Asian-Americans and affirmative action

By Harvey Gee – Denver Post
Article Last Updated: 05/06/2008 07:29:41 PM MDT

In February, law professors Robert Nagel and Melissa Hart debated about affirmative action in a panel discussion at the University of Colorado at Boulder Law School , and remarked about Initiative 31 and Initiative 61, two alternative ballot measures that will be included on Colorado’s ballot in November.

Initiative 31 seeks to ban all “preferential treatment” by the state and mirrors anti-affirmative action initiatives that have passed in California, Michigan and Washington in recent years. Similar initiatives are being brought in Arizona, Mississippi, Nebraska, and Oklahoma. Initiative 61 seeks to offer a Colorado alternative that will eliminate illegal preferential treatment, but preserve the state’s authority to offer modest equal opportunity programs consistent with the U.S. Constitution.

To be sure, the divergent opinions about affirmative action began as soon as the programs were implemented. During the 1960s, affirmative action combined past discrimination and diversity rationales to garner broad support for the limited principle that white male institutions should be dismantled to ensure inclusion of women and previously excluded minorities.

Caste systems developed based on both race and sex to exclude African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and other groups on a wholesale basis at various times and places.

The civil rights movement won broad support for the principle that these exclusions were wrong, and that remedying the problem required “affirmative action” — at least until individuals could receive equal consideration of their relative merits. However, by the 1990s, opponents of affirmative action began to argue that affirmative action had achieved its purpose, and was no longer necessary.

They contend that most institutions now include women and minorities, and will continue to do so, and that, to the extent that remaining institutions discriminate in ways reminiscent of a caste-like system, anti-discrimination laws should be the answer, rather than any affirmative action policy. Furthermore, opponents allege that the continuation of affirmative action creates a racial “spoils” system.

As discussed during the debate between Professors Nagel and Hart, Initiative 31 would likely have the greatest impact in higher education admissions at highly selective programs like CU Law School.

The initiative comes at a time when the Denver Bar is pushing forward with its commitment with the Colorado Pledge to Diversity. As Colorado voters consider the two ballot measures in the fall, it is becoming clear that Asian Americans will play a pivotal role.

When most Americans hear the term “affirmative action,” they tend to think of remedial programs implemented for African Americans and Latinos to address past discrimination. But rarely do Americans think of Asian Americans as being in need of affirmative action to compensate for past discrimination.

University catalogs and minority scholarship programs that mention minorities — except Asian Americans — substantiates this lack of consideration. In addition, many government programs that target poverty exclude Asian Americans from receiving benefits. There is also a tendency to exclude Asian Americans as parties in class actions involving employment and housing discrimination.

It is apparent that under the guidelines of these programs, Asian Americans are not seen as sufficiently disadvantaged or under-represented to warrant the same consideration offered to African Americans and Latinos. The virtual absence of Asian Americans from affirmative action analysis is troubling and demonstrates the need for the Asian American voice to be heard.

This tendency to exclude Asian Americans from the affirmative action debate is disingenuous. Perhaps it is reflective of the erroneous belief that Asian Americans do not or should not benefit from affirmative action.

This skewed vision is compounded by the inaccurate portrayal of the affirmative action debate by the media, which simplistically projects affirmative action as increasing opportunities for African Americans and Latinos and decreasing opportunities for whites.

In reality, Asian Americans are no different than other minorities who have suffered from racism and discrimination. Asian Americans can benefit from affirmative action and should be included as active participants in the debate.

Making the argument for including Asian Americans in affirmative action programs is a daunting task. Like African Americans and Latinos, they are victims of both past and present discrimination. Asian Americans easily meet the evidentiary standard required for a showing of “past discrimination” and should therefore qualify for remedial or preferential treatment.

Indeed, the history of institutionalized discrimination against Asian Americans in this country is well documented, and this anti-Asian animus continues to the present day. However, unlike African Americans and Latinos, Asian Americans are being punished “not for their vices but for their virtues.”

Today, a great deal of anti-Asian sentiment exists, serving as a foundation for the lingering xenophobia often manifested in anti-Asian violence, the existence of “glass ceilings” in the workplace, and the imposition of quotas on university campuses, especially in California.

A recent example of anti-Asian animus was the supposedly satirical editorial column on Asian students, titled “If it’s war the Asians want … It’s war they’ll get,” written by a CU staff editor and published on the school newspaper’s web site.

Since affirmative action can be both harmful and helpful to Asian Americans, it is imperative that we be included in the debate. Affirmative action is helpful to Asian Americans in providing employment and business opportunities that otherwise would not be available to them.

Conversely, the current affirmative action scheme is harmful in that it constructs quota systems which prevent Asian American students from gaining admission to top universities based solely on merit. Regardless, Asian Americans have not had the opportunity to decide for themselves whether affirmative action is appropriate, or to determine in what forms the programs should be implemented.

Moreover, Asian Americans are not afforded the benefits and opportunities that whites have been traditionally afforded, nor are Asian Americans able to benefit as a “preferred minority” in affirmative action programs.

Unfortunately, a dual standard presently exists in the application of affirmative action because there is one standard for African Americans and Latinos, and yet another for Asian Americans. This dual standard is inconsistent with the intent of affirmative action as a universal cause for all persons who have been historically discriminated against and under-represented in society.

The primary reason why Asian Americans are not considered active players in the affirmative action arena is because most Americans have accepted the idea of the “model minority myth.” The model minority myth has created a stereotype of Asian Americans as one monolithic ethnic group that has achieved success though education and hard work without the assistance of governmental benefits.

Such a myth is disingenuous, and masks the reality that Asian Americans are still affected by discrimination. The problem with this myth is two-fold: it obfuscates the fact that Asian Americans are still in need of affirmative action, and it is often used by opponents of affirmative action to show that affirmative action is not needed to help minorities. In its most extreme form, the model minority myth rhetorically shows that other minority groups should be able to succeed, without governmental assistance, because Asian Americans have.

Today, Asian Americans still need affirmative action in areas such as employment and public contracting. For instance, Asian Americans are severely underrepresented in corporate sector managerial positions.

Although the statistics show that Asian Americans in the aggregate have done well in higher education, certain Asian American groups still need some type of assistance. For example, some Southeast Asian groups rely on financial and educational assistance.

Undoubtedly, the role of Asian Americans in the affirmative action debate and racial stereotypes of them as foreign has demonstrated that a meaningful dialogue about race relations in America is much more complex and nuanced.

The Asian American experience, and in fact, the unique cultural experiences of all individuals of different racial backgrounds, reveal that a stratified racial hierarchy has always existed in the United States . As such, I propose that only when Americans consider the issue of race in new ways will race relations ever improve.

For instance, racial issues should be studied in their social, historical, and political context in order to obtain insights about how social barriers were overcome, and what additional hurdles have yet to be cleared.

Accordingly, I am hoping that the brief points made in this essay brings attention to the unfortunate manner in which Asian Americans are still perceived as “foreign,” not American. I hope also to dispel perceptions that Asian Americans are apolitical and, at most, ambivalent about being involved in the affirmative action controversy.

Despite some incidences of opposition to affirmative action, it is clear that the discrimination suffered by Asian Americans due to stereotypical and false perceptions justifies the continuation of including Asian Americans in all conversations about the viability of such policies.

Only by inviting Asian Americans and other nonwhites into the conversation about civil rights, and by openly addressing the more subtle discrimination that continue to disadvantage them may the goal of improving race relations in America become closer to achieving a practical reality.


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