Divided by Affirmative Action? A Diversified Asian Community Facing New Challenge

Joshua Tang (right) with Rev. Al Sharpton. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

This Dec. 26, 2012 story from Sing Tao Daily, about the pros and cons of affirmative action from an Asian American perspective, won first prize in the 2013 Ippies Journalism Awards for best story about an immigrant community. 

Joshua Tang, a senior at the University of Texas at Austin, stood shoulder to shoulder with veteran black activist Rev. Al Sharpton on the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court in a rally on October 10. This was the first day of oral arguments in the Fisher v. University of Texas case, in which a white student who was denied entry by the university sued it for discriminating against whites by favoring applications from minority applicants.

Tang and Sharpton seemed to have a lot in common. They were both there to support the university. And it seemed they were both fighting for the black community, judging by their looks.

Two weeks later, Tang published an article on the website of Hyphen magazine, in which he said he believed he had benefited from the university’s race conscious admission policy that gives minority students special consideration, and many other minority students like him need a little extra help to get into college. “A diverse campus is good for all students,” said Tang.

However not every reader agreed. The three comments to the article all pointed out the flaws of such admission policy. “Affirmative Action is the only law in the USA that is still actively and openly racist against a specific group, in this case Asian Americans,” one reader said.

Minted in 1961 by an executive order of President Kennedy to promote equal opportunities, affirmative action has since become a basis for racially conscious admission policies. The Supreme Court’s decision on the Fisher case, which is expected to be issued before June, would have a significant impact on college admission policies in the U.S. as well as on the broader implementation of the principle.

But unlike blacks and Hispanics who are the obvious beneficiaries of such policies, and the whites who are obviously not, there is no conclusion about where Asians fit in. Some Asians believe they can benefit while others think they are short changed, and the debate within the Asian community is vitriolic.

This is partly because the complexity and opaqueness of the college admission process makes it hard to calculate precisely which factors have played the decisive role. But a thornier reason is that the changing demography of the community itself, illustrated by people like Tang, has made disagreements unavoidable.

Despite his dark skin, Tang, the son of a Taiwanese father and an African American mother, doesn’t define himself as only black. He grew up with his maternal grandmother in a neighborhood dominated by south Asian immigrants. He has two Chinese roommates, a Vietnamese girlfriend and celebrates the Lunar New Year by dining in Chinese restaurants.  “I think I am neither black nor Asian but I am also both,” said Tang, who, when he fills in his ethnic background on government forms often checks both racial categories.

Tang’s mixed race may have given him a broader view of the balance of racial interests. But the idea may be hard to understand for Stanton Shen. Two years ago, Shen left his hometown – in Zhejiang in eastern China – alone to enroll in a private high school in New York. His parents hope a U.S. high school education will get him closer to a place at a top university in the U.S.

Having grown up in a highly homogenous society where college admission is largely based on the scores on entrance exams, Shen, a 12th grader, opposes the racial conscious admission policies vehemently.

“If I work harder and get better scores than a black student, but he gets the admission and I don’t, it’d be really unfair,” said Shen, who often studies till midnight and attends prep school at weekends. “I think college should only judge students by their merits rather than what they look like,” he added.

Shen’s classmate, Wanying Wu, who came from China a year ago, agreed. “I would feel belittled if [the admission officers] had to give me special consideration because of my race. Does this mean they don’t believe I could get an admission by my own merits?” asked Wu, who is Tong by ethnicity, a minority fraction in China.

To some, affirmative action has been punishing the traditional Asian value of hard work.

“Affirmative action used to be a good thing when minorities didn’t have enough resources to help them get into college. But now it is a different time,” said Lu Ming Li, the director of the Asian American Coalition for Education, a New York-based organization that helps mainly Chinese students prepare for the SAT exam – which is the standardized test needed for admission to college – and for college applications. “The governments allocate so much funding to schools in the minorities dominated neighborhoods. If you still cannot study well, then it might because you are not working hard enough.”

Li said her students who get into the Ivy League universities often only sleep five or six hours at night and spend the rest of the time almost all on studying. But she also knows that Chinese students are not the favorites for some Ivy League schools. “I don’t want to name names, but some schools when they had to choose between a Chinese candidate and a non-Chinese candidate, they are much more likely to choose the latter,” said Li, who directs her students to avoid applying to such schools.

Li’s suspicions are echoed by some Chinese and Indian parents who filed formal complaints against Princeton and Harvard universities to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights in recent years.

But not all Asian students feel affirmative action is against their interests. Unlike the Chinese, the Korean or the Indians, who are already regulars in the Ivy Leagues, smaller groups such as the Vietnamese or the Hmongs are still far underrepresented in colleges. They could benefit when the racial background is broken down to subgroups on the application forms.

This means the interests of different subgroups within the community are not only increasingly diverse but often conflicting. And the community that not so long ago realized how important it was to be united is now facing a difficult question: is a unified approach and voice still possible.

The Asian community has been a target of discrimination in the U.S. and the community never rallied together until 1982, when 27-year-old Chinese American Vincent Chin was beaten to death by a pair of auto workers in Detroit who mistook him as Japanese and attacked him because of their rage over Japanese car sales in the U.S.

Chin’s death spurred an outcry among all Asians in the country. For the first time, the Chinese, the Japanese, the Koreans and many other Asians stood together to fight and eventually see the killers brought to justice.

“There were Asian descendants in the United States since before it was the United States. But they didn’t call themselves Asian Americans until Vincent Chin was killed,” said Frank Wu, chancellor and dean of the Hastings College of the Law at the University of California, who is writing a book about the case and its impact. “The Vincent Chin case makes people see that they have to build a coalition. Even if your grandparents and their grandparents were in the war in Asia, you are in America and you all look the same.”

But since Chin’s death, the community has changed dramatically. The population of Asian Americans now make up 5.8 percent of the entire U.S. population, compared with a mere 1 percent in 1965. It is also the fastest growing racial group in the country.

Other than its size, the composition of the Asian population has also changed a lot. The refugees and lottery green card winners from some Southeastern Asian countries who came here in the 1980s because of wars and poverty are one part of the population. But among the others are the undocumented Chinese smuggled in from rural areas of the coastal Fujian Province in the 1990s, and, in recent years, the rich new immigrants from China who got green cards by investing tens of thousands dollars in the U.S.

What makes the community more complicated is, ironically, its achievements. From basketball star Jeremy Lin to a winner of the “Survivor” reality TV series Yul Kwon, from “tiger mom” Amy Chua to U.S. Ambassador to China Gary Locke and Congresswomen Grace Meng and Judy Chu, Asians seem to be rising in all fields.

Indeed, in its report titled “The Rise of Asian Americans,” the Pew Research Center designated Asian Americans “the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States.”

But this is, at best, an incomplete picture. While the more established subgroups are thriving, other smaller groups are still suffering from high poverty and low education. For example, 60 percent of Hmongs, 53 percent of Cambodians, 49 percent of Laotians and 38 percent of Vietnamese American adults do not even have a high school diploma.

Thanks to the disparities, different voices are increasingly heard on many issues in the community. For examples, in Asian-dominated Flushing, in Queens, New York, whenever a public seat is open, the Chinese and the Koreans often form their own campaigns separately to help their own candidates win election. In Chinatown, the question of whether residents have more of a common interest with the high income Asians living in the financial district or the low income Hispanics living in neighboring Lower East Side has led to a tough debate in the community – particularly during the process of redrawing City Council districts.

This has further weakened the already feeble foundation of the Asian alliance. “The Asian American identity is a reactive identity. There is no unified language, culture or religion to tie people together. We formed a pragmatic unity in order to fight for equal rights,” said Peter Kwong, professor of Asian American Studies at Hunter College.

“The unity worked in the old days when Asian Americans were mostly poor and targeted by racial discrimination. But it’s never been a strong one. On many issues, we only stood together emotionally but were not indeed together. Now open discrimination has been subdued and Asian Americans are more and more competitive, it is even harder to hold the community together.”

This makes the affirmative action issue more complicated. As observed by Jennifer Tran, a junior of the University of Texas at Austin.

An American-born Vietnamese Chinese, Tran, representing the Asian Desi Pacific Islander American Collective, an umbrella student organization of which she is director of operations, signed on to support the university in the battle.

Still, she said, with more than 100 Asian student organizations on the campus, it was not easy to get a consensus. It took her three months to do outreach to other groups and some groups didn’t respond. “It is hard to get support from everybody,” said Tran. “People who don’t support tend to be people from higher income families. It’s easy to forget how much help you got to get there.”

Outside of the campus, the battle is even more heated. Major community organizations formed two different alliances and filed amicus briefs to the court, taking opposite stands.

On one side is S. B. Woo and his 80-20 Initiative, an organization he founded in the 1990s to consolidate Asian influence in an attempt to have a political impact.

Woo, a former lieutenant governor in the State of Delaware and a retired professor in physics from the University of Delaware, said his organization did a survey of 50,000 Asian Americans around the country, and found the participants supported a “race neutral” policy by a ratio of 52 to 1. He felt this fully legitimized his position of opposing the racial conscious admission policy.

But on the other side, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund (AALDEF) quotes other research showing that Asians largely support affirmative action.

Both sides challenge the methodologies of the researches the other quoted, especially the ways the questions were laid out in surveys. And they both claim they represent the majority. But the fundamental differences between the two sides do make clear what a tough choice the community is facing: whether it should embrace the interests of the smaller groups or just abandon them?

“Let’s take Hmong. Its population is only 260,000. Yes, their poverty rate is higher than average. But the Hmongs that benefited from affirmative action, I bet you, won’t be more than five a year,” said Woo. “No government makes decisions for the interests of the smallest minority and adjusts the policy against the interest of the majority. If you want to serve special interest groups, that’s fine. But if you want to serve Asian Americans in general, you cannot afford to take such positions.”

“There is certainly a lot of value to have the unified voice. But it shouldn’t come at the expense of other voices that are trying to get into the discussion. It’s very important to provide an arena for the emerging Asian communities to have their voices,” said Thomas Mariadason, an attorney of AADELF.

To Carolyn Chen, associate professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies at Northwest University, these arguments are not disturbing but exciting. “The rising of different voices only mean the community is more organized and more mature,” said Chen.

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