Not everybody gets into their dream school. I didn’t. My first-choice college rejected my application. Their decision might have had something to do with holding Asian applicants to higher standards, just as the Plaintiffs alleged in the Students for Fair Admissions case argued before the Supreme Court. But, to me, that still doesn’t make the Court’s recent decision just.
Many don’t realize that Asian people in the United States have trodden a similar path of being used in some of the same ways that Black people were. First, it suited the needs of the industry to treat Asians in the United States as highly expendable labor.
Then it suited immigrant-bashing demagogues to condemn Asians as the “yellow peril,” threatening American jobs and morals, and to bar them via measures like the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act.
But after that, something interesting happened. A shift came, one that culminated in the “model minority.” It was completely fashioned by the news media. In the 1940s and 50s, journalists were part of the effort to spread “recovery narratives” about people of Asian descent.
A 1966 article in US News and World Report entitled “Success Story of One Minority in the U.S.” seems almost designed to purge the peril associated with Asians. Noting that in 1965, “not one San Francisco Chinese was charged with murder, manslaughter, rape or offense against wife or children,” the article seeks to absolve Asians and Asian American people of any suspicion that might arise against them.
The media rehabilitation of Asians was widespread and continuous. In the 1970s, the country’s paper of record, The New York Times, announced that “the pig-tailed coolie has been replaced in the imaginations of many Americans by the earnest, bespectacled young scholar.”
Asian Americans got a much-needed boost from the news media during the mid-20th century that actually undid some of the racism that had been directed at them years before. As Ellen Wu, author of Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority argues, Asians went from being definitely not white to “definitively not Black.”
Black people in America, however, have not enjoyed such an endorsement, which is why we still need affirmative action.
While Asian Americans can’t be directly compared to Black Americans because they didn’t endure chattel slavery, there are similarities between their experiences in this country. Arguably, Chinese Exclusion resembles Black criminality and felony disenfranchisement policies that seek to strip part of citizenship from people who interact with the criminal legal system. Mass incarceration isn’t much unlike Japanese internment camps.
Yet it’s much harder for Black people to achieve this model minority mythology, mostly because of media coverage.
In a study conducted on television news coverage in the late 1980s, researchers discovered that Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans were seldom the subjects of television news reports of any type. Black people, on the other hand, were covered more often, and more often in crime stories. There was no agenda to elevate them. They suffered the opposite fate of Asian Americans.
Wu explains this redemption of Asian people as part of a global political battle, an attempt to portray the United States as a fully liberal democracy, a country that could effectively lead other nation-states. There was an agenda other than helping a downtrodden minority.
It’s an agenda now, too. The same strategy of vouching for Asians and Asian Americans is, quite frankly, a very cynical manipulation, one that led Students for Fair Admissions to pursue its anti-affirmative action agenda in stealth mode by advocating for Asian students rather for white students who believe they have been wronged by the inclusion of race as one factor in college admissions decisions.
While far from a perfect solution, affirmative action in college admissions at least represented an intentional, concrete effort to improve educational opportunities for members of historically marginalized groups and underrepresented minorities, people whose stories are told in less than flattering ways. Because when narrative doesn’t cut it, numbers must.
And there are few other effective ways to change the numbers. One reason why most colleges were fine with affirmative action was that they knew deeper and more long-term efforts to address disparities—like making sure all public schools are equally funded, or ensuring that disadvantaged students have access to the same intense tutoring and test-prep that helps many better-off students boost their admissions odds—were not likely to manifest anytime soon.
I may have lost a spot at my first choice college because of affirmative action but I still think that banning the practice — having the top higher education institutions excluding 12 percent of our nation’s people — is a bad idea. This will turn out to be a big mistake in 10-20 years’ time.