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The Asian American Dilemma

By Menglin Maria Guo
Menglin Maria Guo is a non-resident fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

On October 1, federal judge Allison D. Burroughs ruled in the case of Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard that Harvard does not discriminate against Asian American applicants in its race-conscious admissions process. In a nutshell, this lawsuit reflects the core of “the Asian American dilemma”: Do Asian American students with high academic achievement levels belong to a racial minority? Asian Americans are a racial minority, composing an estimated 6 percent of the U.S. population, yet often feel themselves being pushed into the social category of “honorary white” people. The diversity of Asian American experiences reflected through this lawsuit reveals just how complex the history and struggles are for a racial group that happens to be growing faster than any other in the U.S. While this decision should be celebrated for now, I hope the verdict is the beginning of a much-needed conversation surrounding Asian American identity taking place locally and globally.

Now is the time to take Asian American histories and struggles seriously, and to include Asian Americans in the national dialogue whenever race relations are discussed. There are also numerous steps within the Harvard community that need to be taken to work towards a more inclusive national dialogue surrounding race, ethnicity, gender, class, religion, and more.

While Asian Americans are generally academically high achieving and have a large presence on college campuses across the country, there are not enough Asian American centered curricula to acknowledge or appreciate Asian American culture, history, and politics. Nationally, fewer than 50 of the 5,000 degree-granting universities have Asian American Studies departments. Data compiled by Cornell University shows only 32 universities offer such a major (most of those schools are located in California). Harvard, along with 17 other colleges, offers some Asian American studies courses. Yet, the University still needs to establish an Asian Americans Studies department. As it is, the call for an ethnic studies program at Harvard has been ongoing for decades. Sadly, a couple of renowned Asian American faculty members left Harvard just this past academic year. But there is reason for hope as this fall, Faculty of Arts and Sciences Dean Claudine Gay’s decision to hire a cluster of cross-divisional scholars in the areas of ethnicity, indigeneity, and migration during the upcoming academic year is the first step in the right direction.

Asian students and the Asian American community in general need to establish stronger intergroup alliances to firmly project the wide range of Asian American identities. Now is the time to take advantage of the spotlight offered by this lawsuit to bring attention to, and expand on, existing Asian American social and political activism. Starting with the current debate on affirmative action, more academic and community dialogue surrounding the lawsuit can help solidify the existing Asian American political identity established in 1968. At Harvard, the call to move towards a more inclusive pan-Asian community was discussed in an earlier Crimson article from this May, “A Balancing Act: Asian Affinity Groups Scrutinize Their Role On Campus.” According to Pew Research Center, Asian Americans are on track to become the largest immigrant group in the United States by 2055. The diversity among Asian subgroups, in terms of national and ethnic origin, requires critical examination of disparities in Asian immigrants’ socioeconomic status, language proficiency, and religious affiliations. While there are many well-established ethnic based communities, primarily Chinese-Japanese-Korean communities, a strong pan-Asian community that deliberately includes the stories and voices of Indian, Filipino, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and all other Asian voices, would greatly benefit Asian Americans in becoming a more visible political group.

Now is also the time to expand on the black-Asian intercultural alliance. It is not possible to discuss affirmative action without understanding the history of slavery. Likewise, it is also important to understand the unique immigration history of Asian Americans through waves of exclusion from the American cultural mainstream. In December 2018, Harvard Kennedy School’s 2018 Bipartisan Program on Newly Elected Members of Congress hosted a “Breakfast with New Congress Members” event that brought together the Harvard Black Graduate Student Alliance, the Harvard Kennedy School Black Student Union, Latinx Caucus, and Asian American and Pacific Islander Caucus to discuss priority policies in communities of color. Meaningful dialogue like this among student groups should become a much more common occurrence on campus.

This lawsuit has brought a much-needed spotlight to existing Asian American activism that has been ongoing for decades. In some ways, the lawsuit offers a window to reveal the various Asian political groups’ ideologies, economic disparities among the subgroups, and how the Asian American identity must extend beyond the Chinese-Japanese-Korean subgroups. However, the Asian conundrum does not stop with this verdict or its subsequent appeal. How do we best understand this highly educated racial group in the country? Existing research such as The Asian American Achievement Paradox by Min Zhou already explains how immigration laws have largely shaped the makeup of today’s Asian Ameican population. Now, we must popularize these scholarly works so that the general public can better acknowledge and sympathize with the adversity and oppression that Asian Americans face, stemming from the history of indentured labor, racial harassment, and perceived image as a model minority.

Menglin Maria Guo is a non-resident fellow at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.

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