Wednesday, November 22

Arthur Wang: Media inaccurately portrays Asian American views on affirmative action


Affirmative action is back, and Asian Americans are angry – at least, that’s what the media wants you to believe.

The vast majority of news networks and websites around the country immediately jumped on discussing the discrimination complaint filed with the federal government by 64 Asian American organizations Friday. The complaint calls for an investigation of alleged race-based discrimination at Harvard University, citing the lack of Asian enrollment growth during the last decade despite a dramatic increase in applications during the same time period.

The suit comes on the heels and largely repeats the sentiments of a pair of lawsuits filed November against Harvard and the University of North Carolina by the Project on Fair Representation, detailing similar allegations.

As a Chinese American myself, it’s too bad that the media at large has chosen to reproduce an inaccurate narrative of Asian American attitudes toward higher education and a contentious public policy, without considering the complex demographic circumstances of Asian America or surveying what the group as a whole actually thinks about affirmative action.

The media has also failed to scrutinize the status of the 64 groups comprising the “Coalition of Asian-American Associations” that jointly filed the complaint. Of all the 20-plus outlets that decided to discuss the complaint, only MSNBC and the Chronicle of Higher Education bothered to provide a link to the actual text of the complaint.

This is critical because this allows readers to see what, exactly, the complainant groups are. Newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal mention that the cosigned groups include “Chinese, Indian, Korean and Pakistani organizations.”

But taking a look at the list makes it clear that the coalition is a poor representation of Asian American interests, does not include many well-established Asian American advocacy and rights groups and does not include groups that represent southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders. A vast majority of the organizations is explicitly pertinent to Chinese or East Asian subgroups. Fewer than 10 of the groups are pertinent to non-Chinese. Even worse, a brief search for some of these groups on the Internet yields little to no information detailing their advocacy work or activities, as many appear to be created recently by immigrant groups.

Where is the presence of the biggest Asian American advocacy groups, such as the legal and civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the Organization of Chinese Americans and API Equality? They cosigned a letter by more than 135 Asian American groups reaffirming their support for affirmative action, with substantial representation from major East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander organizations.

On the whole, Asian Americans in California have been, and remain, supporters of affirmative action. According to the National Asian American Survey, a nonpartisan polling project by UC Riverside professor Karthick Ramakrishnan, 61 percent of Asian Americans in the state voted against Proposition 209, which banned the consideration of race in higher education and public employment. In addition, a 2014 field poll of voters found 69 percent of Asian Americans support affirmative action. The media at large, however, has done little to report on or explicate this sort of coverage, skewing public perception of the group’s beliefs by choosing instead to focus on the opposition, by and large comprised of immigrant Chinese.

That only BuzzFeed, of all news outlets, has discussed the broad-based coalition that supports affirmative action so far is a telling sign of how unbalanced the public discourse on the policy is with regard to Asian Americans. Furthermore, much of the coverage ignores the incredible diversity within the “Asian” umbrella category. I may not represent Asian Americans by any means, but writing as a researcher and a journalist, we should exercise caution in interpreting mainstream media coverage of what “the Asians” think about any given issue.

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  • FatTailBlackSwan

    I’m Asian American. I don’t support AA. And I don’t see any connection between the two.

    AA could only be a bridge, a first step on the road to equality. It cannot be a permanent status quo; otherwise it becomes the tyranny it was meant to eliminate. The society needs a better approach towards equality.

  • NW

    Arthur – if you don’t think unofficial quotas exist, you’re either naive or ignorant or both. If you think AA actually benefits Asian Americans (never mind how morally wrong it is to blatantly discriminate against someone based on race), you’re delusional. It’s about time that Asian Americans wake up to the reality that AA is a scheme supported by Democrats to benefit politically active minority groups (blacks/Hispanics) to the detriment of a politically inactive minority group (Asians). You can take your Kool-Aid to drink it somewhere else.

  • Guest of a Guest

    Conveniently, CA Senate Constitutional Amendment No. 5 was also left out of this discussion. The failure of SCA 5 was a direct result of Asian Americans realizing the negative affect affirmative action would have on their communities’ college admission rates. It is seen as the turning point of not only Chinese but many other Asian American groups’ influence in the political arena.

    • Arthur Wang

      I actually conveniently linked to a KPCC piece on SCA 5 opposition as well as a LA Times feature on Chinese immigrant parents’ concerns about admissions processes at elite universities in the sentence beginning with “The media at large, however…”

      It is convenient to characterize the SCA 5 opposition, which was, as with this complaint, spearheaded almost by Chinese American immigrant groups, as a “turning point” or “watershed” for Asian American political participation. Yet I am very skeptical of this view, which is mostly being labeled by the media outlets covering the issue. The reason why is because I grew up and live in the area with the most Chinese Americans of any suburban region in the United States (the San Gabriel Valley) and am a child of Chinese immigrant parents, so one could say that I understand Chinese immigrant sentiment firsthand through lived experience.

      I agree that Asian American political representation remains a problem, AsAm voter registration percentages need to increase, AsAm political clout is growing nevertheless, etc. However, if this is a turning point for Chinese Americans, it is very much focused on a single issue–which is Asians and college admission. It is so because most (middle class and up) Chinese Americans emigrate to the United States almost exclusively so their children have a shot at a top-quality education. (So yeah, the American Dream is being played out here, but these immigrants are largely ignorant of the peculiarities, injustices, and circumstances of American history–and again, I’m saying this because I’m very near and dear this community.) By and large, they care little about other issues pertinent to the Asian American community (wage theft of low-income workers, white collar workplace discrimination, mitigating those who exploit language barriers, etc.). Many involved in, say, the anti SCA 5 movement cannot even vote.

      So more broadly, what we’re seeing is a tension between established Asian American civil rights groups and Chinese American immigrants who are anxious and unsure about their children’s chances of getting into college (this is detailed in the BuzzFeed article). Wherever you may stand, it is divisive to the community and politically corrosive.

      • Guest of a Guest

        The only way affirmative action can work for students who check the general “Asian” label on their applications is if there is even further distinction (and thus worrisome divisions) to account for the vast differences among the lumped “Asian” categories. Will Chinese, Korean, or other more prominent groups get docked for not being from a less well-off or underrepresented Asian background (e.g., Thai, Laos, Vietnam, etc.)? What happens to East Asian and Pacific Islanders who may not identify with “Asian American” as is happening now? How does that unify Asians, anyone of color, or disadvantaged background? Admissions are already overwhelmed with competition over who can make the biggest sob story just like every reality or competition show on television.
        Asian students are already over represented if we are looking at the make-up of CA. Therein lies the problem of affirmative action: the students who are already cannibalized by the admissions process will be fighting even harder for the decreased number of “spaces” allotted. The failure of SCA 5 signaled that all Californians, and not just the Chinese, or just any noisemakers in the Asian communities, could stand behind that seemed to provide “preferential treatment”. Many families in CA are feeling the pinch of tighter admissions. This is a result of an increased population, the push to have more students enroll in higher ed, and the lack (and inability) of growth (or seats) at UC. Affirmative action may not necessarily create quotas, but the scoring process will become even more skewed against Asians (or any applicant) as a group unless they can hit the right marks in categories not based just on grades, GPA, etc. The greatest example at the moment nationwide using admission data is that of the female, Asian student. Not only has the number of women increased, but the rate and percentage of Asian-Americans who pursue higher ed is higher than the average, therefore you have Asian females who are essentially competing and eliminating each other in the admissions process. What do you do with those sub-categories of applicants, especially the next generation if they can’t check boxes indicating they are first generation, from a disadvantaged background, etc.?
        But as you admit, yes, your personal experience in the SGV has shaped your outlook on the issue, but is not indicative of all Asian-American experiences and are specifically regional and wholly-based on first generation and recent immigrant experiences. There is even more diversity in the Asian American experience among ethnic, generational, and regional groups that don’t even mirror that of Los Angeles, San Francisco, or California.
        In the end, economic diversity may be one of the most feasible methods of creating student diversity on campuses, but it defies the basis of the university to grant admission on merit. We can’t always atone for social injustices of the past, but we can ensure that the playing field is as level as possible. Therefore, the issue of lack of diversity (really, it’s a lack of preparedness and qualification) is a pipeline issue. If students are never prepared during their time in K-12, they’ll never make it to UC or any institution of higher education.

        • Jerry3130

          Even dividing the sub group of Asian won’t solve the problem. A Chinese restaurant waitress’s son need to make way for the son of a Hispanic doctor is not justice either. Social-economic status is a better equalizer than race.

  • Another Asian American

    Fortunately most Asian Americans are against Affirmative Action.

  • Jerry3130

    Arthur, I don’t think you get it. The southeast asian suffers the most in the AA because they are competing directly against the Chinese, Korean, Indian and Japanese for the position allotted for Asian. If they are not actively against SCA5, that is because they are less involved on the topic.

    While it’s true, most activists against SCA5 last year are new immigrants from China, but that’s the fastest growing population and more of them every year become citizen, hence, the new movement of against AA, drastically different from the position on Prop 209 decades ago.

    The 2014 poll you quoted asked “Do you favor or oppose affirmative action programs designed to help blacks, women and other minorities get better jobs and education?” What a biased question! It has a pre-assumption that AA will help “black woman and other minorities” (intentionally misleading Asians think they are part of the that) get better jobs and education.

    What would the poll say if it asks “Do you favor or oppose to consider one’s skin color when deciding job and education opportunities?”