Oy vey! Did you hear the one about how Asian Americans are the new Jews?
The idea has actually been kicking around for a few years now but has resurfaced
in the preliminary stages leading up to the U.S. Supreme Court’s hearing later
this year in Fisher v. University of Texas, the latest threat to affirmative
In Fisher, the white plaintiff is challenging how Texas seeks out blacks and
Latinos for college admissions. But in at least two amicus briefs filed this
week, the secret weapon to fight UT’s policies has been the purported harm
caused not just to whites but Asian Americans.
One brief, filed jointly by an Asian American advocacy group, 80-20, and the
Brandeis Center, says that the Asian American experience is similar to the
anti-Semitism Jews faced in college admissions in the past. The tack (anti-Asian
American = anti-Semitism) is effective in making people feel the emotional side
of the issue.
But rehashing data from the past and comparing them to recent Asian American
admissions stats (primarily from Daniel Golden’s book of 2006, The Price of
Admission) is really a red herring. Historically, Jews were subjected to real
quotas in college admissions. No such quotas exist now; in fact, current
affirmative action law in force today already outlaws quotas.
That’s not to say bad things don’t happen to good Asian American applicants. In
the zero sum game that is college admissions, some Asian Americans, despite good
grades and high test scores, still don’t get in.
Most of the major Asian American organizations, including AALDEF, continue to
believe as Justice O’Connor did when she reaffirmed in Grutter v. Bollinger
the continuing need for affirmative action in 2003: “We expect that 25 years
from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further
the interest approved today.”
In the ongoing search for equity in all of society, it remains the correct
stance, as I’ve recently written.
What I find interesting is the adoption of the minority “victim” strategy by
anti-affirmative action groups like 80-20.
Is the harm to Asian Americans really a harm at all when someone doesn’t get
into the Ivy League school of their choice?
Does one suffer irreparable damage when one must go to, say, Washington
University at St. Louis instead of Harvard?
Is it really Harvard or bust?
The truth is when bad things happen to good Asian American students, they still
end up in great schools, with solid paths to successful careers.
They don’t end up tragically in the Tenderloin of life bemoaning their
underappreciated 4.0 GPA and stellar high school resume. No one ends up playing
violin for spare change at subway stops.
Meanwhile, for some remarkable black and Latino candidates, affirmative action
often represents a once in a lifetime opportunity. The resulting good to society
is apparent by the real societal benefit of affirmative action throughout the
years: a rising black and Latino middle class.
It’s an unfortunate fact that the admission of what one school deems is a
qualified applicant will displace another.
But that happens every day in real life.
Still, this latest threat to affirmative action, with Asian Americans as a wedge
among people of color, just feels different, as if maybe the divide and conquer
strategy may work this time.
Whatever ruling occurs on affirmative action, for Asian Americans, this current
fight has exposed real generational and ethnic fissures that are tearing apart
whatever it is we mean when we say “Asian America” today.
Since the 1960s, the community’s make-up has evolved. With an increasing number
of new immigrants, the ties to the civil rights values of the past have eroded.
Increasingly, more Asian Americans are becoming less community-minded and more
self-serving, lending an ear to more conservative ideas. Greater good is losing
out to “What about me?”
All this coincides with an era of increasing inequality–when the rich don’t feel
it necessary to pay more taxes, when conservatives justify morally bankrupt
policies that balance the budget on the backs of the poor, when CEOs feel no
shame in taking bailouts and bonuses.
It makes it easy for some Asian Americans to cross the line on such an
old-fashioned civil rights remedy as affirmative action. Indeed, 80-20’s leader,
S.B. Woo, formerly a Democratic public official (Lt. Governor of Delaware),
doesn’t seem to care about the alliances among all minorities that have brought
gains to Asian Americans since the inception of affirmative action.
Ironically, even those who promote the “Asian Americans are the new Jews” idea
know Asian Americans as a group aren’t homogeneous, and that many in our
ethnically-diverse community are underrepresented and underserved in health
care, employment, as well as in education. But that doesn’t seem to matter.
Furthermore, they aren’t thinking about what advocating for white or Asian
super-majorities in college does to our much needed political alliances with
other people of color to assure diversity throughout society.
That’s what makes this particular fight for affirmative action a real battle for
the soul of the community.
If the anti-affirmative action advocates win, it will be a hollow victory for
Asian Americans, and a defining moment in identity politics.
It will mark the time when Asian Americans, the erstwhile model minority,
actually became white.