Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Case Relies on Myths About Asian-Americans

The "model minority" myth has always allowed racist institutions to pit a specific, high-achieving class of Asian-Americans against all other people of color.

Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Case Relies on Myths About Asian-Americans
Photo:Geoff Livingston (Getty Images)

The Supreme Court announced Monday that it will revisit the issue of affirmative action for the first time since 2016. This time, the court will decide whether race-conscious admissions programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina are lawful, as the two cases specifically take issue with the universities’ alleged “discrimination” against Asian-American students.

Both cases, Students for Fair Admissions v. President & Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, were originally filed in 2014 by the conservative activist group Students for Fair Admissions, which manipulated admissions statistics to argue that Harvard and UNC hold Asian-American applicants to higher standards than their non-Asian counterparts. After decades of failing to prove that diversity programs in schools hurt white students, by the 2010s, conservative legal activists pivoted to arguing that affirmative action actually hurts Asian students, in an effort to get rid of it altogether.

The subject matter of the cases before SCOTUS today unfortunately isn’t new: For years now, faux concern for Asian-American students has been used by conservatives to challenge affirmative action programs and conceal their racist motives. And despite how many Asian students at Harvard and other schools have always fought back against these narratives, their voices are consistently written out of mainstream coverage of the issue.

Still, there’s something particularly jarring about SCOTUS taking up affirmative action cases alleging anti-Asian racism less than a year after #StopAsianHate activism gained national attention, in response to a rise in attacks targeting Asian Americans, including the Atlanta massage parlor shooting that killed eight last March. Today, the Supreme Court’s supposed concern for Asian-American students reflects continued misunderstanding about the diversity of Asian communities, and the disappointing limitations of #StopAsianHate.

Throughout last year, as coverage of anti-Asian racism fixated on traumatizing footage of violent, physical attacks on mostly elderly, East Asian people, the emergence of #StopAsianHate reduced anti-Asian racism to individual acts of interpersonal, “senseless” violence. The implicit message was that these attacks were somehow separable from greater issues of white supremacy, the continued legacy of military imperialism across the Pacific, and other systemic issues, like a steadily growing gentrification crisis in low-income Asian communities, or xenophobic immigration policies that have rendered Southeast Asian refugees among the most likely to be deported.

The invocation of Asian Americans to justify attacks on affirmative action relies on racist images of Asian communities in the US as monolithic—exclusively East Asian and middle or upper class—and erasure of Asian people with significantly less privilege. These attacks on affirmative action also obscure the ways anti-Asian racism intersects with the oppressions of all people of color in the US, under white supremacy and racial capitalism that subjects people of color to disproportionately higher rates of poverty. But instead of challenging these misconceptions, most #StopAsianHate activism throughout last year reinforced them, with talking points and social media posts designed to go viral rather than create real disruption of the status quo.

Like ongoing affirmative action debates, the “solutions” peddled by #StopAsianHate focused on the perspectives and experiences of vastly more privileged Asians, mostly calling for more media representation and hate crime legislation that would result in increased funding for police departments. From these “solutions,” you’d hardly guess low-income, Southeast Asian Americans are among the least likely groups to attend college, nor how the pronounced school-to-prison-to-deportation pipeline in these communities would be worsened by greater investments in policing and prisons, over schools.

On a similar note, even after several Asian women were killed in the Atlanta shooting because the white, male shooter called them a sexual “temptation,” the most visible #StopAsianHate advocates neglected to speak up about keeping Asian sex workers and those perceived to be sex workers safe. Nor did they acknowledge how carceral “solutions” only create more danger for them.

None of this is to blame #StopAsianHate advocates for this week’s reinvigorated attacks on affirmative action, supposedly in the name of Asian Americans—many, I’m sure, are supporters of affirmative action programs. But beyond supporting race-conscious admissions programs, Asian Americans and really everyone should recognize affirmative action as the bare minimum to advance diversity in education, and a pretty insufficient bare minimum, at that.

Higher education and academia remain steeped in whiteness and privilege, and affirmative action will never fully address this with an approach that relies on respectability politics. In other words, even with affirmative action, only the most traditionally “respectable” young people from oppressed and marginalized groups who best adhere to racist standards of academic achievement are admitted into universities. Once they’re admitted, there’s little guarantee schools will invest in supporting them, or in fostering diverse, nourishing, and supportive campus climates where they can thrive.

Affirmative action by itself can’t fix the massive systemic inequities in who has access to a quality education, and to resources and investments in their communities. Hate crime legislation that would further divert funding from education, health care, housing and other basic needs that poorer Asian communities struggle to access to increased policing and surveillance would only worsen these conditions.

Opponents of affirmative action sure as hell haven’t considered these realities—but unfortunately, too many supporters of affirmative action haven’t, either.

In a 1990 speech given by Mari Matsuda, an Asian civil rights lawyer and founding practitioner of critical race theory, Matsuda recognized how Asians in the US have increasingly been established as a “racial middle” that “can reinforce white supremacy if the middle deludes itself into thinking it can be just like white if it tries hard enough.” She argued that, conversely, “the middle can dismantle white supremacy if it refuses to be the middle, if it refuses to buy into racial hierarchy, if it refuses to abandon communities of Black and brown people, choosing instead to form alliances with them.”

Affirmative action lawsuits that allege anti-Asian discrimination rely on the social and political positioning of Asian Americans as a “racial middle,” and the model minority mythology that emerges from this positioning. The model minority myth, which regards Asian-American communities as the most traditionally successful people of color in the US, has always allowed racist institutions to pit a specific, high-achieving class of Asian Americans against all other people of color, simultaneously erasing and punishing those who don’t fit this narrative. It’s a myth that also obscures the generational traumas of Asian communities and engenders cycles of retraumatization as a result.

This is the crux of the new affirmative action cases now before the Supreme Court, which has recently, gleefully backed a white supremacist agenda with its decision-making around immigration, abortion access, and voting. The framing of these new cases as supposedly supportive of Asian Americans gives them a frustrating veneer of legitimacy, after a wave of mostly hollow, surface-level #StopAsianHate organizing throughout 2021. Ultimately, more than 30 years later, Matsuda’s warnings remain just as relevant to this day: More privileged Asian-American communities now have the choice of accepting conditional political benefits conferred by cooperating with white, elitist institutions, or instead embracing solidarity with poorer and less privileged Asians and all other communities of color.

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