Behind the vocal Asian American minority railing against affirmative action

Adam Glanzman

As the Supreme Court weighs two high-profile cases challenging affirmative action, a vocal minority of Asian Americans continues to influence public debate.

Though 69% of Asian Americans support affirmative action, factors like pressurized school systems in Asia, the immigrant condition and a lack of firsthand knowledge of U.S.’s racial history fuel the opposition, experts said.

“Chinese Americans that I interviewed … most of them were middle or upper middle class, but they often talked about the low-income Chinatown Chinese whose parents were working two or three jobs,” Oiyan Poon, director of the Race and Intersectional Studies for Educational Equity (RISE) Center at Colorado State University told NBC News. “Some of it was resentment — fear that their experiences were not being recognized. That their sacrifices were not being recognized.”

The cases before the Supreme Court, brought by the group Students for Fair Admissions, Inc., accuse the schools of discriminating against Asian Americans, putting them at a disadvantage and valuing Black and Latino students more highly.

Among Chinese Americans, support for affirmative action is at 59%, the lowest within the Asian American community. In some parts of the country, members of the group made an impact on some school districts. In San Francisco, for example, many Chinese Americans organized and successfully helped recall three members of the city's board of education earlier this year. The board’s vote to institute a lottery system, rather than a primarily test and grade-based admissions policy at Lowell High School, the city’s top public school, was a major impetus for organizing.

Immigration policies that favored skills-based immigrants colored education

Experts said that while Chinese American affirmative action opponents come from diverse backgrounds, the most outspoken critics and organizers are middle and upper middle class, usually parents who came to the U.S. within the past few decades. Many arrived around the 1990s or afterward, when immigration policies shifted toward skill-based, or higher-educated recruits — those who were “significantly professional class privileged,” Poon said.

Jinxia Niu, the program manager of the Chinese digital engagement initiative at nonprofit Chinese for Affirmative Action, similarly said that many of these immigrants already obtained college degrees in their home country. This means that they haven’t necessarily had to navigate the undergraduate experience in the U.S. as a minority. This also means that they themselves haven’t experienced the benefits of affirmative action or education equity policies, Niu said.

Instead, their higher education experiences have been colored by China’s highly pressurized standardized test known as the National College Entrance Examination or “gaokao.” The stakes are high, and placement in top universities is incumbent almost solely on scores. Top American universities, however, use a “holistic” admissions process in which affirmative action policies allow them to take race into account. Many see the “soft skills” calculated into the admissions process as space to be unfair, Niu said.

‘You’re pulling the rug from underneath us’

Natasha Warikoo, author of “Race at the Top: Asian Americans and Whites in Pursuit of the American Dream in Suburban Schools,” pointed out that even though only a minuscule percentage of students overall get into highly selective institutions like Harvard, the process can still fuel feelings of inequity. Compared to a simple testing system, U.S. admissions can feel opaque, making many parents vulnerable to a logic that assumes there’s discrimination at play. And these narratives thrive on WeChat and other platforms heavily used by Chinese immigrants to both socialize and organize.

“I remember speaking on a panel years ago at one of these exam schools and an Asian American woman stood up and said, ‘You know, just as we figure out your system of meritocracy, it feels like you’re pulling the rug from underneath us,’” Warikoo recalled.

Coupled with anxiety over class mobility and the experience of immigration, Poon said many Chinese American opponents she’s spoken to see the admissions process as another example of how they are being overlooked in the country.

Opposition to affirmative action also has to do with how people interpret race, Poon said. Chinese American opponents are aware of the racism the community faces. But for them, she said, there’s a limited understanding of how racism impacts each marginalized group differently. And many also tended to see racism as individualized acts, she said. So disparities in educational attainment don’t factor as an institutional problem.

“It’s interpersonal … They’re not necessarily understanding it as a systemic problem that requires systemic solutions. And affirmative action is a systemic solution,” Poon said.

Niu agreed, saying that because many Chinese immigrants represent the majority in their home country, there’s little prior experience with racism, nor is there widespread education around racial literacy and civil rights in the U.S. Many are also unaware of the contributions of other marginalized groups, and how others have helped Asian Americans.

Deep cultural trauma factors into opposition, as well, Niu said. Many vocal opponents come from a generation that grew up in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, a sociopolitical movement led by Mao Zedong, beginning in 1966, to reinvigorate the Communist Party ideology and grasp across China. Education was downgraded and millions of students were sent to the countryside to work. After the Revolution, there was a “hunger” for education and the better life it almost guaranteed at the time. The government also heavily promoted a spirit of meritocracy, something many immigrants misapplied to the U.S., Niu said.

“These institutions are trying to course-correct, in some ways, for a system that has always been unfair,” said Sally Chen, education equity program manager at nonprofit Chinese for Affirmative Action. “If you’re holding on to this concept of meritocracy, it can be hard to accept or understand that.”

Warikoo said that, above all, parents she spoke to for her book were most concerned with whether there’s anti-Asian discrimination in the admissions process. But to her, that’s a separate issue from race-conscious admissions. Getting rid of affirmative action isn’t going to ensure that admissions officers, guidance counselors and others are suddenly stripped of their implicit bias, she said.

In her research, Warikoo found that colleges looked at a number of factors that could be interpreted as unfair to Asian Americans. Some schools may prioritize recruiting students from the Midwest, when most Asian Americans are concentrated on the coasts. Others may be interested more in students who want to study humanities, an area that Asian Americans are statistically less likely to pursue.

“Harvard is highly selective. So you need something to, among these amazing young people, tip you over,” she said. “And all of those things help tip a lot of white students over.”

Niu said that instead of focusing on affirmative action, there are other parts of the admissions process that opponents should be questioning, such as legacy admissions and sports preferences.

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, 43% of white students admitted to Harvard fell under the categories of recruited athletes, legacy students and children of faculty and staff, a category known as ALDC. This percentage also includes the “dean’s interest list,” consisting of applicants whose parents or relatives made donations to the university. Roughly 75% of white students admitted from those categories identified as “ALDCs” and “would have been rejected if they had been treated as white non-ALDCs,” the research said.

“This case is myths versus facts. Asian Americans do face discrimination in our society, in our education systems, but they’re not the result of race-conscious policies like affirmative action,” Chen said. “It’s hard for folks to hold those two pieces at the same time.”

This article was originally published on NBCNews.com