Why Asian Americans Refuse to Be a Wedge in the War on Affirmative Action

The New York Times reported Tuesday that the Trump administration plans to direct Justice Department resources toward investigating universities that have used affirmative action admissions policies to discriminate against white applicants. In reaction, Roger Clegg, a former deputy assistant attorney general in the Reagan and Bush administrations and now president of the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity, praised the initiative, saying, “[I]t is frequently the case that not only are whites discriminated against now, but frequently Asian-Americans are as well.”

This divisive strategy was further cemented by the Justice Department’s response Wednesday that the internal document the Times obtained only pertained to the investigation of one lawsuit filed by a coalition of 64 Asian American associations in 2015, which claimed that Harvard University had discriminated against Asian American students in the admissions process.

We have been here before. Asian Americans and the issue of affirmative action have long been used to drive a wedge between communities of color and obfuscate the real purpose of the program, which brings opportunity to students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

What affirmative action opponents and the media tend to get wrong is this: These singular cases obscure the fact that 64% of Asian American voters support affirmative action programs, of which they have been direct beneficiaries for the past 50 years, with affirmative action helping to significantly increase Asian representation at elite schools. Affirmative action continues to uplift the Asian community, particularly young people from traditionally disadvantaged Asian groups, such as Southeast Asians and low-income families.

The Asian American Federation’s 2014 report on The State of Asian American Children shows that the model minority myth, which has plagued the pan-Asian community since the 1960s, obscures the reality that, while college attendance rates among East and South Asian groups are high, other Asian groups are less likely to be enrolled in college or graduate school than the general population of 18- to 24-year-olds, with the lowest rates among the Bhutanese, Burmese, Laotian, Cambodian, and Hmong communities. Similarly, Southeast Asians and low-income Asian students are more likely to attend community colleges and less selective institutions and are less likely to attain a degree. In fact, the Asian community’s enrollment in community colleges as a whole has been increasing at a faster rate than the community’s enrollment in four-year colleges, due to limitations of social class and English proficiency.

Affirmative action opened the door to higher education for the pan-Asian community in the aftermath of the Chinese Exclusion Act—which was in force from 1882 to 1943—and Japanese American internment during World War II, at a time when systemic racism barred our grandparents and parents from accessing a better life for themselves. Now more than ever, when 12% of Asian Americans in the U.S. live in poverty and more than a quarter of Asian New Yorkers live below the poverty line, we must remember that our community as a whole made advances through affirmative action programs. Most of us have succeeded because of admissions policies that took our race, class, and unique experiences as immigrants and children of immigrants into consideration.

For that reason and especially during this challenging time, we must keep the doors of opportunity open for those who need a little more help to achieve their goals, as well as for the generations to come.

Jo-Ann Yoo is executive director of the Asian American Federation.

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