Asian-Americans should be the friends, not the enemies, of affirmative action

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Story highlights

  • Jeff Yang: Vocal minority of Asian Americans are collaborating with white conservatives to tear affirmative action down
  • He says this self-interest ignores that hard won civil rights -- including affirmative action -- opened door for Asian-Americans

Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications and the co-host of the podcast They Call Us Bruce. He co-wrote Jackie Chan's best-selling autobiography, "I Am Jackie Chan" and is the editor of three graphic novels: "Secret Identities," "Shattered" and the forthcoming "New Frontiers." The opinions expressed here are his own.

(CNN)A vocal minority of Asian-Americans are collaborating with white conservative advocates to tear down affirmative action, perceiving it as a hindrance to greater Asian-American admission into colleges. And they're being recruited as the plaintiffs of choice for conservative lawsuits against elite educational institutions like Harvard.

Strange bedfellows, to be sure, given that Asian-Americans have made the greatest leftward political shift of any group of US voters in the last 25 years — going from just over 30% Democrat in 1992 to supporting President Obama's re-election by a staggering 73% in 2012. In 2016, 79% of Asian-American voters chose Hillary Clinton.
But with affirmative action, Asian-Americans appear to veer, relatively speaking, to the right.
    In 2016, the National Asian American Survey found that 52% of Asian-American voters agreed that "affirmative action programs designed to increase the number of black and minority students on college campuses" are a positive force in society. By contrast, a similarly phrased Gallup question found slightly higher support for affirmative action among white Americans (53%), and considerably more among African-Americans (77%) and Latinos (61%)
    Conservative activists like Ed Blum and Ron Unz have spent two decades trying to use affirmative action as a wedge to split Asian-Americans from the coalition of voters of color who tend to vote Democratic.
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    They have tried appealing to our privilege, based on the recognition that the wave of Asian-Americans who arrived after immigration reforms in the 1960s were, on average, significantly more educated than Americans as a whole. This wave of immigrants saw educational access as a primary motivation to migrate, even if they themselves were often unable to make full use of the educational capital they brought with them because of racist prevailing attitudes.
    I have numerous friends whose parents went from respected positions in academia and government in their native lands to running dry cleaners and restaurants in the United States, which was still better than getting killed in a civil war or insurrection, of course. And my immigrant father had multiple advanced degrees and a sterling record as a physician, but was turned down repeatedly to run his department in favor of white doctors, some of whom he had trained. Hospital administrators explained to him that he was technically adept but "not leadership material."
    Despite these experiences with prejudice, our immigrant parents — and the millions of Asian immigrants who have arrived here since — see education as the key means by which their children, less linguistically and culturally isolated than they, might advance within American society. And some mistakenly believe that dismantling of affirmative action will remove barriers to elite educations.
    This position ignores that affirmative action is one of a long series of socially transformative changes won by black activists to open doors for all nonwhite Americans — and it was paid for in blood and tears, life and limb.
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    In June 1960, eight years before he was assassinated, Martin Luther King Jr. met secretly with the presidential candidate John F. Kennedy, urging him to make civil rights a key part of his agenda if elected. In March 1961, President Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925, directing the government and its funding recipients to take "affirmative action" to ensure that employees and applicants were not discriminated against "because of race, creed, color, or national origin."
    This order merely sought to stem the tide of active prejudice against Americans who were not white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. It did little to change private institutions. It would take years for legislation to begin to truly shift the racist current of American society — beginning with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and continuing with landmark laws like the Immigration and Nationalization Act of 1965.
    The Civil Rights Act made nondiscriminatory practices the law of the land. The 1965 law eliminated the "nation of origin" quotas that artificially restricted nonwhite immigration to America. As Vice President Hubert Humphrey declared, "We have removed all elements of second-class citizenship from our laws by the Civil Rights Act. ... We must in 1965 remove all elements in our immigration law which suggest there are second-class people."
    Black activism paved the way for these historic changes — but arguably, no other group has benefited more from them than Asian-Americans. If it weren't for the Civil Rights Act, it would be legal to not only bar us from whites-only education, but also from whites-only housing, employment and public facilities. If it weren't for the Immigration and Nationalization Act, many of us might not even be in this country at all.
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    And we remain, to this day, the poster children for the effectiveness of affirmative action, the umbrella term for initiatives designed — if often clumsily — to redress centuries of bigoted exclusion of nonwhites.
    In the 1970s, Asian-Americans were considered to be underrepresented minorities for the purposes of employment and access to higher education. At the time of the 1978 Supreme Court decision in University of California vs. Bakke, which upheld the notion of racial diversity as a "compelling interest" in education, about 200,000 Asian-Americans were enrolled at all levels of higher education in the United States, or 2% of all university students. By 1988 — a few years after Berkeley and other University of California colleges determined that Asian-Americans were no longer "underrepresented" as a group relative to our population — there were nearly 500,000, or 4% of all university students (and over 35% of the U.C. system).
    With that seed of opportunity planted, the numbers of Asian-Americans enrolled in US universities has continued to climb: By 1998, there were over 900,000 Asian-Americans enrolled in US universities. By 2008, that number grew to around 1.3 million enrollments. By 2018, the number is projected at 1.7 million.

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    Civil rights opened the door for Asian-Americans. Affirmative action ensured that that door was propped open wide enough for us to be represented in substantial numbers. And yet, now that many Asian-Americans — but far from all — no longer need it to be fairly represented on college campuses, nearly half of us are willing to see it go away.
    This self-interested minority of our community would do well to remember that many of the same conservative activists who are looking to destroy affirmative action are also seeking to curb legal immigration to the United States, as seen in the horrific RAISE Act being backed by the Trump administration.
    That's not just blind to history, it's dangerously shortsighted about the future. Because as soon as conservative attention shifts to issues in which their largely white constituents' interests lie elsewhere — say, for example, immigration — they'll move on, leaving our community in the lurch.
    Asian-Americans should know better than to sacrifice their relationship with a coalition that represents the America of tomorrow for a political one-night stand today.