by Brian Hioe

Photo Credit: Tim Sackton/Flickr/CC

A RECENT lawsuit filed alleging racial discrimination at Harvard against Asian-Americans due to affirmative action programs purports to be in the interest of Asian-Americans, but this would in fact be the attempt of white conservatives to repeal affirmative action programs to deny black and Latino students access to institutions of higher education. Namely, the present organization suing Harvard is the Student for Fair Admissions, led by Edward Blum, who published an editorial last month in the Washington Post arguing his case that affirmative action programs constitute a form of racial discrimination against Asians. Blum, also the head of the Project on Fair Representation, was previously legal advisor to Abigail Fisher in a Supreme Court case in which Fisher, a white woman who sought to sue the University of Texas at Austin for its affirmative action programs, alleging that they were the reason why she was not admitted to the university.

As such, this would be a case in which white conservatives have sought to use Asians as a means to front their own attempts to overturn affirmative action programs. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Trump administration has gotten involved, with the Department of Justice stating that it would be investigating the case. The Trump administration rose to power through attracting white voters with a narrative of white victimization, particularly regarding claims that illegal immigrants were stealing jobs from hard-working white Americans, and this is another case in point. However, this time around, the Trump administration and its allies have embraced the tactic of using Asian-Americans as a cover for their demands.

As pointed out by many, media reports which seem to depict Asian-Americans universally oppose affirmative action are misleading. Asian-Americans have spoken up in favor of affirmative action many times, polling showing that roughly 2/3 of Asian-Americans support affirmative action. One also does well to note the means that “Asian-Americans” groups currently opposed to affirmative action have proved to be narrowly East Asian.

It is true that token notions of diversity as undergirding the liberal argument for affirmative action are, in fact, problematic, a form of commodifying diversity, and ultimately return to the structural failures of resource distribution in America’s higher educational system. But, while the Trump administration, Edward Blum, and their ilk has been quick to leap onto the minority-blaming and racist narrative that black and Latinos lead to white disenfranchisement from institutions of higher educations, such disenfranchisement, if it happens, occurs far more often at the hands of the rich rather than from immigrants. What the Trump administration, Blum, and others instead are engaging in is the time-tested strategy of American white elites in pitting minorities against each other to maintain their own chokehold on economic and social resources, particularly in the age-old strategy of using Asian-Americans as a wedge against blacks and Latinos, a means of dividing and conquering.

One observes a forerunner of current controversy, for example, in the odd phenomenon of protests claiming that NYPD officer Peter Liang, who shot and killed Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old black man, in 2014 was a target of racial discrimination in his prosecution, never mind that Liang shot an unarmed man, and then left him to bleed out without attempting to assist. Such protests evidenced a large composition of first-generation immigrants and were in part coordinated directly from China—notably, one pro-Liang rally I witnessed while reporting on the incident began with musicians first accidentally playing the Chinese national anthem before switching to the American national anthem. When these groups came into conflict with second-generation Chinese-American and Asian-American groups regarding their view of Liang’s actions, such individuals were accused of being “Han traitors.” And, unfortunately, the strategy of pitting Asian-Americans against blacks and Latinos as a divide and conquer strategy sometimes does work. Oftentimes, pro-Liang groups evidenced racism against blacks and Latinos, with individuals I spoke to at rallies claiming that blacks and Latinos were thugs violent and discriminatory against Asians.

Sometimes when such Asian-Americans have in recent years proven willing to align themselves with conservative political forces, such as the Republican Party or the Trump administration, seeing Asian-Americans as exempt from the racism against non-whites of the Trump administration by virtue of Asian-Americans being “model minorities” and, in that way, perhaps seeing Asian-Americans as vaguely having achieved a status of honorary whiteness. And so, with news reports about Asian-Americans supporting Trump or his Muslim ban, one observes that Trump’s vows of “Make America Great Again” did not seem threatening to such Americans in line with the view that this vision of America, conceived of in narrowly white American terms, would not be threatening to Asian-American model minorities that have achieved such a status.

Consequently, although it has to be remembered that it is a minority of Asian-Americans which are opposed to affirmative actions, what current controversies point to is a number splits within the Asian-American community. There is a political split between not only the left and right wings of the Asian-American community, but also in terms of generational lines, in which Asian-Americans who are descended from those who have been in the country for generations and whose families experienced the struggle for civil rights have a far different read on affirmative action than those who are much more recent immigrants, who perceive this as a injustice to themselves. As seen in present events, Asian-Americans of East Asian descent are also sometimes all too unconscious of how they claim representation for all Asian-Americans. One generally also suspects a strong class element to divided Asian-American views of affirmative action.

Pro-Liang demonstrators in Boston in February 2016. Photo credit: Liance/WikiCommons/CC

Indeed, apart from racially homogenizing views of Asian-Americans which prevail in white America, perhaps what this points to is that the Asian-American community and Asian-American activists also needs to think through the heterogeneity of the Asian-American community and the barriers which, in fact, do exist between different Asian-American groups. Asian-American activists can prove to have too simplistic conceptions of the Asian-American community in the hopes of building Asian-American solidarity between all Asian-Americans when there are a number political barriers which need to be overcome for future organizing. It was such that the sharp divides which emerged around the Peter Liang case were shocking for many Asian-American organizers when, in reality, this should not be surprising, seeing as this has been a structural issue undergirding Asian-American politics for a long time.

And so, while it is true and has to remembered that the so-called current challenge to affirmative action by Asian-Americans is, in fact, white conservatives using Asian-Americans to push their racist agenda of white supremacy, this also does point to challenges to overcome in future Asian-American activism. This may be the task at hand for Asian-American organizers at present.

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