Anti-affirmative action activist targets Asians
How do you know when you’re a pawn in someone else’s political game? Asian-Americans may soon be asking themselves that question. Edward Blum, an anti-affirmative action crusader and the executive director of the conservative Project on Fair Representation, unveiled three new websites in early April, and each prominently featured Asian faces.
“Were You Denied Admission to the University of North Carolina? It may be because you’re the wrong race,” reads one website, the copy on each website tailored to each university.
Blum launched these websites with two goals in mind: “to educate the public,” he says, and to gather testimonials from students who’ve been denied admission to these three universities with an eye toward filing a lawsuit to challenge their affirmative action programs.
In its 2013 ruling on Fisher v. Texas, the Supreme Court established a new doctrine that schools must follow if they intend to use racial identity preferences in their admissions system.
According to Blum, that doctrine is one of “strict scrutiny,” which requires that universities show that they’ve exhausted all race-neutral avenues before considering race when compiling their incoming classes. Blum says that all three universities violate that standard.
Part propaganda, part casting call
The new websites are a direct appeal to the Asian-American community to join the next phase of the decades-long legal fight to dismantle affirmative action programs in higher education. Given the social and political marginalization of Asian-Americans, this kind of prominent placement is far from incidental, says Jennifer Lee, a professor sociology at the University of California at Irvine.
“He’s doing an excellent job of using Asian-Americans as a wedge to oppose race-conscious admissions,” Lee said.
Blum disagrees that by propping up Asian-Americans as victims of affirmative action, he’s using them as a political wedge in an undeniably racial debate.
“I think that assertion is misguided,” Blum says. “I’ve always used Asian-American pictures, along with those of whites, blacks and Hispanics,” Blum says, pointing to the website UTnotfair.org, which he launched in 2007.
Of his latest campaign, Blum said, “Some of the pictures are obviously Asian but some are obviously indeterminate
Asian-Americans are stereotyped as universally successful, wealthy and high-achieving, and therefore make for a compelling foil to the experiences of African-Americans and Latinos.
“Asian-Americans have been used over and over and over again to make the point that racism is not an insurmountable disadvantage if you’re willing to just shut up and put up and work hard enough to succeed,” says Scot Nakagawa, senior partner at the racial justice think tank ChangeLab.
Blum’s campaign carries the stereotype a step further by implying that not only is affirmative action unnecessary but that it harms Asian Americans while unfairly advantaging other groups like African-Americans, Latinos and Native-Americans.
“It’s outrageous,” says Vincent Pan, the executive director of the San Francisco-based Chinese for Affirmative Action. “For a group that purports to promote the ridiculous notion of colorblindness, the fact that they’re featuring Asian faces demonstrates their own hypocrisy.”
Are Asians victims in the admissions game?
Blum insists that affirmative action should be dismantled because it hurts Asian-Americans.
“It’s important for Asian-Americans to understand that there is very colorable evidence that Harvard, Columbia and other Ivy League schools have for the last 15 years consciously, purposefully limited by quota the number of Asians they will accept,” Blum says.
The Supreme Court explicitly outlawed the use of racial quotas in 1978. Harvard has maintained that it doesn’t have a quota system, and the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights did not complete a 2012 probe into alleged discrimination against Asian applicants at Harvard and Princeton after the student withdrew their complaint.
Foes of affirmative action frequently cite a prominent 2009 study by Princeton professor Thomas Espenshade and researcher Alexandra Radford which found that black applicants with SAT scores of 1150 (of a possible 1600) had a roughly equal shot of being accepted to top private schools in 1997 as white applicants who scored in the 1460s and Asian-American applicants who scored a maximum 1600.
Foes of affirmative action frequently cite the Espenshade and Radford study as proof that affirmative action is tantamount to discrimination. But Espenshade himself has always noted that his findings are not a smoking gun proving that top-tier universities discriminate against Asian applicants. He did not have access to other factors like personal essays, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, community service or personal backgrounds.
In short, while there’s plenty of rumor and some circumstantial evidence, there’s no concrete proof yet that Ivy Leagues discriminate against Asian applicants.
By simultaneously launching similar websites and linking the admissions policies of Harvard with public universities like University of Wisconsin and University of North Carolina, Blum blurs the line between publics and privates, and takes advantage of the widespread misunderstandings of how admissions policies work, says Lee.
“Private universities are not bound in the same way public universities are. Harvard doesn’t have the same responsibility to educate people in Massachusetts the way University of Wisconsin does the people of Wisconsin,” Lee says.
For disgruntled white and Asian students who’ve been denied admission to their chosen college it’s easy to attribute that to race because it’s the most salient part of a person’s identity. But admissions at selective universities is much more complex. At University of Wisconsin, for example, after grades and ACT or SAT scores, the university considers other factors including life experiences, work background, leadership qualities, “motivation,” community service, “special talents,” their status as a non-traditional or returning adult student, U.S. military or veteran status and socioeconomic background. The last factor is whether the applicant is a member of a historically underrepresented racial minority.
Indeed, in its response to Abigail Fisher’s affirmative action lawsuit, The University of Texas pointed out that even if the university did away with any consideration of race, Fisher wouldn’t have been admitted.
The Asian-American reality
There’s nothing new about Blum’s strategic positioning of Asian-Americans, says Nakagawa, and all too often, Asian-Americans have been party to the myth-making. Not only are Asians used as a wedge to break up anti-racist coalitions, they’re also useful as “a shield against being accused of racism when you do something like attack affirmative action,” Nakagawa says.
The story of Asian-American success is much more complex, and campaigns that try to convince Asian Americans that they’re victims of their own success obscure two things, says Janelle Wong, professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland. The first is that Asians benefit from structural advantages not equally apportioned to all groups of color. Selective immigration policy means that many Asian immigrants who come to the U.S. are highly educated professionals, and Asians gain social protection from the fact that they’re not labeled black by a viciously anti-black society.
The second is that not all Asians are successful. Hmong, Laotian and Cambodian Americans have the lowest high school attainment levels in the country, lower than that of blacks and Latinos. And while Asian-Americans post the highest household incomes of any racial group in the U.S., experts say that obscures the reality that Asian-Americans are more likely than other racial groups to live in larger, multi-generational households which inflates their actual levels of wealth.
Despite the rhetoric, and the recent outcry from a Mandarin-speaking minority of the Chinese immigrant community, Asian-Americans support affirmative action by a significant margin. According to the National Asian American Survey, 76 percent of Asian-Americans say they support affirmative action programs “designed to help blacks, women and other minorities get better jobs and education.”
Holding up Asian-Americans as victims in the affirmative action debate, “plays on the notion of who’s deserving and who’s not,” says Nakagawa, “and in the current racial narrative, Asian-Americans are among the deserving minorities.”