Wanted: Disgruntled Asian-Americans to Attack Affirmative Action

By Julianne Hing Apr 25, 2014

How do you know when you’re a pawn in someone else’s political game? Asian-Americans may soon be asking themselves that question. Edward Blum, an anti-affirmative action crusader and the executive director of the the conservative Project on Fair Representation, unveiled three new websites in early April looking for students who’ve been denied admission to Harvard, the University of Wisconsin-Madison or University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. And all three websites happen to prominently feature Asian faces. 

"Were You Denied Admission to the University of North Carolina? It may be because you’re the wrong race," reads the website, the copy on each individual website tailored a university. Blum used a similar website in 2007 in his search for a plaintiff to challenge the University of Texas’ consideration of race in their admissions process. He eventually located Abigail Fisher, a white woman who was denied a spot at the University of Texas and unsuccessfully sued to dismantle their admissions process in the Supreme Court case Fisher v. Texas. Blum, who is opposed to race-conscious remedies of any kind, was also heavily involved in Shelby v. Holder, the Supreme Court case that gutted the Voting Rights Act. 

Blum launched the latest websites with two goals in mind: "to educate the public," he says, and to gather testimonials from students who’ve been denied admission to these three universities with an eye toward filing a lawsuit to challenge their affirmative action programs. In its 2013 ruling on Fisher v. Texas, the Supreme Court "established a new doctrine and a new set of principles that colleges and universities must follow if they intend to use race-based preferences and classifications in their admissions system," Blum said in an interview. According to Blum, that doctrine is one of "strict scrutiny," which requires that universities show that they’ve exhausted all other race-neutral avenues before considering race when compiling their incoming classes. Blum says that all three universities violate that standard. 

Part Propaganda, Part Casting Call

The new websites are a direct appeal to the Asian-American community to join the next phase of the decades-long legal fight to dismantle affirmative action programs in higher education. Given the social and political marginalization of Asian-Americans, this kind of prominent placement is far from incidental, says Jennifer Lee, a professor sociology at the University of California at Irvine. "He’s doing an excellent job of using Asian-Americans as a wedge to oppose race-conscious admissions," Lee said.

Blum disagrees that by propping up Asian-Americans as victims of affirmative action he’s using them as a political wedge in an undeniably racial debate. "I think that assertion is misguided," Blum says. "I’ve always used Asian-American pictures, along with those of whites, blacks and Hispanics," Blum says, pointing to the website UTnotfair.org which he launched in 2007. His plaintiff search eventually led him to Abigail Fisher.

Of his latest campaign, Blum said, "Some of the pictures are obviously Asian but some are obviously indeterminate." 

POFR - affirmative action - harvard.jpg

Not all visibility is necessarily a good thing. Asian-Americans are commonly stereotyped as universally successful, wealthy and high-achieving, and therefore make for a compelling foil to the experiences of African-Americans and Latinos. "Asian-Americans have been used over and over and over again to make the point that racism is not an insurmountable disadvantage if you’re willing to just shut up and put up and work hard enough to succeed," says Scot Nakagawa, senior partner at the racial justice think tank ChangeLab. Blum’s campaign carries the stereotype a step further by implying that not only is affirmative action unnecessary but that it harms Asian Americans while unfairly advantaging other groups like African-Americans, Latinos and Native-Americans.  

"It’s outrageous," says Vincent Pan, the executive director of the San Francisco-based community organizing group Chinese for Affirmative Action. "For a group that purports to promote the ridiculous notion of colorblindness, the fact that they’re featuring Asian faces demonstrates their own hypocrisy." 

Are Asians Victims in the Admissions Game?

Blum insists that affirmative action should be dismantled because it hurts Asian-Americans. "It’s important for Asian-Americans to understand that there is very colorable evidence that Harvard, Columbia and other Ivy League schools have for the last 15 years consciously, purposefully limited by quota the number of Asians they will accept," Blum says. The Supreme Court explicitly outlawed the use of racial quotas in 1978. Harvard has maintained that it doesn’t have a quota system, and the U.S. Department of Education Office of Civil Rights did not complete a 2012 probe into alleged discrimination against Asian applicants at Harvard and Princeton after the student withdrew their complaint. 

Foes of affirmative action frequently cite a prominent 2009 study by Princeton professor Thomas Espenshade and researcher Alexandra Radford which found that black applicants with SAT scores of 1150 (of a possible 1600) had a roughly equal shot of being accepted to top private schools in 1997 as white applicants who scored in the 1460s and Asian-American applicants who scored a maximum 1600. Foes of affirmative action frequently cite the Espenshade and Radford study as proof that affirmative action is tantamount to discrimination. But Espenshade himself has always noted that his findings are not a smoking gun proving that top-tier universities discriminate against Asian applicants. He did not have access to other factors like personal essays, letters of recommendation, extracurricular activities, community service or personal backgrounds. 

In short, while there’s plenty of rumor and some circumstantial evidence, there’s no concrete proof yet that Ivy Leagues discriminate against Asian applicants. 

By simultaneously launching similar websites and linking the admissions policies of Harvard with public universities like University of Wisconsin and University of North Carolina, Blum blurs the line between publics and privates, and takes advantage of the widespread misunderstandings of how admissions policies work, says Lee. "Private universities are not bound in the same way public universities are. Harvard doesn’t have the same responsibility to educate people in Massachusetts the way University of Wisconsin does the people of Wisconsin," Lee says. 

POFR - affirmative action - UW.jpg

For disgruntled white and Asian students who’ve been denied admission to their chosen college it’s easy to chalk their denial up to race because it’s the most salient part of a person’s identity. But admissions at selective universities is much more complex. At University of Wisconsin, for example, after grades and ACT or SAT scores, the university considers myriad other factors as part of what’s often called a "holistic review" process. They include life experiences, work background, leadership qualities, "motivation," community service, "special talents," their status as a non-traditional or returning adult student, U.S. military or veteran status and socioeconomic background. The last factor is "whether the applicant is a member of an historically underrepresented racial or ethnic minority."

Indeed, in its response to Abigail Fisher’s lawsuit, The University of Texas pointed out that even if the university did away with any consideration of race, Fisher wouldn’t have been admitted.

The Asian-American Reality

There’s nothing new about Blum’s strategic positioning of Asian-Americans, says Nakagawa, and all too often, Asian-Americans have been party to the myth-making. Not only are Asians used as a wedge to break up anti-racist coalitions, they’re also useful as "a shield against being accused of racism when you do something like attack affirmative action," Nakagawa says. 

The story of Asian-American success is much more complex, and campaigns that try to convince Asian Americans that they’re victims of their own success obscure two things, says Janelle Wong, professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland. The first is that Asians benefit from structural advantages not equally apportioned to all groups of color. Selective immigration policy means that many Asian immigrants come to the U.S. are highly educated professionals, and Asians gain social protection from the fact that they’re not labeled black by a viciously anti-black society. 

The second is that not all Asians are successful. Hmong, Laotian and Cambodian Americans have the lowest high school attainment levels (PDF) in the country, lower than that of blacks and Latinos. And while Asian-Americans post the highest household incomes of any racial group in the U.S., experts say that obscures the reality that Asian-Americans are more likely than other racial groups to live in larger, multi-generational households which inflates their actual levels of wealth. 

Despite the rhetoric, and the recent outcry from a a suburban, Mandarin-speaking minority of the Chinese immigrant community, Asian-Americans support affirmative action by a significant margin. According to the National Asian American Survey, 76 percent of Asian-Americans say they support affirmative action programs "designed to help blacks, women and other minorities get better jobs and education."

Holding up Asian-Americans as victims in the affirmative action debate, "plays on the notion of who’s deserving and who’s not," says Nakagawa, "and in the current racial narrative, Asian-Americans are among the deserving minorities."

"At many points in time, people have decided what Asian-Americans deserve and what they don’t. And that resulted in things like the Chinese Exclusion Act, Alien Land Laws, and Japanese internment," Nakagawa continues. "These things have happened to us and we need to not fall into the trap."