Asians are being used to make the case against affirmative action. Again. By Alvin Chang@alv9n email@example.com Mar 28, 2018, 8:20am EDT I first heard about the “penalty” my junior year of high school. I was sitting in an SAT prep class because I had barely broken 1000 on my first practice SAT. During a snack break, another Asian kid in the class said to me, “You know we have to do better than even the white kids, right?” I had never heard affirmative action framed that way — as a “bonus” for black and brown people and a “penalty” for white and especially Asian people. At the time, I didn’t understand just how pernicious it was to think about affirmative action in those terms. Not only does that frame gloss over the reasons why race-conscious policies are necessary; it’s also the first step toward arguing that all race-conscious policies are unfair. But I was fed a certain story about affirmative action, so when I saw this data a few years later, it only solidified this mental model: More. The data is from an influential 2009 book in which two Princeton sociologists, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandra Radford, quantified how well you needed to score on your SATs to have an equal chance of admission as someone of another race. It implies that a black student who scores 1000 on her SATs would have an equal chance of admission as a white student who scores 1310 or an Asian-American student who scores 1450. This study gave legs to a longstanding conservative argument that affirmative action is a misguided progressive policy to help black and Hispanic people while unfairly penalizing Asian and white people. In recent months, the Trump administration has taken up that argument. The Department of Justice (DOJ) recently dug up a two-year-old complaint against Harvard University that alleges the school has quotas on how many Asian Americans it accepts. It has opened an investigation into Harvard’s admissions practices, which could create a chilling effect on other schools with affirmative action programs. The DOJ could eventually file a lawsuit against the school. More. The administration’s move is the latest turn in a story that white affirmative action opponents have been telling for decades — one in which the main characters are black and white but that features Asian Americans as well, trotted out as the victims of these race-conscious policies. This story, of racial bonuses and penalties due to affirmative action, has created an internal tension for Asian Americans: Many of us know race-conscious policies are necessary to remedy systemic racism. But we are also told that Asian Americans are penalized for those same policies. It’s a tension white affirmative action opponents have exploited, time and again, to make their argument against race-conscious policies and to seek a broader coalition for their movement. But if Asian Americans have long resisted being recruited to their cause, this latest campaign has a new wrinkle. “This time around, there is a wealthier, very small, and extremely vocal group of Asians who are on board — and very willing to play the part,” said Colorado State University education professor OiYan Poon, who has been studying this group. The story on which this movement is built contains some fundamental misunderstandings. The idea that affirmative action doles out bonuses and penalties obscures the far more complicated reality of how the policy actually works. But of greater concern is that this story — of merit artificially tweaked to engineer a certain racial demographic — implies that there is an objective way to measure who is deserving and who isn’t. And it suggests that if we went purely by this idea of merit, it is white and Asian people who would be on top, and that that is the natural state of the world. More. The “racial mascoting” of Asians The use of Asian Americans as a political prop isn’t new. In the mid-1980s, Asian-American groups started to uncover admissions practices that hurt Asian applicants. Eventually, top schools like Stanford and Brown conceded there was real bias against Asians in their admissions policies. The Reagan administration saw an opportunity in these controversies. William Bradford Reynolds, then the head of the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division and a longtime opponent of affirmative action, said in a 1988 speech that Asian Americans faced discrimination because of efforts to help other minority groups: While university officials are understandably loath to admit that they are discriminating against qualified Asian-Americans, rejection of such applicants ironically appears to be driven by the universities’ “affirmative action” policies aimed at favoring other, preferred racial minorities. But Asian-American leaders were horrified that their cause was being co-opted by conservatives to dismantle policies that helped other racial minorities — and they refused to play the part. More UC Berkeley professor L. Ling-Chi Wang wrote to Reynolds, “At no time has anyone in the Asian American community linked these concerns to the legitimate affirmative action program for the historically discriminated, underrepresented minorities.” Law professor and activist Mari Matsuda argued Asians shouldn’t be used to “deny educational opportunities to the disadvantaged and to preserve success only for the privileged.” DePaul professor Sumi Cho coined a term for this conservative tactic: “racial mascotting.” More. This fight over admissions at highly selective private schools might seem inconsequential for most people. But as Harvard education professor Natasha Warikoo wrote in her recent book, The Diversity Bargain: I see these elite universities as sites for symbolic meaning-making around merit and race. The universities hold symbolic value not only for their students, but also in the wider society. They are especially important for our understanding of meritocracy, because many see admissions to those universities as the ultimate demonstration of merit. In short, these fights shape the ways we talk about who is worthy, who is not — and why. And 30 years later, we’re back here again, having the same debate with affirmative action opponents, who are again using Asian Americans as mascots. And again, there’s a large group of Asian-American leaders rejecting this role in the debate. Asians are being used to make the case against affirmative action. Again.