Emil Guillermo: Let's end this civil war on affirmative action among Asian Americans

July 8, 2015 8:46 AM

This may be the best time ever for Asian Americans to realize what's really in their best interest. 

And though it may surprise you, it could actually be this thing called "affirmative action."

It sure isn't suing Harvard for discrimination. 

In fact, the U.S. Education Department has done that coalition of more than 60 Asian American groups a favor by dismissing its complaint alleging that Harvard discriminates against Asian American applicants.

The reason? Another suit against Harvard was filed already in Boston federal court by conservative Edward Blum.

You remember Blum. He's the guy who advertised for the perfect victim of college admissions, as if he were trying to find a mail-order bride.

Blum, a serial anti-affirmative action fighter, has already recruited a number of willing Asian Americans who responded to websites that asked, "Were You Denied Admission to Harvard? It may be because you're the wrong race."

He's now got a group of Asian Americans to use as human shields as he prepares for battle in court.

I don't know which is more distasteful: a white conservative elite using and manipulating Asian Americans to end affirmative action? 

Or angry, short-sighted Asian Americans who feel rejection from Harvard is a form of racial discrimination at the hands of this evil affirmative action?

Coalition organizer Yukong Zhao told reporters that despite the dismissal of his case, he's not giving up: "We will continue to pursue equal rights for Asian American students."

I admire Zhao's spirit. 

I just disagree with his reading of the situation.

And I hope the dismissal gives him and other members of the coalition some time to realize just who exactly has the best interests of Asian Americans in mind.

It's certainly not Eddie Blum.

When the news broke about the dismissal, I was coincidentally talking with Jennifer Lee, a Korean American and a sociology professor at University of California at Irvine. She's co-authored with Min Zhou a new book called, "The Asian American Achievement Paradox." 

It actually declaws all the Tiger Mom talk and elevates the discussion on the "Model Minority Myth."

But Lee also has some thoughts on affirmative action.

JenniferLeeonTavis.jpgJennifer Lee, UC-Irvine sociology professor & co-author of "The Asian America Achievement Paradox," appears on The Tavis Smiley Show.

She said when she speaks in public, the thing that upsets Asian Americans--Chinese Americans in particular--is the idea that affirmative action could actually help them. 

"They're not thinking about that," she said. "Obviously, we need it because we don't have the institutional advantages that we think we do."

I played devil's advocate. "Yet people can't get beyond their self-interest," I said. What else can the straight A, perfect score Asian conclude but that race played a part in keeping the numbers of Asian admits to Harvard low?

"They think it's in their self-interest to fight affirmative action," Lee said. "But [it is] only in a very narrow way, without thinking of their broader life course."

In other words, after you graduate from your elite school and the stereotype of Asian Americans as lacking in leadership hits you in the workplace and keeps you from management promotions, you'll surely be singing a different tune.

"Asian Americans should be supportive of policies like affirmative action because we will need them," Lee said.

Yeah, but what if one didn't get into Harvard and the crimson bruise to the ego doesn't fade away. (Not me, I got in. I have other bruises.)

Whenever I've talked to admissions officers at Harvard, they've always denied using "affirmative action." Instead, they claim to use the holistic approach, considering factors such as what an applicant has overcome in his or her life. 
Affirmative action sometimes gets generalized as the use of race in admissions. But in a holistic process, race is just one of many factors that end up in the mix. And it's not necessarily the key one.

In that sense, even if you take race out of an admission equation, it may not give you what you think you want. 

For some Asian Americans, there's a belief that race-blind admissions would result in more Asian American admissions.

"I think there's a misconception that if race is not considered, more Asian Americans would be offered admissions in places like Harvard, and I would argue that's not the case at all," Lee said.

She said it probably would give more advantages to others with privilege, such as the child of a legacy or those from underserved geographical areas.

"So if we think of Asian Americans [as being] hurt by affirmative action, then that's not the case," Lee said. "What you're doing is redistributing other kinds of factors so that white students [in the majority] are most likely to benefit."

And that's why the dismissal of the U.S. Education Department complaint is probably a good result. Blum got there first. But even Blum is redundant of the Fisher v. University of Texas case, first decided by the high court in 2013. With the Supreme Court agreeing to revisit Fisher next year, it could derail Blum's latest challenge against Harvard. 

No wonder that Harvard's lawyers have asked for a stay of the Blum lawsuit. It all could be hot air. 

So all combatants should use the time wisely to pause and think.

That means you, members of the 60 community groups in the coalition.

Do you really want Ed Blum to lead you to his promised land?

Or maybe it's time to realize that the broad group of Asian Americans, who have steadfastly supported affirmative action and taken a united stand against the efforts to end it, really do have the entire community's best long-term interests at heart.

*     *     *
Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. 
Updates at www.amok.com. Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.
The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF's views or policies.

Posted by:Emil Guillermo

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


1. The politics of self-interest is a paradox of social justice activism. While it is easier to organize people in voting blocs around common identities, and mobilize together on issues that directly effect the group, there is a thin line between lobbying / rent-seeking behavior of the privileged and already powerful, and the self-advocacy of groups seeking to assert their own kind of power. Conservatives like Edward Blum are able to play on the racial tensions between racial and ethnic groups, to advance his own political agenda, because the politics of self-interest and advocacy for one's own identity group, trumps the overall vision of striving for social justice. Dismantling affirmative action at whose expense? So long as affirmative action is needed to ensure equality of opportunity for some members of society, then it is needed, period. Injustice for some is injustice for all - a humanist ethic that gets lost, sometimes, in the politics of self-advocacy.
Posted by: Kate Zen | Jul 9, 2015 9:45 AM

2. we can unite ourselves that we need to keep AA intact, but how we can eliminate the discriminatory treatments toward our children subtly or indirectly. Please provide justifications why our children have to score higher than white or Jewish students in college admissions. Please give us solutions to the unjust treatments. I think that we all need to be aware that we are not used by either D or R ideologies. We should have one goal that our children will be sble to enjoy equal opportunity and justice like their fellow Americans. ...
Posted by: Wen Raiti | Jul 9, 2015 4:39 PM

3. Trump s merit-based immigration where you let in only the good ones, is discriminatory on its face.
Posted by: Virtual Private Server | Aug 10, 2017 4:35 AM

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