Response to the Economist

Written by Shengxi Li in response to this article  

Controversy has surrounded affirmative action ever since it was institutionalized in 1954 through Brown v. Board of Education. In the late 20th century, the hot button phrase was “reverse affirmative action.” Today, the point of contention seems to be around Asian Americans being against affirmative action because we think that other minority groups are stealing our opportunities.

On October 3rd, the Economist published an article titled, “The model minority is losing patience,” arguing, in essence, that affirmative action is blocking Asian Americans from fulfilling the American dream and overcoming years of historical discrimination in the United States.

I rarely see acknowledgement of the history of discrimination experienced by Asian Americans in this country so I appreciated the brief overview with which the article set the stage after its opening anecdote. Key facts the author highlighted include the fact that the largest mass lynching in American history, in 1871, was not of blacks but of 17 Chinese, and that in 1942, 120,000 Japanese Americans were interned, compared to negligible numbers of German or Italian-Americans. I add to that reality the facts that the first Asian Americans were brought to the US as indentured servants to work on plantations in an antebellum attempt to solve the “slavery problem” and that anywhere from 150 to 1,200 underpaid or unpaid Chinese laborers, working under terrible conditions, died building the transcontinental railroad.

I also agreed with the article’s subsequent description of the work ethic and cultural factors that have led Asian Americans to become what the article calls “unusually well educated, prosperous, married, satisfied with their lot and willing to believe in the American dream.”  

From here, though, the article does a little bait and switch. The articles argues that even though there has been an astonishing level of Asian American academic success, it is not nearly as much as the amount of hard work, the level of familial pressure, and the generally outstanding grades and accolades “would seem to merit.” And the reason the article provides is because of affirmative action:

“Racial prejudice of the sort that Jews faced may or may not be part of the problem, but affirmative action certainly is. Top universities tend to admit blacks and Hispanics with lower scores because of their history of disadvantage; and once the legacies, the sports stars, the politically well-connected and the rich people likely to donate new buildings (few of whom tend to be Asian) have been allotted their places, the number for people who are just high achievers is limited. Since the Ivies will not stop giving places to the privileged, because their finances depend on the generosity of the rich, the argument homes in on affirmative action.”

By framing this entire article through the lens of the lawsuit that is currently being levied by 64 Asian organizations against Harvard for discrimination in the admission process, the Economist seems to suggest that this is not simply an argument it puts forth, but rather, an argument being made by the majority of the Asian American community – that we are tired of their spots being taken by other, underqualified people of color as recompense for their history of disadvantage when we too have a history of disadvantage and are more qualified.

Yet, where the Economist sees a complaint against affirmative action, against other racial minorities in the United States, I see a complaint against the solution that the American institutions and government have offered to the problem of racism.

As the article pointed out, the Asian American community was not spared the discrimination so commonly experienced by groups of color. No compensation or even formal apology has ever been issued, however, as redress for those decades of deprivation, discrimination, and violation.

After the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, we received no apology from Congress. After Brown v. Board of Education, there was no judicial decision aimed at integrating Asians into the white school systems despite Yick Wo v. Hopkins, decided in 1886, designating Asians as “colored” and barring Asian Americans from attending white schools as expressly as blacks were barred in Plessy v. Ferguson from riding in white train cars. After Korematsu v. United States stripped Japanese Americans of their guaranteed rights as citizens and ordered all ethnic Japanese in the United States into internment camps regardless of citizenship, we received no compensation for our losses of property and deprivation of liberty.

What limited redress and compensation that has been provided by the American institutions over the years has been on stark black and white terms.

I do not and cannot speak for all Asian Americans – as the Economist acknowledges, the Asian American population is extremely diverse. It is possible that those filing the lawsuit against Harvard truly are bitter against black, Latino, and other underrepresented minority students, as the article suggests. However, I personally do not begrudge any group of color receiving compensation for the wrongs that the American government has done to it over the years. What I begrudge is the government and other institutions providing an institutional remedy in exclusive terms of black and white, when for centuries, they propagated wrongs under a system of white and colored, with the latter encompassing all those unfortunate enough to have a drop of blood other than Caucasian. What I begrudge are these institutions trying to sweep under the rug years of wrongs that it has inflicted upon certain groups instead of giving them their due compensation. What I begrudge are the continuation of excuses like “Ivies will not stop giving places to the privileged [i.e. white] because their finances depend on the generosity of the rich,” and the insistence that hence, the only way to make spots for those who have been deprived is to take from others who have also been deprived.

That is not a solution; it is a compromise. And after decades of being compromised, you can bet I am “losing patience.”