How the dreams of immigrants, past and present, shape our national heritage and identity.
In April, a federal judge ruled to advance a lawsuit against Harvard that alleges that the university is capping the admission of high-achieving students simply because they aren’t members of disenfranchised minority groups. The Harvard case echoes the controversial Fisher v. University of Texas suit, which went to the Supreme Court in 2016. The 2016 case saw two white plaintiffs argue that they were not admitted into the University of Texas on the basis of their race, despite meeting the university’s other admissions criteria. Where the new lawsuit against Harvard differs is that it’s being filed by the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions on behalf of Asian-American students.
The issue of affirmative action, and fostering societal recognition of the educational and moral value of diversity in higher learning, is one that is near and dear to my heart as we celebrate Immigrant Heritage Month this June.
As an Asian-American woman and the daughter of two immigrants, I would never deny or undercut the oppression that those who share my heritage have faced and continue to face in this country. I’m perfectly cognizant of the racist laws, discriminatory court rulings, and treatment Asian immigrants have been subjected to in this country. Like all people of color, our experiences in America are fundamentally, irrevocably different from those of white people — but our experiences are also in many ways different from those of Black and brown people, and it’s critical that we are able to acknowledge this.
When my parents came to this country, they came with nearly empty bank accounts, and little else but the simple dream of providing their children with better lives. I never forget the stories of my father’s hard work as a waiter to support himself through school, or my mother’s struggles with language barriers when she worked graveyard shifts at a 7-Eleven in San Francisco. It was through their hard work alone that I was able to grow up in an upper-middle-class, predominantly Asian-American community, with access to tutoring, SAT prep classes, and other costly resources that have become so necessary to accessing higher education.
Asian-American immigrants have historically faced the same poverty and hardship of nearly all people of color in this country. My parents came to the US with almost nothing — and yet, they also did not come with intergenerational debts; incarcerated family; perceptions and stereotypes of them as dangerous, criminal, or lazy; and other experiences that disproportionately affect some minority groups more than others.
To that end, research has shown how racism affects Black Americans’ access to every aspect of their living standards and what they are able to provide for their families, such as housing, employment, car insurance, and health care, to name a few. In addition to how racist policing, police violence, and mass incarceration have devastated Black and brown families and communities for generations, studies from the Center for Economic and Policy Research, ProPublica, and others reveal overwhelming evidence of everyday discrimination affecting their economic prospects, too. One famous study found white Americans with criminal histories were more likely to be hired than Black Americans without criminal histories; another found car insurance companies offered lower rates to customers from white neighborhoods than customers from Black neighborhoods, despite comparable risk in both communities.
As for Black and brown youth, jarring double standards occur early on: Black students are more likely to face more severe disciplinary action for the same acts as white students, and Black youth are more likely to be targeted by police.
Affirmative action has always been plagued with misconceptions that condescend to the achievements of certain racial minority groups — and often Black people, in particular — by suggesting that race is the only reason certain individuals would receive admission. Many continue to ignore how affirmative action is merely the treatment of race, and the diversity of experience and worldview that often go hand-in-hand with it, as one of many considerations in admissions.
In either case, the narrative that affirmative action “hurts” Asian-American students is not a new one, nor a particularly nuanced one in consideration of how many different groups and communities this demographic encompasses; some groups of Asian-Americans have among the lowest college attendance rates in the US. And among groups of Asian-Americans coming from wealthier or more privileged backgrounds, in order to stand in solidarity with other people of color, we must acknowledge how our experiences are not always equal — or, at times, even close to equal — with those of Black and brown people.
Of course, for many reasons, affirmative action is far from a complete solution, or even vaguely enough for the groups it purports to uplift. It promotes respectability politics by essentially only advancing the most “respectable” members of marginalized groups, all while it ignores greater issues experienced by others in these groups. Within many communities of color, existential issues like the school-to-prison pipeline, police violence, and human trafficking are sadly more prevalent than college attendance. And in terms of affirmative action’s goal of promoting diversity and cultural exchange on college campuses, many universities struggle to realize this goal — and they’ll continue to, unless they treat diversity as more than numbers and quotas, and foster real inclusivity and cultural interaction.
And yet, at its core, affirmative action is about respect and recognition that granting sweepingly equal treatment to different minority groups with fundamentally different experiences only builds upon existing inequality.
Amid this country’s arduous journey to correct for the injustice and trauma upon which it was built, and acknowledge the continued effects of this foundation, many have internalized the idea that anything that does not directly benefit certain people — often, those born into privilege — is inherently unfair and oppressive. And in challenging the narrative that affirmative action is only opposed by privileged white people, opposition from Asian-American students makes the debate far more complicated than it should be.
Far be it from me to say that Asian-American students who protest affirmative action policies are being exploited by white leaders of the movement or that they don’t know any better. But what I will say is that, whether it’s their intention or not, their collaboration with white opponents of these admissions policies helps to promote the erasure of the institution of white privilege. Their refusal to acknowledge differences between their experiences and those of other people of color helps to gaslight a nation into believing that equality means ignoring difference. That’s not true.
This Immigrant Heritage Month, I’m proud to celebrate the hard work and perseverance of my parents; I know that nearly everything I have today is because of them. But this month is also about celebrating the breadth and diversity of cultural experience in this country, and I celebrate that through supporting affirmative action.
(Photo via Getty)