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Op-Ed | Common Dreams | June 30, 2023

Right-Wing Activists, Not Asian Americans, Killed Affirmative Action

Media AccountabilitySupreme Court
Right-Wing Activists, Not Asian Americans, Killed Affirmative Action

The Supreme Court ruling striking down affirmative action yesterday led to a whole day of Asian American scapegoating. Across publications, the media consistently shared a narrative of Asian Americans as a population opposing affirmative action after feeling disadvantaged in the admissions process. 

The New York Times painted public opposition to affirmative action as “a clear divide along racial and ethnic lines,” with Asian American disapproval contrasted against Black American approval. One of the first headlines shared by the Washington Post posited that state affirmative action bans “helped Asian students, [and] hurt others,” not explaining until almost halfway through the article how the trend differed based on institution selection levels. A Wall Street Journal piece mentioned Asian Americans immediately calling college counselors, with one counselor stating the decision “will motivate a lot of students to reach even higher,” clearly correlating the decision with a satisfaction for the community’s educational aspirations. CNBC’s coverage contrasted strong support in the Black and Hispanic communities for affirmative action with a portrayal of lower support within the Asian community. To do so, CNBC misrepresented the Pew survey it draws from — the study shows that of those who are familiar with affirmative action, Asian adult support for affirmative action, at 53%, trails Black adult support by 8%, but leads Hispanic adult support by 17%. 

But let’s be clear – not only is this narrative of Asian American opposition to affirmative action wildly oversimplified, it actively peddles harmful narratives about Asian American communities.

The right’s decades-long push to ban affirmative action painted Asian Americans as the disgruntled victims of decades of admissions office bias. But the push didn’t start within the Asian community itself. White conservative legal strategist Edward Blum leveraged frustrated Asian American students and families into being represented by him and his organizations, Students for Fair Admissions. 

Blum is no friend of the Asian American community, nor should his arguments about admissions be taken in good faith. His life’s work is to dismantle all laws which try to counterbalance against racism, especially anti-Blackness, in social systems. When he lost a Houston Congressional race in 1992, Blum blamed the shape of his district. Since then, he’s spent decades connecting would-be plaintiffs with far-right donors and lawyers to gradually disassemble anti-racism in the law. Shelby v Holder, the case which undid much of the Voting Rights Act, was him.

The suits against Harvard and UNC are just the latest in Blum’s decades of work to unravel affirmative action. After the failure of his previous attempt, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, Blum said he “needed Asian plaintiffs”, which he recruited through websites claiming Harvard and UNC had unfairly denied Asian applicants just for being Asian. 

But repeated surveys and data have proven that the majority of Asian Americans support affirmative action – AAPI Data’s 2022 Asian American Voter Survey notes that 60 percent of Asian registered voters support the policy. Moreover, while SFFA’s preferred narratives often focus on East and South Asian Students, Southeast Asian students continue to face barriers to higher educational attainment and consistently benefit from affirmative action. Asian Americans are not a monolith, much as SFFA wishes to portray it otherwise — and much as the media has done so in coverage of this issue.

Blum and SFFA have repeatedly leveraged misleading statistics amidst a years-long misinformation campaign about affirmative action, claiming it harms Asian Americans. The common message has been that other minorities, such as Black and Hispanic students, were “stealing their spots” at top universities because affirmative action was boosting others’ applications at the detriment of Asian American students. In fact, the decision even cites claims from SFFA, despite prior warnings and amicus curiae briefs from 678 social scientists and scholars studying the Asian American community that SFFA was engaging in significant misinformation efforts to warp the narrative on affirmative action.

What Blum’s suit, the myriad of opponents of affirmative action, and the Supreme Court decision all failed to acknowledge was how race-based affirmative action rebalanced the scales to correct for both centuries of banning and disinvesting in education in communities of color, and for the forms of affirmative action which privileged white students already enjoy – legacy admissions and donor preferences. In fact, 35 percent of self-identified white Harvard undergraduates had a family member who previously attended Harvard, according to a ProPublica investigation. The Supreme Court’s decision yesterday explicitly leaves legacy admissions intact.

But look to the media and you’ll often see a very different story. In its early coverage, the Times correlated the SFFA win with the outcome of elite institutions becoming “more Asian, at the harm of Black and Hispanic students.” The Times coverage still has not presented data on the views of the Asian American community writ large on affirmative action, implicitly consenting to the right’s false framework. Reporting since the decision, including from FiveThirtyEight, paragraphs are spent talking about Asian American attitudes against affirmative action, and Blum’s name is mentioned once or twice in the middle. CNN casts Asian Americans as taking “a central role in the debate over affirmative action, with opponents arguing the policies favor Black and Latino students over students of Asian descent, and hold Asian Americans to a higher standard for admission,” and doesn’t mention Blum in their coverage.

Most of the photos of demonstrators included in The Washington Post’s coverage of the decision have been of Asians in support of SFFA and banning affirmative action. Images that the Times has posted, including in their “The Morning” newsletter, show anti-affirmative action Asian demonstrators physically opposite Black and Hispanic protesters. This mirrors the divide which conservative groups have long sought to create between Asian Americans and other racial minorities, a wedge that these cases have already been accused of worsening.

It’s reporting like this that makes it seem like affirmative action is something most Asian Americans oppose. But actual survey data, again, clearly indicates the opposite. The media’s mirroring of SFFA messaging that all Asian Americans suffer from affirmative action is just continued peddling of the model minority myth: that Asian Americans are a successful monolith with high educational attainment, a narrative that drowns out disparities often faced by many Asian American ethnic groups

But even more importantly, they’re doing exactly what Blum wants too. He’s not a lawyer, he’s a legal strategist who has used his political connections to repeatedly help launch legal attacks on civil rights. He’s made Asian American students, as a concept, the face of his campaign efforts, while keeping his own name out of the press. And now, he’s sowing divisions within the Asian community, to pit minorities against each other – all while he walks away, legal mission accomplished, evading the spotlight. Mainstream media outlets must avoid complicity in that mission. Describing affirmative action as a matter of “Asian Americans vs. other people of color” facially misinforms the public; the real conflict, in literal terms, is between wealthy white right-wingers and everyone else.

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