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Many Asian Americans support affirmative action. The recent Supreme Court cases obscure that.

The cases rely on a narrative that doesn’t reflect the diversity of views among Asian Americans.

Cynthia Choi, co-executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, addresses the crowd during a Medical Professionals speak out against Hate Speech press conference at Chinese Hospital on June 30, 2020, in San Francisco, California. 
Lea Suzuki/San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images
Li Zhou is a politics reporter at Vox, where she covers Congress and elections. Previously, she was a tech policy reporter at Politico and an editorial fellow at the Atlantic.

On June 29, the Supreme Court effectively ended affirmative action in a 6-3 decision that drastically limits public and private universities from using race-conscious admissions policies. The case’s plaintiff, a group called the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), argued that such provisions discriminate against Asian American students.

Effectively, SFFA suggested, the institutions targeted in these suits — Harvard and the University of North Carolina — used race-conscious policies that hurt Asian Americans’ chances of being accepted, while unfairly boosting opportunities for Black and Latino students. The Court seemed swayed by this notion, finding that affirmative action leads to discrimination.

SFFA’s lawsuit advanced the claim that Asian Americans should be against affirmative action and suggested that the group broadly is. But that’s not necessarily the case. In fact, polls have found that views are quite mixed on the subject.

According to a 2020 Asian American voter survey conducted by AAPI Data, 70 percent of Asian Americans support affirmative action, when it’s described as programs designed to help Black people, women, and other minorities get better access to higher education. That finding was echoed in a 2022 AAPI Data survey, which found that 69 percent of Asian Americans felt the same way.

In a 2023 Pew survey, 53 percent of Asian Americans who had heard of affirmative action also said they believe it’s a good thing, though 76 percent of Asian Americans overall said they did not think colleges should consider race or ethnicity as a factor in admissions decisions. A similar dynamic was evident across racial groups, with more of Black and Hispanic Americans saying affirmative action was a good thing rather than bad, but majorities of all racial groups also saying colleges shouldn’t consider race and ethnicity in admissions.

Notably, as these polls indicate, there is a wide spectrum of stances among Asian Americans that isn’t fully captured by the narrative of the Supreme Court cases.

SFFA’s lawsuit ultimately papered over the complexities of Asian American views on affirmative action to advance the group’s argument. It’s also the latest attempt by conservatives to exploit concerns expressed by Asian Americans in a bid to undo policies that help minorities overall.

A majority of Asian Americans hold a nuanced view of racism and discrimination

“I would make a point of saying that most Asian Americans understand that … there is racism aimed particularly at communities of color and Black communities,” said Aarti Kohli, executive director of Advancing Justice – Asian Law Caucus, noting that there is a sense that policies like affirmative action — which emerged during the Civil Rights movement — are vital to address that.

Additionally, such perspectives reflect how affirmative action has helped Asian Americans and led to a more diverse and enriching student body, as well.

“I benefited from an admissions process that took race and the effects of racism into consideration,” wrote Sally Chen, the economic justice program manager for Chinese for Affirmative Action, in a Los Angeles Times op-ed. Chen details how her experience as a daughter of working-class Chinese American immigrants was a subject of her Harvard admissions essay and was likely a major factor in her acceptance to the school.

How SFFA has worked to end affirmative action

Edward Blum, the white conservative strategist behind SFFA, first began filing legal challenges to affirmative action in the 1990s. Those efforts culminated in an anti-affirmative case Blum supported that featured Abigail Fisher, a white woman, as the plaintiff. That effort ultimately failed in 2016 when the Supreme Court ruled that the University of Texas could still consider race as part of its admissions process.

“I needed Asian plaintiffs,” Blum said afterward, according to a legal filing from Harvard, in the case decided Thursday. Potential plaintiffs arrived through websites Blum backed, like “Harvard Not Fair” and “UNCNotFair,” which recruited students who felt they were discriminated against on the basis of race when they were rejected from the institutions. He used SFFA, a group that’s bankrolled by conservative donors, as the body for conveying these concerns.

In the end, the two Supreme Court cases did not feature testimony from any individual Asian American plaintiffs, who remained broadly anonymous. Asian American students did testify, however, in favor of affirmative action.

Blum’s apparent theory, which was seemingly successful, was essentially if SFFA could argue that race-conscious admissions were harming a minority group, that could prove to be a more sympathetic case for the courts. (Blum has pushed back on this interpretation.)

As Blum’s support for prior anti-affirmative action cases makes clear, however, his goal wasn’t so much to help Asian American students in any way but to do away with affirmative action, a move that could be disproportionately harmful to Black, Latino, and Indigenous students. Beyond this case, Blum has also challenged other civil rights legislation and played a central role in gutting the Voting Rights Act. His broader efforts suggest an agenda ultimately aimed at undercutting minority power in the US.

“It’s very much a case of being exploited by Ed Blum. If you look at his anti-voting rights, anti-civil rights work, there’s a lot that shows a really troubling attack on the rights of communities of color with this being one of them,” Chinese for Affirmative Action’s Chen told Vox. “This is a conservative strategist, having failed in his last case, bringing the same case again, and purposely shopping for a different face.”

There’s a long history of conservatives using Asian Americans as a wedge group

By using Asian Americans as a wedge in this case, Blum and other conservatives are using a longstanding strategy of pitting minority groups against one another while failing to hold institutions accountable for discrimination. Rather than prioritize the disproportionate advantages that programs like legacy admissions afford white students, for example, the case hinged heavily on the argument that other minority groups are admitted to the detriment of Asian Americans. (The issue of legacy admissions was raised in court but was not the central focus of the case.)

“It encourages the idea that students of color are competing over limited spots, over crumbs, when we’re still seeing at predominately white institutions that a lot of their more immediate considerations of admissions happen long before they get to consider racial diversity as part of admissions,” says Chen.

The idea that Asian Americans are cited by white conservatives to put down other minorities goes much farther back than Blum. In the 1960s, white writers developed the idea of the “model minority myth,” misleadingly arguing that Asian Americans were able to be collectively successful while other minorities, including Black Americans, were not. In doing so, they created a false narrative that Asian Americans were a monolithic group that didn’t need help combating discrimination while downplaying the systemic racism that Black Americans have faced. That framing also sought to pit the two groups against one another — by arguing Asian Americans were a superior class while other minorities were inherently inferior — rather than bolstering solidarity among different minorities, as Alton Wang previously wrote for the Washington Post:

Writing in the New York Times in 1966, the sociologist William Petersen coined the term “model minority” to describe the post-World War II rise of Japanese Americans, even in the face of ongoing prejudice. He contrasted their success to that of what he called “problem minorities” (a term that he set in quotation marks that clearly pointed toward black Americans), groups pulled down by oppression to the point where they would greet even equal opportunity with “either self-defeating apathy or a hatred so all-consuming as to be self-destructive.”

Whatever Petersen’s intentions, this contrast exposes the real function of the model-minority myth: It rests not on the laurels of Asian American success, but of black oppression and perceived cultural failure.

The model minority myth has collectively obscured the immense diversity among Asian Americans, as well as major income and education disparities within the group in a manner exploited by SFFA. “It really plays into the model minority myth that Asian Americans don’t benefit from race-conscious policies or Asian Americans don’t need policies that address racism because they are monolithically successful,” says Chen.

Update, June 30, 10 am ET: This story was originally published on June 29 and has been updated with additional polling data and context about Asian Americans’ views on affirmative action.

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