Sunday’s NYT Education supplement ran a cover story by Timothy Egan about Asian Americans and affirmative action. Focusing on UC Berkeley — where Asians have grown to 41% of the student body since Proposition 209 banned racial preferences in 1997 — Egan observes that the end of affirmative action and the implementation of a “pure meritocracy” in admissions spells hugely disproportionate numbers of Asians at elite colleges and drastic shortages of Hispanics and African Americans. Berkeley, he concludes somewhat ominously, is the future of higher education.
But you don’t need the NYT to spot the trend. Just take a day trip to the Ivy league campus of your choice. Back when I was at Yale (in the mid-’90s), Kim was the most common last name. Outdoing the Jones by far, there were, I think, 51 of us at one point. (There were even, to my chagrin, two Richard Kims!) As Egan points out, Asian Americans comprise roughly 5% of the US population but represent anywhere from 13-40% of undergraduates at many top schools: 27% at MIT, 24% at Stanford, 17% at UT Austin, 13% at Columbia, 37% in the UC system as a whole and so forth. In contrast, only 3.6% of Berkeley’s freshman class are African American and only 11% are Hispanic — way below state population levels.
Egan’s right about the numbers, but he misses the mark on many other measures. First, he underplays the differences between “brain drain” Asian Americans and more recent, less affluent, less educated Asian immigrants. As Frank Wu points out in his book Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, after the passage of Prop. 209, Filipino Americans (like African Americans) were “zeroed out” at Berkeley’s law school despite the fact that the Bay area contains one of the largest Filipino communities in the US. Egan does quote a few academics who note that Sri Lankans and Koreans are not the same people, but he makes it seem as if the salient differences are matters of culture and “values” rather than of class and access.
Secondly, for much of the article Egan gives the erroneous impression that Asian Americans are just delighted about their demographic surge at the UCs, biting to end affirmative action elsewhere and seize seats currently reserved for other minorities. He gives airtime to Jian Li, who’s campaigning to deny Princeton federal funding because he thinks its admission policy discriminates against Asian Americans. (Despite a perfect SAT score, Li was rejected by the Tigers. But don’t shed a tear just yet, he’s doing quite fine at Yale). And Egan cites a 2005 study by Thomas J. Espenshade and Chang Y. Chung that finds that, without affirmative action, Asians (and not whites) would fill the vast majority (80%) of spots reserved for African Americans and Hispanics at elite universities.
But what Egan fails to note here is that, despite the possibility that Asian Americans may be the group most “disadvantaged” by affirmative action, they consistently, vigorously and overwhelmingly support it at the polls. Back in 1996, California governor Pete Wilson, Ward Connerly and a host of other right-wingers ran a vicious, race-wedge campaign for Prop. 209. Asian communities were targeted with a slew of invidious, “me-first” messages designed to appeal to their narrow self-interests. And yet, 61% of Asian American voters rejected Prop. 209. Last year, when Michigan voters approved a similar measure (Prop. 2) by 58%, 75% of Asian American voters voted against it. Joining the NAACP, Rainbow/Push Coalition, the ACLU and the UAW in mobilizing opposition to Prop. 2 was the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund.
The real question then about Asian Americans and affirmative action — one that Egan and the NYT don’t ask — is why? Why do we continue to support a policy that apparently “harms” us? One answer is that it doesn’t, at least not always and not equally. Connerly and his minions — who have anti-affirmative action initiatives brewing in Arizona, Colorado, Missouri and Nebraska — have focused their message almost exclusively on admissions, and not on public employment and state contracts, even though affirmative action applies to those arenas as well, arenas in which Asian Americans are often underrepresented. (By focusing solely on Prop. 209’s impact on UC admissions, the NYT repeats Connerly’s misinformation).
But racial group interest aside, I have a hunch that Asian Americans support affirmative action because the legacy of discrimination against Asians — from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 to Japanese internment to the crucifixion of Wen Ho Lee to post-9/11 roundups of brown folk — is seared into our collective memory. And despite the model minority myth, and despite the occasional con-jobs like Dinesh d’Souza or Elaine Chao, most of us know that the deck isn’t fairly stacked, that the moment demands remedy, for us and for others.
The last question I’ll raise is: What’s up with white people? If abolishing affirmative action would gain whites little in the admissions game (and then mostly to the ruling class of whites) and if Asian Americans reap most of the benefits of what Egan calls a “pure meritocracy,” then why is it that only white people as a group vote to end affirmative action? Why are the litigants and campaigners at the forefront of the affirmative action backlash predominately white (Connerly aside)? From where does this seething, misplaced, amnesiac resentment, so often masquerading as class-consciousness (see Walter Benn Michaels) and fairness, come?
Egan’s article, if unwittingly, at least provides a clue. In his Bladerunner-esque, dystopian image of Berkeley as “Asian heaven,” as “boring socially, full of science nerds, a hard place to make friends,” as abuzz with “foreign languages” and packed with “clubs representing every conceivable ethnic group,” lies the real anxiety behind the white backlash — the unnerving, inevitable end of the white republic. If Berkeley is indeed the future of America, then neither maintaining nor abolishing affirmative action will preserve this American future as a white refuge. But keeping (and restoring) affirmative action will provide, however imperfectly, space for not just the yellow, but also for the brown, the red and the black.