As the nation’s oldest and largest Asian Pacific American civil rights organization, the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) is deeply disturbed by recent attempts to dismantle affirmative action policies in higher education and opposes anti-affirmative action movements that use Asian Pacific Americans as their mascot.
Last November, an organization called Students for Fair Admissions, led by Edward Blum, filed a lawsuit against Harvard University, charging that the University’s use of race-conscious admissions policies results in “racial balancing” practices that impose quotas on Asian Pacific American enrollment. Last Friday, a coalition of Asian Pacific American groups filed a similar complaint with the Department of Justice and the Department of Education against Harvard University and other Ivy League institutions. The goal of both of these initiatives is to abolish race-conscious admissions policies entirely by eliminating race and ethnicity as a consideration in the college admissions process.
JACL has long supported affirmative action and race-conscious admissions policies as part of a holistic consideration of an applicant’s merits. Affirmative action acknowledges the continued impact that racism and institutionalized discrimination have played on educational opportunity and access, and seeks to remedy these historic injustices by intentionally fostering diverse and inclusive learning environments in order to achieve a more equitable and just society.
Anti-affirmative action arguments that portray Asian Pacific American students as the victims of “reverse racism” both rely on and reinforce the model minority stereotype, framing the Asian Pacific American community as being unfairly disadvantaged by special provisions made for less qualified black and Latino students. The model minority myth has long been used to manufacture hostility between “hard-working, successful” Asian Americans and other communities of color, and its deployment in the affirmative action debate is no different.
It is clear that Asian Pacific Americans benefit from affirmative action. Portions of the Asian Pacific American population, including Southeast Asians, Pacific Islanders, and recent immigrants, experience significant educational disparities and benefit from race-conscious admissions policies that account for the unique obstacles faced by these groups. In addition, Asian Pacific Americans remain underrepresented in certain academic and graduate programs.
When Asian Pacific Americans are systematically disadvantaged in the college admissions process, they are experiencing negative action, rather than affirmative action. Negative action, the unfavorable treatment of Asian Pacific Americans in relation to whites, is often justified in the name of achieving a diverse student body, a goal co-opted from affirmative action rhetoric. Yet this tactic rests upon several false assumptions: first, that all Asian Pacific American applicants are interchangeable and the diverse Asian Pacific American population can be treated as a monolith; and second, that race is the only criteria used for achieving diversity.
JACL opposes negative action, which is illegal and discriminatory. Negative action against Asian Pacific Americans is not a result of affirmative action for other minorities. This false equivalence of racial remedies with racial discrimination is a dangerous tactic that is utilized by those who seek to eliminate considerations of race in order to evade clear-eyed discussion on race and racism.
Diverse and inclusive learning environments benefit all students. JACL rejects the false framing that positions Asian Pacific Americans in opposition to affirmative action policies, and stands in solidarity with other communities of color in supporting race-conscious admissions policies that seek to build a more just and equitable society.
Click here to read a letter supporting affirmative action signed by over 135 Asian American organizations.