In 2014, a California-born sophomore named Michael Wang wrote an op-ed for The Mercury News complaining about biases against Asian Americans in higher education. Despite a stellar academic record, Wang said, he was rejected from top-tier universities across the nation. “Applying to college is an anxiety-filled rite-of-passage for students and parents alike. For Asian-American families, however, the anxiety is mixed with dread,” Wang wrote. “They know that their race will be used against them in admissions, and there is nothing they can do but over-prepare.”
Wang’s perspective—though far from the dominant view among Asian Americans—was one that resonated with many students and parents. It was also one with a powerful supporter: Edward Blum, the right-wing legal activist and staunch affirmative action foe. Months after Wang’s op-ed, Blum filed a lawsuit against Harvard’s affirmative action policies. By 2015, a grassroots movement—headed by Chinese and other Asian Americans—had sprung up too. Asian American Coalition for Education, cofounded by Wang’s father, mobilized 64 Chinese American, Indian American, Korean American, Pakistani American, and other Asian American organizations to file a civil rights complaint with the departments of Education and Justice, building on Blum’s lawsuit.
Last week, Wang, Blum, and their allies got their wish at long last when the Supreme Court struck down the use of affirmative action in college admissions. The ruling represents a critical victory and consolidation of the Asian American conservative movement—one that is years in the making.
The forces that finally swept affirmative action away could soon come to discover that their victory is a hollow one. That’s because, as researchers Janelle Wong, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nicole Gon Ochi, and OiYan Poon have pointed out, reversing affirmative action only strengthens the population of white students at the expense of Black and other minority students, including Asian Americans. But we must be clear about one thing: Asian American anti–affirmative action activists have not been simply “used” by white activists and duped into this white supremacist policy. They are active, militant co-conspirators with white conservatives. They are building a key flank for the right wing across the nation, and the left must urgently recognize that right-wing politics precisely gain power by recruiting conservative ideologies among communities of color that overlap with, but retain distinct aspects from, white supremacy.
Over twenty years ago, before he wrote The Sympathizer and became a mainstream literary success, Nguyen recognized crucial limits within the rubric of “Asian America” as it has been conceived. Scholars and activists in the community tend to treat Asian American identity as a category of resistance. But as Nguyen described, the overemphasis on movements for progressive causes obscures a more troubling reality of “the ideological heterogeneity of a diverse Asian American population, and the willingness of a considerable portion of that population to participate in and perpetuate such commodification and the social and economic practices that lead to it.”
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These Asian Americans are those who feel most at ease with the paradigm that Claire Jean Kim observes in her theory of “racial triangulation,” which characterizes how Asian Americans have long been recruited into functioning as a “model minority” to reinforce the structural oppression of Black people and the privilege of white people. Despite the fact that they cannot fully assimilate into whiteness, certain Asian Americans do enjoy privileges in Kim’s framework. Indeed, as she wrote in The Nation, “It is the convergence of this nascent, conservative Chinese immigrant nationalism with an older, conservative white nationalism that is driving anti–affirmative action politics today.”
This disturbing alliance has only grown in strength in recent years, finding a common cause in the safeguarding of capitalism and anti-Blackness. The outgrowth of anti-Asian violence has driven some Asian Americans to call for more police funding, directly aligning with right-wing movements. The rise of China in the global sphere has also stoked existing anti-communist sentiment among Chinese, Vietnamese, and other diasporas.
These factors have helped to create an environment that easily lends itself to right-wing politics—and many Asian American conservatives have played an active role in the Trump-era radicalization of the right. In the Asian American–dominated ethnoburb of Arcadia near Los Angeles, Chinese immigrant activists protested a development initiative to house unhoused people, harassing and doxxing youth progressive counter-protesters. A recent New York Times article reports the growth of the Asian American Republican electorate; as longtime Asian American organizer Alex Tom says, this base is motivated “to organize against affirmative action and police reform.”
The Asian American conservative movement is rife with contradictions, but this unevenness may even empower the growth of right-wing consciousness in action. Red Canary Song sex workers’ rights activist Kate Zen observes that Chinese American “hometown associations,” many of which have deep ties to the Chinese Communist Party apparatus, showed up in close alliance with pro-American Chinese right-wing protesters at a pro-NYPD rally in Flushing in 2020. “Men’s Rights Asians,” or ‘‘MRAsians,” profess a hatred of whiteness in favor of a masculinist conception of Asian American nationalism, while bolstering the right in their anti-Blackness and virulent misogyny toward Asian women.
The assault on cultural issues, in other words, is how the struggle to preserve social relations of capitalism becomes most salient to Asian American conservative organizing. McGill professor William Clare Roberts, riffing on Stuart Hall, remarks that “culture is the modality in which class is lived” to describe that no socialist class politics can form without attending to particular issues of different working-class communities. The same goes for its inverse. Asian American conservatives’ consensus on anti-Blackness and misogyny, among other issues, strengthens the politics of the capitalist class. The political divisions among them that may impede a straightforward consolidation around an electoral platform or party should not obscure the urgent danger represented by these activists. The mass mobilizations around affirmative action and “law and order” politics represent the rise of a reactionary grassroots consciousness with the dangerous capacity for mass action—just as threatening as, if not more than, their growing electoral unity.
Unpacking how these prejudices serve as powerful allies to white supremacy entails refusing that white supremacy can completely explain how Asian American conservative politics emerges. Indeed, as Adrian De Leon and Jane Hong write, “Asian American conservatism is not just about claiming whiteness, even though these alignments are indelibly forged from the politics of white supremacy.” But the other strands of Asian American conservatism beyond white supremacy are seldom explored by Asian Americans, especially in relation to cultural politics in Asia.
For one, Kun Huang identifies contemporary anti-Black racism in China with a long history of “Chinese racial-nationalism” constructed from anxieties that intermixing between Chinese and Africans would disrupt the coherence of “Chineseness.” Huang traces the continuity of these anxieties from the mass of historical literature before European colonialism to contemporary xenophobic netizens’ uproar against a 2020 bill in China to expand immigration. And as scholar-activist Christopher Chien says, understanding that “Chineseness” is no “static category that shares the same cultural, political, and economic interests” is crucial to “addressing the exact drivers behind the US Asian [American] conservative movement…to know precisely who we should engage or out-organize so we can adjust our tactics accordingly.”
Likewise, Hindu nationalists—many of whom have celebrated the Supreme Court’s attack on affirmative action—have long developed distinct practices of violent discrimination, as Ajay Verghese shows, since precolonial conflicts across India. Upper-caste Hindus have cut their teeth in their own struggle against affirmative action policies for underprivileged castes and tribes, some even organizing for certain upper castes to be classified as “backward” to still enjoy privileges under affirmative action. These forces consolidate power through entanglements with the West, from early Hindutva organization Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s incorporation of European fascist practices to Hindutva’s growing alliance with the US establishment, but retain unique aspects.
These discourses inevitably shape the political and cultural formation of Asian Americans. And the failure to recognize the diverse roots of Asian American conservatism leads to a failure to understand the persuasive roots of conservatism among Asian communities. White supremacy gains strength not because it supersedes the distinct histories and practices of other reactionary ideologies, but because it pluralistically maintains these long-standing forms of cultural reaction that are able to persuasively mobilize other communities of color in a common cause. To truly understand how Asian American conservatives serve white supremacy, in other words, requires exploring the distinct cultural politics that make conservative politics persuasive to those communities in their own right.
The defeat of affirmative action once again reinforces what scholar Nic John Ramos raised in the wake of the election victory of the right-wing Filipino president “Bongbong” Marcos: “Ignoring conservative movements in immigrant communities leaves us without a true assessment of power.” While white supremacy clearly structures the circumstances of anti–affirmative action activism, we must also ask what other distinct forms of cultural politics motivate Asian Americans to rally for its cause. This does not mean endorsing some idea of a cultural politics “natural” to Asian American identity, but discovering how Asian American conservative ideologies came into being through practices and histories irreducible to whiteness. This means recognizing right-wing Asian Americans are not simply misguided but political agents in their own right actively strategizing to strengthen ruling-class power. Compatibility and entanglement between white supremacy and other conservatisms should not signal that the latter can be fully explained by its identification with the former.
Continued majority–Asian American support of affirmative action policies should not obscure the dangers of growing right-wing mass politics in our communities. To resist their advances, the left must also understand that power takes root most effectively through mass action calibrated to varied and distinct kinds of cultural and political practices. We need to better attend to the specific organizing strategies that emerge from the Asian American right, just as Yuanyuan Feng and Mark Tseng-Putterman reveal WeChat groups as a crucial “counterpublic enclave” for Asian immigrant neoconservative activists. Progressive groups like Chinese for Affirmative Action and Xīn Shēng Project (formerly the WeChat Project) are doing important work fighting against the right in these spaces, but we still need a broader political vision to strengthen a multiethnic movement against capitalism. The Chinese American–led pro-NYPD rally in Flushing in 2020 was met by a significant counter-protest including Asian American sex workers and anti-gentrification activists—a manifestation of years of coalitional organizing on the ground. They are already modeling the key principle of what a persuasive progressive challenge against the right can be: building organizing tactics that bridge the concerns of working-class Asian Americans in all their particularities.