affirmative action debate, one that he hoped would serve as a more sympathetic vessel for his aims: Asian Americans.

Since 1966, the “model minority” myth has been weaponized by white America to deny the perseverance of racism. The term was first coined by sociologist William Petersen in a New York Times Magazine article about minority success; if Japanese Americans could succeed despite the injustices done to them during WWII, other minorities should be able to do the same. Consequently, failure becomes the fault of the individual rather than that of any systemic offense.

The issue with this belief is that it disregards the historical context of Asian American success. Not long before Petersen’s article was published, the 1965 Immigration Act reversed decades of geographically restrictive immigration policies, including a virtual ban on all immigration from Asia. However, this was not an open invitation.

After immediate family members of those already in the U.S., only highly educated professionals, such as doctors and engineers, were granted entry. The resulting wave of immigrants and their children account for a significant portion of today’s Asian American community. Thus, the “model minority” myth is proven erroneous; Asian American success wasn’t born of persistence, but rather immigration policy. In recognizing this fallacy, the true intentions behind the myth are revealed: to pit minorities against each other, deny the tenacity of racial barriers, and prolong the legacy of white supremacy.

The “model minority” myth is proven erroneous; Asian American success wasn’t born of persistence, but rather immigration policy.

Blum’s mission to end race-conscious admissions echoes these goals. In an interview with The Washington Post, he claimed that the end of affirmative action “is just the beginning of the restoration of really the founding principles of our civil rights movement.” He is mistaken. While the civil rights movement strove for equity, Blum’s opposition to race-based affirmative action denies the persistence of inequity.

Perhaps in a world of equal opportunity, a color-blind meritocracy would stand. However, that is not the world we live in. It is important to recognize the reality that certain minority groups have inherited a world of unique and lasting disadvantage. Affirmative action is merely one effort to deliver justice and reparation as well as to give opportunity to those otherwise lacking.

One voter survey calculated some 69% of Asian Americans support affirmative action, though there is substantive opposition. Among the most outspoken are immigrant parents who came to the United States in the 1990s or later. While I don’t agree with their criticism, I understand their frustration. Coming from school systems that rely heavily on scores in Asia and lacking firsthand knowledge of U.S. racial history, I can see how the benefits of affirmative action may not be readily apparent. Further, given the sacrifices and inherent challenges immigrants face, the anxieties parents have over the opportunities available to their children is only natural.

However, the outlawing of affirmative action has implications beyond the elimination of quotas. In ruling race-conscious admissions practices unconstitutional, we raise the question of whether students would be able to mention their race in applications at all. If not, college applications would become just another facet in which minority voices are stifled and their experiences of racism invalidated.

Nine states have already banned affirmative action in its public universities, including California and Michigan. Unsurprisingly, the result was a decreased share of underserved minorities admitted and enrolled.

Not only that, but nine states have already banned affirmative action in its public universities, including California and Michigan. Unsurprisingly, the result was a decreased share of underserved minorities admitted and enrolled. Even with extensive targeted outreach, highly selective universities such as UMich and several UC schools struggle to pull together a diverse student body.

Frankly, race-conscious affirmative action is hardly the perfect approach. Consider, for example, that Asian Americans have the largest wealth gap of any racial group in the United States. Financial flexibility seems to me a more accurate indicator of opportunity than race. While the two are undeniably related, I believe that socioeconomic-based affirmative action would yield better results when it comes to targeting aid to the disadvantaged.

With the conservative supermajority, it’s likely that race-based affirmative action will be overturned when the Supreme Court gives its opinion this summer. While devastating, it is my hope that the decision will invite universities to consider new solutions. Still, I will not root for Blum’s victory when he is so clearly using Asian Americans to further his own interests under the flimsy pretense of civil rights.

To my fellow Asian Americans, don’t be fooled by this faux hero. We are being made a pawnagain. Though the Asian American community should not shy away from speaking against injustice, our activism should not be at the cost of other minority groups.

And to Edward Blumthe self-proclaimed civil rights championI refuse to be your model minority.

Published on January 15, 2023

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Words by Casey Chiang

Casey Chiang is a New York-based journalist currently working as a production assistant for the PBS and CNN International global-affairs interview program Amanpour and Company. As a Chinese American woman, she’s especially interested in reporting on issues that threaten marginalized communities. In her free time, Casey is an avid reader and also enjoys cooking, tennis, and making art. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram at @cchiang98.