The response to the recent federal ruling that Harvard does not discriminate against Asian Americans in their admissions process has been extremely polarizing in what was already an intense debate about the merits of affirmative action policies. In reading Stella Huang’s guest column on this lawsuit, I am compelled to disagree with the foundation of her article. To start, the initial question posed by Huang — whether Asian Americans are a racial minority — was concerning. This question is not a complex one and it is not a question when considering how Asian Americans have been treated. I argue that Huang could have addressed this question with a simple yes or no answer while still making her claim. The simple answer is yes: Asian Americans are and have always been a racial minority. Additionally, I do not believe that the term “Asian American” is a complicated one. It is an ethnic label, and just because this label comprises many people from many countries does not mean that the label becomes complicated to understand or respect.
I most strongly disagree with Huang’s claim that the term Asian American is better suited for “a time in history when Americans of Asian descent needed to band together under an umbrella term that washed away individual differences” rather than what she calls the “modern American.” By saying this, I assume that the historical period Huang references is one in which she presumes racism toward Asians was somehow worse. This plays into the myth that racism is not as bad as many claim it to be, given the ability of Asian Americans to heroically and admirably overcome racial obstacles.
Huang’s article highlights the wealth and intelligence of Asian Americans, specifically Chinese Americans. She calls this idolized trope of the ability to supposedly overcome racial discrimination a “pivotal leap from minority to majority,” yet this transition is impossible in the world we live in, where the majority will always, without fail, be Caucasian. It is merely an idea implanted by those who employ the “model minority” myth, which relies on the statistical economic success of Asian Americans compared to whites to undermine the existence of institutional racism. Research actually implies that the notorious social mobility of Asian Americans is only a result of a declining labor discrimination against them as compared to other racial minorities following World War II. As legal discrimination became more difficult, it became harder for companies to pay less based on prejudice rather than productivity, with Army General Classification Test scores from the 1940s suggesting near-equal intelligence levels among Asian and white populations while scores from black Americans fell behind. The popularization of this trope makes what Huang calls the “pivotal leap” seem easily acquirable and admirable when it is not. Therefore, to imply that Asian Americans no longer need this label is to ignore the fact that institutional discrimination has remained just as restrictive, even if it is perhaps less observable.
Furthermore, Huang’s brief concession to the discrimination Asian Americans still face regarding poverty in New York City deserves much more attention than it was given. Many arguments against racism cite the higher-average income for Asian Americans than whites, but 2017 Census data shows that the poverty rate for Asian Americans is actually 1.5 percent higher than non-Hispanic whites. It’s extremely important to note these poverty rates as they exemplify the unmoving discriminatory practices society participates in, whether it’s done consciously or not. In fact, Asian job applicants with names typically associated with whiteness were found to receive a 7 percent higher callback rate than those with names that could be easily associated with Asian ethnicities. While it is unlikely that these employers consciously turned down applicants because of their names, it is a clear demonstration of how racism is a systemic practice, even though many believe it is no more than the conscious decision to sabotage racial minorities.
In supporting affirmative action, despite being Chinese American, I do not feel as if I am betraying other Asian Americans by supporting a policy that is becoming infamous for its so-called “Asian tax.” While race-blind admissions processes are admirable at first glance, there are multiple studies that suggest the popularized idea that color blindness combats racism is actually quite harmful to racial minorities. For example, sociologist Ruth Frankenberg defines what we know to be color blindness as color evasion, arguing it is simply another method of “rejecting the idea of white racial superiority.” Furthermore, the popular claim that Asians would make up the majority of prestigious college campuses most often fails to acknowledge the lack of ethnic representation among this majority. For example, the University of California, Berkeley, which does not regard race in their admissions process, has an overwhelming 40 percent of Asian Americans enrolled. However, Chinese Americans and South Asian Americans make up 69 percent of that Asian American student population. In this sense, how fair can race-blind admissions be if they only benefit specific Asian ethnicities?
I, of course, recognize how affirmative action can obviously hurt the enrollment opportunities for Asian Americans, just how I recognize how they can obviously hurt enrollment opportunities for white applicants. However, I believe there is a way to acknowledge our intersectional privilege as a minority, and that is by supporting affirmative action policies without disregarding the label of Asian American. Stereotypes of Asian Americans, although undoubtedly hurtful, are not nearly as derogatory as those of other minorities. While it is not ideal to have to place minorities on a spectrum based on the amount of racism they endure, I find it impossible to ignore intersectionality at a time when the odds of a young black man being killed by the police are higher than the odds of winning scratch-off lottery games, and when one in three members of the Latino community report job and housing discrimination.
In writing this column, I hope to make clear that my opinions on affirmative action do not stem from confusion or miscommunication, as the NPR interview Huang referenced may suggest. I acknowledge the sacrificial aspect of affirmative action and choose to support it despite these consequences, knowing that Asian Americans who face the “Asian tax” are still very likely to get into multiple reputable schools, which other minorities struggle much more to accomplish. The idea of most colleges being Asian American is obviously appealing to me at the surface level. I have never been in an educational setting in which I feel I am equally represented, let alone the 74 percent majority Huang referenced in regard to Stuyvesant High School. Still, as awakening an experience with a majority-Asian university may be, I would not prefer it if it meant even further diminishment of other racial demographics.
Kaitlyn Liu is a sophomore majoring in English.