Asian American Activists Are Refusing to Join the Fight Against Affirmative Action
It’s been called the “bamboo ceiling”—the perception that highly qualified Asian American high school students face an unspoken quota at the nation’s elite universities. College admissions directors, the argument goes, often pass over Asian American kids for less-qualified African American and Latino students for the sake of manufactured campus diversity.
Now an advocacy group, Students for Fair Admissions, says it wants to expose, then smash, the bamboo ceiling for good. This week the organization sued Harvard University and the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill, alleging that the schools discriminate against Asian American students and that political correctness is to blame.
The suit, however, is getting strong pushback from Asian American student and civil rights organizations, who suspect that Students for Fair Admissions—and its parent organization, Project for Fair Representation, which is run by activist Edward Blum—are more interested in ending affirmative action than making sure Asian American students get equal treatment in college admissions. The lawsuit inspired a Twitter hashtag, #IAmNotYourWedge, and a petition condemning the suit as a thinly veiled conservative ploy.
“Conservatives desperate to shore up a shrinking, aging, mostly white base are hoping to sink their hooks into anxious Asian American parents who, like all parents, just want the best opportunities for their kids,” Cynthia Liu, education advocate and founder of the K-12 News Network, said in an email interview. “This lawsuit plays on fears, falsehoods, and scarcity-driven and blinkered thinking.”
ReAppropriate, an Asian American culture and social justice blog, says Blum’s “overt co-optation of the Asian American community” is “galling.”
According to ReAppropriate, Blum “purports to speak for the Asian American community in the filing of his lawsuit. He purports to stand in defense of the Asian American community against institutional racism from elite universities. Blum forgets that a majority of Asian Americans simply do not stand” with him.
The Students for Fair Admissions lawsuit, filed earlier this week, accuses Harvard and the University of North Carolina of admitting substandard minority applicants because of their race. In a statement on its website, the Project for Fair Representation argues that publicly available data shows that the two schools are in clear violation of a 2013 Supreme Court ruling that says college admissions directors can only use “race-neutral” standards when deciding who gets in.
The Project for Fair Representation’s statement goes further, suggesting that practices at Harvard and the University of North Carolina are just the tip of the iceberg.
“The discrimination against Asian-Americans…[is] emblematic of the behavior of the vast majority of competitive colleges throughout the country,” reads the statement.
Blum, who is the director of the Project for Fair Representation, represented Abigail Fisher, a white student, in her successful anti–affirmative action lawsuit against the University of Texas. He has placed other schools across the country on notice by stating that the Harvard and UNC suits “are the first of what are expected to be several similar challenges to other competitive colleges that continue to unconstitutionally use racial preferences in admission decisions.”
Even though the number of qualified Asian American students applying to Harvard is up, said Blum, “public data shows that Harvard has purposefully limited the percentage of Asian-American freshman it admits. In fact, the number of Asian-Americans Harvard admits today is lower than it was 20 years ago.”
Though Blum argues that the Asian American community is being treated unfairly, however, a study by the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research shows that more than 63 percent of Asian Americans support affirmative action, while less than 40 percent support ending it, according to Diverse Magazine. And several civil rights groups, including the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, filed briefs supporting affirmative action in the Fisher case.
Nevertheless, there is some perception of bias against Asian American students in college admissions: In 2012, according to a report by the American Psychological Association, “the National Association for College Admission Counseling documented that Asian students are convinced not to identify their race/ethnicity box on applications to avoid potential biases in admission to the nation’s top colleges.”
The report also details how Asian American students are often held hostage to the "model minority" stereotype, requiring, on average, higher test scores and better grades than blacks, whites, and Latinos in order to win college admission.
“The term [model minority] implies that all Asians are hard working, financially well off, high-achievers,” often neglecting their diversity, according to the report. “This image…also attempts to silence Asians regarding their difficulties and discrimination experiences. The truth is most Asians are immigrants who face language struggles” while others, like Vietnames, Hmong, and Laotians, tend to be poorer and have high dropout rates.
In its blog post about the lawsuit, ReAppropriate alleges that Blum and the Project for Fair Representation took it upon themselves to file the lawsuit and recruited “just the right Asian” student to help humanize it. The post includes screen shots of online ads featuring an Asian student with the caption, “Were you denied admission to the University of North Carolina? It may be because you’re the wrong race.” The ads are accompanied by a form for a rejected student to fill out.
“The [Students for Fair Admissions] lawsuits come after over a year of Edward Blum canvassing for ‘just the right Asian’: rejected applicants to Harvard, Univeristy of North Carolina–Chapel Hill (UNC) and University of Wisconsin–Madison,” wrote ReAppropriate. “Blum was looking for Asian Americans willing to become the new Abigail Fisher: someone willing to be exploited as the next public face of the affirmative action debate.”
ReAppropriate notes that Blum hasn’t named a student as a plaintiff in the lawsuit, and doesn’t offer concrete evidence of a quota at Harvard “or that it was the reason for the unnamed applicant’s rejection from the school.”
At best, “the suit is largely conjecture, and based on the bizarre presumption that high standardized test scores entitles an applicant to admission to an elite university.”
Still, Blum’s case against the University of Texas reached the Supreme Court, where a conservative majority has consistently ruled against race-based college admissions. However, according to Liu, Blum’s Asian American discrimination lawsuit misses two broader points: The Asian-Pacific Islander community isn’t monolithic, and college should be for everyone.
“Let’s widen our views to have admissions officers recognize the vast diversity within the APA community (which also includes poverty and low educational attainment) and also expand our perspectives in the Asian Pacific American community so that every state university is fully funded, higher ed is affordable, and there are sufficient campuses in public higher ed so every student who wants to can attend,” said Liu.
This post has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction Nov. 24, 2014: An earlier version of this article misstated the name of one of the civil rights groups that filed a brief in the Abigail Fisher case.