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Asian Americans Are Not Tools

By Christina M. Qiu

UPDATED: Aug. 7, 2017, at 1:01 a.m.

On August 2, the New York Times published a piece entitled, “Affirmative Action Battle Has a New Focus: Asian-Americans.” The article detailed current Asian American perspectives regarding college admissions, circling topics such as the “Asian Tax,” the 140-point SAT score difference between admitted Asian-identifying and white students for entry to private colleges, and diversity.

The article pins Asian American discrimination on “preferences to other racial minorities.” It is in response to a leaked government memo from the Justice Department on an investigation on “race-based discrimination in college and university admissions” at Harvard. The memo was interpreted as an attack on affirmative action because of the supposed “discrimination” against white and Asian American students.

In an article published by the Times a day earlier, Roger Clegg, the president of the Center for Equal Opportunity, was quoted stating that, “civil rights laws were deliberately written to protect everyone from discrimination…and it is frequently the case that not only are whites discriminated against now, but…Asian-Americans are as well.”

In a call for information, the Times asked for the experiences of Asian American students who believed “race played a role in [their] admissions process” at Harvard or who believed they were “rejected from Harvard...unfairly.” The context was to gain perspective on “admissions policies...perceived as hurting white and Asian-American applicants.”

The “new focus” of the affirmative action debate on Asian Americans is not new. College admissions is a notoriously emotional subject for Asian Americans. In a country that rarely affords immigrant parents the capability of granting their children cultural capital, economic privilege, or historical pride due to consistent emasculation, erasure, and exoticization, many parents attempt to position their children into American society through education—a tangible accomplishment. Still, the Asian Tax is as quantifiable as the wage gap; holistic approaches are opaque.

However, the conflation of Asian American perspectives on college admissions and white perceptions of discrimination is fallacious. The Times, by attempting to group these two concepts together, demonstrates ignorance regarding the troubled history of Asian American achievement in the United States.

In 2011, Amy Chua published “Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother,” where she pitted herself against the standard of white “pleasantness.” The book gained traction among many Asian Americans due, in part, to the legitimacy it placed on the community’s preexisting frustrations. In recent years, many Asian ethnoburbs have experienced white flight as a result of student achievement, such as in Johns Creek, Ga., where the proportion of white students in the local elementary school plummeted from 55% to 23% in 10 years. Anjali Enjeti, who penned an essay on the neighborhood, had white neighbors who cited a racial motivation for their movement. Statements included, “Asian parents take their kids for extra tutoring. It’s not fair for the ‘regular’ kids,” and, “My kids won’t get into a good college because of all of the Asians.” In an attempt to remedy the result of racial homogeneity in the merit-based admissions process in New York City schools—more specifically, a 73% Asian enrollment at Stuyvesant High in 2014 and similar statistics—a "holistic admissions" approach was proposed. The Research Alliance for New York City Schools projected that the main beneficiaries of the program would be "well-rounded" affluent white students.

Asian American achievement is not associated with perceived white “discrimination.” Instead, multiple white failures to adapt to Asian American achievement have resulted in changes to admissions policies or city demographics. White students believe they are discriminated against because of Asian American achievement. Asian Americans have to achieve more because white students believe they are not receiving a fair share for their effort—effort that according even to white parents is not enough to stay competitive among Asian American peers.

The social separation of “Asian” and “normal” (read: white) students is more substantiated. Asian American organizations are not advocates for white students. Nor do they sympathize with such cases. Abigail Fisher, a white student who went to the Supreme Court because she believed her University of Texas rejection was a form of racial discrimination, had a 3.59 GPA and a 1180/1600 SAT score. Neither demonstrate academic excellence. Furthermore, as a white woman, Fisher was statistically placed to benefit most from affirmative action policies.

The insertion of perceived “white discrimination” into Asian American perspectives on college admissions by people who are not Asian American is an attempt to use our struggles against racist national contexts to promote the very structures that have disempowered us.

This is not the first time such a case has occurred. This June, many celebrated the Supreme Court win of an Asian American band to keep their name The Slants as a point of reclamation over Western narratives shaming the shape of Asian eyes. The ruling, however, can also now be used to register names such as “Washington Redskins” a racial slur previously denied by the trademark office. Model minority status was granted as a counter to black activism.

We know better than anyone how complicated our perspectives can be in America’s binary. As an ambiguous entity in the black-white racial dichotomy of our country, we must be wary of our historical positions as tools of division. But we certainly cannot allow the imposition of a framework forced by non-Asian writers for a semi-coherent story to undermine the validity of our concerns.

Christina M. Qiu ’19 is an Applied Mathematics concentrator in Mather House.

CORRECTION: Aug. 7, 2017

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Stuyvesant High School implemented a holistic admissions process in 2014. A holistic admissions process was proposed but never implemented. Stuyvesant currently uses the Specialized High Schools Admission Test as its sole admission requirement.

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