Asian America Needs Affirmative Action, Too: How the Harvard and Yale Lawsuits Appropriate the Model Minority Stereotype

 /  Aug. 21, 2020, 3:48 p.m.

Protestors rally in Boston in support of the Students For Fair Admissions lawsuit against Harvard.
Protesters rally in Boston in support of Students For Fair Admissions' lawsuit against Harvard.

On August 13, the Justice Department accused Yale of discriminatory practices in its undergraduate admissions process. This accusation came after two years of investigation, and from an administration that publicly backed Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a group which sued Harvard with similar accusations. The DOJ claimed that Yale admitted more Black and Hispanic students at the expense of Asian applicants by making race too large of a factor in its admissions process. At the same time, the Harvard case is undergoing an appeal after district court judge Allison Burroughs ruled in 2019 that Harvard College did not discriminate against Asian Americans.

As the Yale lawsuit and the recent SFFA appeal coincide, some of the original allegations deserve review. SFFA argued that because Asian Americans outscored all other racial groups in standardized testing and grade-point averages, but more Asian Americans were not admitted into Harvard, the school must have discriminated against Asian Americans. By indicating last name, race, or language(s) spoken in the home, Asian Americans risked being singled out by college admissions officers, thus being held to a higher standard than applicants from other racial groups. In short, holistic admissions practices like indications of race were ways for Harvard to justify discriminating against Asian Americans by labeling them as deficient in personality traits, even despite their accomplishments. SFFA rallied against affirmative action, and claimed that the removal of race in admissions would be the only way to restore fairness to undergraduate admissions. 

As an Asian American myself, what made me uncomfortable about SFFA’s claim that Harvard’s racial generalizations put Asian Americans at a disadvantage was SFFA’s failure to recognize that its own argument against affirmative action policies also generalized Asian America. It failed to consider whether all Asians would truly benefit from the removal of race in admissions. In effect, SFFA weaponized the model minority stereotype by claiming the superiority of Asian applicants’ test scores, and categorically placed every Asian American in a singular, high-achieving, cultural monolith. 

To groups like SFFA, Harvard and other elite universities are in the wrong: higher standards for Asian Americans based only on their Asian-ness is racist. Normally, I would agree. But Asian America is neither academically, nor ethnically, nor socioeconomically monolithic. It is not affirmative action, but rather the appropriation of the model minority stereotype by groups like the SFFA that truly impairs Asian abilities to succeed. 

A History of the Term “Model Minority”

The term model minority refers to a group that has attained a significant level of success in contemporary American society. It originates from a 1966 New York Times Magazine article entitled “Success story: Japanese American Style.” Written by sociologist William Petersen, it argued that the familial structure and work ethic of Japanese Americans allowed them to rise in social class and overcome discrimination. Soon afterward, a number of articles appeared, praising different Asian ethnic groups for having risen past the burden of racial discrimination, supposedly because of their “Confucian values, work ethic, centrality of family, and genetic superiority.”

But up until the 1950s, Asian Americans were largely seen as foreign and exotic threats to American life. The term “yellow peril” arose to describe the racist fears Westerners held that Asian immigrants would destroy their values. These fears led to violent and discriminatory practices against Asians in the United States. The first Asian immigrants to arrive in the United States, the Chinese, worked in horrible conditions, faced extreme violence including lynchings, and were restricted from upward mobility. Japanese Americans were put in internment camps during World War II, and were victims of racist propagandizing. 

In response, Chinese Americans, tired of constant dehumanization, began to circulate the notion that Asian Americans were hard workers, just like the average white American, and insisted that they were also deserving of dignity and respect. This was the origin of the model minority trope. 

This message went ignored for years. But during the Cold War, America was looking to make allies in the Far East, and anti-East Asian discrimination became a liability. International criticism about US xenophobic treatment of Asian Americans was on the rise, and public narratives of Asian Americans’ patriotic actions during the war weakened the toxic stereotype of disloyalty that had plagued Asian Americans in the past.

In 1952, the McCarran-Walter Act addressed these criticisms. It nullified Asian-exclusionary immigration policies and allowed naturalization for Asian residents, but there was a catch: it revised the 1924 Immigration Act such that a national quota system became codified into American law. One-sixth of one-percent of each existing nationality residing in the United States could now immigrate to the United States, but because so many American residents at the time were of northern and western European descent, the availability of visas to foreign nationals of any Asian country was severely limited. Asian immigration was further limited by racializing the national quota system: citizens of Asian descent from any country would be counted in the quota for the country of their descent or a generic quota for the “Asia-Pacific Triangle,” not for the country of their nationality.

For Asian Americans, the McCarran-Walter Act represented a step in the right direction. At the same time, it fulfilled American foreign policy objectives: to look not-xenophobic and not-racist on the international stage.

The reactionary nature of the advancement of Asian American civil rights did not stop there; in fact, much of the rise of Asian Americans in American society can be attributed to anxieties about the Black civil rights movement. Asian Americans moved up in society, not because they proved themselves to be more economically valuable, more diligent, or more educated than other minorities, but because it was more convenient for political leaders to address Asian American concerns. 

The appeal that Chinese Americans made for themselves prior to the 1950s was suddenly co-opted by white politicians who saw it as a tool to win allies in the Cold War, and also found it an opportune tool by which to deflect African American struggles for civil rights and economic advancement. Throughout the 1960s, anti-Black sentiment in response to the Civil Rights Movement combined with the Cold War led to a surprising result for Asian Americans: society simply became less racist toward them.

White Americans marveled at the success of their Asian counterparts, leading to articles like Petersen’s “Success story: Japanese American style,” and many others like it. According to them, Asian Americans had succeeded due to their education and work ethic. Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, the rhetoric of Asian Americans as the American success story flourished. Asian Americans had become the model minority.

Asian American Demographic Changes

In the early years of the Cold War, when the model minority myth began to take root, the Asian American demographic was composed primarily of two groups. There were Asians who had immigrated to the United States several generations ago and had established some foundation in the United States, and Asians who immigrated later than the former group, but had prior educational opportunities and job training.

As American belligerence expanded abroad, Asian American demographics changed too. As the Vietnam War progressed in Southeast Asia, US forces enlisted the help of Hmong, Cambodian, and Vietnamese people, many of whom were forced to relocate to the United States as refugees. These refugees arrived disadvantaged: they were not educated, did not have the resources for career training, and also did not have the cultural foundation that many other Asian immigrants had the opportunity to build in the past. These new Asian immigrants were poor when they arrived, and even today, have not been able to attain economic advancement or success at as dramatic of a scale as the Asian American population of the 1950s and 1960s. 

The model minority stereotype no longer applied to all of Asian America, and yet the stereotype persisted.

So, Does Race Matter for Asians?

First things first: removing affirmative action would have negative consequences for poor communities of color, who would not be able to properly contextualize their experiences and personal development without including race as a part of that story. In the same way that other racial minorities—particularly Black, Indigenous, and Latinx Americans—benefit from including their race on college admissions, so do many Asians who arrived in the US in the 1960s and 1970s as refugees and asylum-seekers from war-torn countries.

Of all of the students in the SFFA lawsuit, only one student was described in detail: he was a top student, earned a perfect score on the ACT, and served as captain of the tennis team at a top high school in the nation. He was rejected by the most prestigious university in the United States, but aside from a lack of prestige, will suffer minimal consequences. In contrast, for students in Hmong communities in Burbank, California, childhood poverty can be as high as 40 percent%. At Sacramento State University, Hmong students rarely graduate in four years.

For many poor Asians, race is important to their financial status because their parents sought asylum with no financial or educational resources, these students are in disadvantaged situations. It’s a background that is deserving of contextualization, and the removal of race from university admissions would be detrimental to these Asian American students.

SFFA’s claim that disclosing race would be damaging to these poor students is dishonest. Race would give these students an opportunity to contextualize the environment in which they developed, and with college being the best way to escape poverty, it is an opportunity that should remain available for them to use. 

Race Matters, But Not As Much As Class

Asian Americans are diverse. Some are wealthy and privileged, targeting Ivy Leagues and prestige. Others are poor, eyeing community colleges and a way to improve their socioeconomic status. 

It is frankly ridiculous that eliminating affirmative action has become a case against elite university admissions. Most people do not attend elite universities. They attend state schools and community colleges. The case is the same for Asian Americans, and especially for the poor Asian Americans discussed above. 

Class privilege has been discussed again and again with regard to elite university admissions. The median household income at Harvard is $168,800, and five Ivy League schools admit more students from the top one percent of the income scale than from the bottom sixty percent. Standardized test scores tend to be positively correlated with increasing levels of household income. There are a plethora of ways that class privilege seeps through American life, and college admissions is no exception. 

Eliminating affirmative action would have the greatest amount of impact on the people least represented by the cases made against Harvard and Yale. Affirmative action affects elite private universities, but it affects far more publicly funded universities and community colleges, two educational pathways that serve far more Americans than every elite school ever will. In an argument about equitable opportunities in education, the fact that privileged Asian Americans are choosing to fight against affirmative action rings of elitism and selfishness.

Affirmative action is by no means perfect, and I do not try to defend affirmative action’s flaws. But repealing affirmative action would be a far greater detriment to Asian America than both the SFFA and the Department of Justice seem to admit, and it is shamefully selfish to rally against affirmative action when it does so much good for those who need the help.

The image in this article was taken by Whoisjohngalt and was not edited. The image is labeled for reuse under the Creative Commons Attribution Share-Alike 4.0 license. The original image can be found here.

Donna Son


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