Affirmative action foes' new tool: Asian Americans as the New Jews

May 31, 2012 2:03 PM

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 action.

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.

Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, @emilamok.

Posted by:Emil Guillermo

The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the views or policies of AALDEF.


1. You will get a full response response from me in the SF Chronicle when I have time to write it. What you wrote is basically nonsense.
Posted by: biaknabato | Jun 1, 201212:35 PM

2. I could not disagree with this article more, and I'm appalled that this is AALDEF's position on this issue. AALDEF has just lost a supporter.
Posted by: newyorker | Jun 1, 2012 1:54 PM

3. I usually agree with you on your blog posts, but I just have to disagree here. "Just because you dont get into one good school, it isnt the end of the world". The difference here is that you are not rewarding people for academic merit (which admissions are supposed to do) but for their skin color. What kind of example does that set for Asian Americans? "Oh, you either have to work EVEN HARDER to get into a top university...because you're yellow." I would NEVER want my kids to be judged for their skin color. I understand, being in a diverse group is the ultimate goal for colleges. But affirmative action doesn't do that as I'll explain below. And in today's society, going to the top schools DOES matter. 1) Employers want students from more prestigious schools (which generally provide more opportunities for students) and 2) the top schools are top schools for a reason: they are the best learning opportunity for you. If the object of high school and doing well in school is to get into the best college, what is the point of doing so if you already start off at a disadvantage than other kids of different skin colors? Affirmative action, by virtue, assumes that Asian Americans face no disadvantages whatsoever and plays into the idea of us being model minorities. I think affirmative action, on principle, is a good idea but you can't intact it until we have a better idea of racial groups and where the "troubled" students sit. A Harvard professor found that schools practicing racial preferences and affirmative action did not benefit low-income and disadvantage latino and black students. Instead, it benefited the rich, and often international, latino and black students. Moreover, it also pits us against Asian students who generally going from better financial backgrounds. Ultimately, the disadvantaged Asian American groups (ex: Southeast Asian Americans) will be hurt the most. Do you see the hypocrisy there? We NEED to first disaggregate data, not just for Asian Americans, but for all racial groups. Until we do that, we can't use affirmative action to solve anything. Yes, I agree with you, working with other minorities solves problems but we can't assume the African American experience is the same as the Asian American experience. We suffer different forms of struggles. Think of this analogy: Black racism is an apple, Asian racism is an orange. They are both fruits (forms of racism) but they are not the same thing. We can't compare apples to oranges; and therefore we can't say Black racism was WORSE than Asian racism or vice versa. My point here is working together is one thing, but to put our group at a disadvantage to do so is the wrong way to approach it. I mean, under your criteria, shouldn't there be affirmative action in sports scholarships? Asian Americans are unrepresented in professional sports and have faced racism in our rise to sports success (ex: Jeremy Lin). Wouldn't it be fair to "even-out" the field by having proportional representation? But hey, maybe this response will garner a discussion about this subject. I feel like Asian Americans, both pro-and-against this Supreme Court case, are overlooked in the entire debate about affirmative action.
Posted by: Adrian L | Jun 1, 2012 3:35 PM

4. Looking forward to your "nonsense"... or could it be the same old, same old? Hoping your SF Chronicle response addresses class privilege in all colors as well as the zero sum game of Opportunity in a "merit based system."
Posted by: sjx | Jun 1, 2012 4:08 PM

5. While I generally agree with your implied thesis- colleges should still be allowed to use race as one factor in admissions- I believe the evidence is still awfully strong that Asian Americans are discriminated against. Your argument that an Asian American denied at Harvard will nevertheless have a an array of other attractive colleges to choose from, i.e. Washington University in St. Louis, is really setting up a false dichotomy. The issue about discrimination has to do with individual colleges, not the system as a whole. In any event, presumably that Hispanic American or African American who narrowly misses the cut at Harvard will also have other fine colleges from which to choose. I would not like to see the Court overrule the Michigan decision but that is b/c I would rather college admissions decisions be left in the hands of colleges and not the Court.
Posted by: Patrick Mattimore | Jun 2, 2012 6:19 PM

6. Come on, people, read the fine print: "The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent the views or policies of AALDEF." No need to stop supporting this organization because you got butthurt over a blog post. I'm still undecided about affirmative action but the author here makes some good points about Americans becoming more and more selfish.
Posted by: Liars Club75 | Jun 2, 201210:51 PM

7. While the views is this blog do not necessarily represent the views or policies of AALDEF, support of the race conscious decision is clearly the AALDEF's current stance. Unfortunately, the only reason I can see for the AALDEF for supporting this stance is to sacrifice Asian American's as a whole for the assumed benefit to other minorities. Yes, those against a race conscious policy are using Asian Americans as a wedge. However, this tactic wouldn't hold up unless there some merit to it. 80-20 has pointed out some very interesting studies that show that there is discrimination against Asian Americans in college admissions, such as the fact that Asians must out compete other Asians and not the whole of the applicant pool to be admitted which is why of admitted students, Asians have the highest grades and test scores. By virtue of merit alone, there would be a much higher percentage of Asians admitted to their college of choice. Indeed, the fact that of the admitted students, Asians have to outperform every other group, including whites. Since the assumption is that whites do not face discrimination and thus receive no race conscious admission bumps, why must Asians out perform the whites for admission? This smacks of the effects of quotas. While there may be no cutoff number for students of any specific group to be admitted, there is clearly a method in place to limiting specific subsections of the population from being admitted. And if that's not what a quota does, what is? Unfortunately, this blog doesn't adequately address a single of these discriminatory concerns other than to say Asians ought to sacrifice themselves in favor of others in this "zero sum game." There's already a stereotype of Asian being self sacrificing without reward. Why support filing an amicus brief supporting this very behavior? Why support discrimination against Asians but not anyone else? I, for one, cannot support any organization that wishes to sacrifice myself, my friends, and my family merely to look like I'm playing nice with others.
Posted by: cvy | Jun 4, 201212:28 PM

8. This writer is clearly uninformed. There are many, many Asian-American students with identical credentials who have worked just as hard as their non-Asian counterparts and are denied admission--not to Harvard, mind you, but to state colleges. This happens in California where there are higher education budget crises going on as I write this. Many of these students are hard-working, first-generation immigrants. The fact that this "writer" ridicules the plight of these Asian-American students is inexcusable. I've lost respect for AALDEF.
Posted by: Mark | Jun 4, 2012 1:39 PM

9. "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?" Either I go to Harvard or Washington University is my personal choice. Having the right to go to Harvard and choosing Harvard are two different things. It is disappointing the author and AALDEF confuse these two concepts.
Posted by: equal seeker | Jun 4, 2012 3:39 PM

10. Asian-Americans should absolutely be supportive of affirmative action policies--even if at times, it seems to work against us. We are members of a minority, and should never forget this. We should be supportive of other peoples of colour and their needs.
Posted by: Justin | Jun 24, 2012 6:17 AM

11. I think the previous commentors have it correct: this isn't about ultimate success, it's about fairness and equality and "getting what one deserves" so to speak. If an Asian American applicant has higher numbers than a member of another minority group, they "deserve" to attain acceptance over that other member. By denying them Harvard, you are denying them what is just and fair by advantaging a minority with a slightly different skin tone. The fact of the matter remains: Asians are discriminated as well. Yet, they receieve no benefits. Where is the fairness in that? In what many consider a largely "merit" based system IE College sports, Asians are woefully underrepressented. Please name me 5 Asian American football players at the NCAA division 1 level, or for that matter, the NFL. Actually, can you even name me 1 or 2? Where is the affirmative action there? How can we benefit one group in college admissions for their race because they are "underrepresented" while not do so in another area similar area that is based largely on "merit". The hypocrisy is just ludicrous. Either everything should be pure merit based, or nothing should be. Society is picking and choosing just to restrict the advancement of Asian Americans. AALDEF? I thought you were to stand for Asian American interests? I believe the NAACP and the ACLU already stand for other groups. Asian Americans need an organization that ACTUALLY stands for what we want, and DEFENDS us. Get this bull out of here.
Posted by: Joe Wang | Jun 28, 201211:08 PM

12. The entire article is full of bogus arguement. I will consider this guy a traitor for Asian American in such an important issue. As a chinese american myself suffering for nearly 20 years of discrimination indirectly through the affirmative action, I am not in any forgiving mood.
Posted by: Josh | Jul 1, 2012 1:41 PM

13. This is complete nonsense. As an Asian American student, I understand that there are Asian American students that do not perform as well academic wise or credential wise. BUT, the current system will still choose a Black or Latino student that isn't as qualified over that Asian student that isn't qualified. The current system benefits no Asian at all, yes, because of the fact that "Asian" is lumped into one big group. That is also exactly why race should be dropped as a consideration at all. Honestly, one sign that affirmative action is simply wrong is this: If I, the same student, the same person, with the same credentials, was black, then I can almost certainly get into any Ivy League or any university that I wanted to with a full scholarship. But, because I'm Asian, I can't. My yellow skin color decides where I can or cannot go to college, and that is wrong.
Posted by: Jason | Sep 28, 2012 4:33 PM

14. The saddest thing to see is the abandonment of Martin Luther King's dream of having his children judged purely by the "content of their characters" and not by "the color of their skin" by African-Americans and Latino-Americans. Affirmative Actions discriminates against Asians when it comes to college application. Whether or not this new wrong is correcting the old wrong of slavery, it is fostering a new sense of resentment by Asian-Americans who have been discriminated against. How are you going to fix this "new wrong" in the future? Stop all racially-based college admission policies now, or you will see new generations growing up hating the other racial groups who are benefitting from the current Affirmative Action policies.
Posted by: Thomas | Oct 9, 2012 2:49 PM

15. Mr. Guillermo, you can't speak for Asian Americans and you can't handle the truth. AND THE TRUTH IS ASIAN-AMERICAN STUDENTS ARE THE VICTIMS OF THE RACIST AFFIRMATIVE ACTION POLICY. A nation that aspires to achieve racial equality cannot and should not support institutionalized racist policy. We can only end racial discrimination by ending racial discrimination, not by starting a new kind of racial discrimination, such as the racial preference policy in college admissions which is still widely practiced by many higher institutions. The racial preference affirmative action in college and university admissions has its unintended consequences which the proponents of affirmative action conveniently and continuously ignore. Self-righteous social engineering policy, which might even benefit one or few individuals, such as Justice Sotomayor, always fails on a grand scale. And once again, it was so eloquently argued by Law Professor Gail Heriot in her recent essay, "The Sad Irony of Affirmative Action". (
Posted by: AsianAmerican | Feb 10, 2013 5:34 PM

16. conflating a desire to be recognized by merit with CEOs taking bonuses is . . . ridiculous. and just . . . sophistry. critical thinking? ever hear of that?
Posted by: Heming Xu | Sep 12, 2013 5:24 PM

17. Not only is the analogy apt, the authors misdescription of it is telling. He claims a disanalogy based on Asians being diverse. The unstated premise is that Jews are not. Of course there are Jews of every race and even within those of the same race, individuals are all different and it shows a lack of respect for these individuals to describe them otherwise or to assume, as the author does, that this does not apply. Both Asians and Jews are groups which comprise diverse groups and individuals. Just to stress the obvious: The analogy is based on both groups out performing other groups academically, and therefore being represented at levels exceeding their proportion in the population ( but not vis a vis their qualifications) and the attempt by institutions ( including the state) to lower their representation by imposing a higher standard on them for admission. That is the issue -- the rest of what the author focuses on are read herrings which just distract from this point.
Posted by: bill | Mar 29, 201411:49 AM

18. The author poses the following question: 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 answer is no. Does this justify, say discrimination against Blacks who apply to Harvard? Could one say to a Black student who was discriminated against by Harvard based on his or her race, Don't complain, there is no real harm here. You can go to Rutgers." The obvious answer is no. It's not not getting in that is the harm; it is the discrimination that is. The same applies to Asians and other groups. The author seems blithely unaware of the distinction well established in law. A failing made worse because he writes with the imprimatur of a legal defense group which purports to defend Asians.
Posted by: bill | Mar 29, 201412:04 PM

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