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Experts say framing affirmative action as anti-Asian bias is 'dangerous'

“This is an old tactic in white supremacy’s playbook and should not be allowed to succeed,” one scholar said.
Harvard Yard, on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.
Harvard Yard, on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass.Tony Luong / The New York Times via Redux

After the Supreme Court announced Monday that it will hear the affirmative action cases against Harvard and the University of North Carolina, experts are cautioning against the framing of race-conscious admissions as a form of anti-Asian hate — a tactic that’s been employed by conservatives. 

A number of Republican members of Congress, anti-affirmative action groups and others have in recent months conflated the race-conscious policy with the anti-Asian racism and pandemic-fueled violence against Asians. The comparisons, experts said, could not only jeopardize affirmative action, which has historically helped minority groups including those of Asian descent, but also undercut the call to mitigate the very real Covid-related racism being directed at Asian Americans. 

“They weaponize concerns about anti-Asian attacks and violence against other minorities,” said Janelle Wong, a professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland, College Park. “This is an old tactic in white supremacy’s playbook and should not be allowed to succeed.”

The Supreme Court will likely hear the two cases next term, which begins in October, in which groups led by Edward Blum, a conservative white lawyer who heads the anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions, accused the two schools of discriminating against Asian Americans — and in the UNC case, white students as well — by putting them at a disadvantage and, instead, valuing Black and Latino students more highly. 

The suits pose the biggest threat to affirmative action in decades due to the court’s conservative majority, and could definitively end the consideration of race in admissions processes. Given the existing barriers to education for people of color, including Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, experts say there’s no room for misinformation. 

Lower courts have previously ruled that the consideration of race in the admissions processes of both Harvard and UNC were legitimate efforts to expand diversity in their student bodies. And the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld affirmative action in the past. But with the loss of liberal justices Anthony Kennedy and Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the court now has a 6-3 conservative majority. Experts also say the court will make the decision against the backdrop of heightened national attention around anti-Asian hate and ensuing activism. 

In this environment, conservatives have amped up a narrative that affirmative action stands as another racist attack against the group. Reps. Young Kim and Michelle Steele, both California Republicans, said last April that they questioned President Joe Biden’s commitment to mitigating anti-Asian hate after the Justice Department dropped an affirmative action case against Yale. 

“It’s dangerous,” Julie J. Park, associate professor at the University of Maryland’s college of education, told NBC Asian America. “People are vulnerable to misinformation. And so drawing those types of connections is really dangerous and irresponsible.” 

Others, including podcast commentator Ben Shapiro, have also attempted to paint the administration’s efforts to combat anti-Asian hate alongside the persistence of race-conscious admissions as hypocrisy. And groups like the anti-affirmative action coalition Washington Asians for Equality have spread similar messages. 

“People who are appalled by the broader attacks on Asians should be equally outraged by Asian students being deprived of their fair chance at a college education based on their race,” the group’s director Linda Yang said on a call last summer.

Wong called the framing misleading. 

“This invocation of anti-Asian discrimination by conservative activists intentionally confuses tragic attacks and anti-Asian violence with the essential path to educational opportunity for groups that have been and continue to face major barriers,” she said.  

A group of Harvard students of Asian descent submitted an amicus brief in support of affirmative action, arguing that race and their identities had been critical to their applications and that students “deserve the opportunity to be recognized for it,” alum Sally Chen told NBC Asian America in 2020. The students agreed to have their admissions files entered and opened up as evidence in the case. 

“What you could see is that you had applicants who talked very frankly about their race. They talked about being Chinese American or being the child of immigrants,” Park said. “And there was no evidence that they were marked down. If anything, that was seen as an asset or something that spoke to why this person had a really interesting story and ultimately was admitted.”    

Within the context of an increase in violent attacks, the argument that Asian Americans are being kept out of certain private institutions could appear to be a strong one, says Pawan Dhingra, professor of American studies at Amherst College and author of the book “Hyper Education.” He said he fears the misleading narratives perpetuated by conservatives could influence the case. 

Experts said that the conflation of affirmative action with anti-Asian hate is another “transparent” attempt by conservatives to use Asian Americans as a wedge, placed in contention against other marginalized communities. The reality is much different, Wong said. Research shows that roughly 70 percent of the group is in favor of the policy, according to a 2020 Asian American Voter Survey. Wong added that while Asian American students like Chen previously testified on Harvard’s behalf, Students for Fair Admissions has failed to present a single Asian American student at trial. 

Asian Americans have long benefited from affirmative action policies. A study released by Georgetown University showed that if testing was used as the sole requirement in the admissions process, 21 percent of Asian American applicants who were previously admitted would no longer qualify. A separate 2016 study said that the removal of affirmative action, rather, would benefit white students overwhelmingly.