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OiYan Poon standing for photo

Higher education researcher OiYan Poon argues conservative anti-affirmative action politicians are leaning into people’s biases and stereotypes to advance their own agenda.

Courtesy of OiYan Poon

How Asian Americans got wrapped up in the affirmative action debate — and why many want out

The U.S. Supreme Court is due to rule this month on the fate of affirmative action in college admissions.

Justices are considering two cases challenging the consideration of race, including one that alleges discrimination against Asian American applicants.

For decades Asian American students have been cast, often unwillingly, as victims of affirmative action policies meant to bring more underrepresented minorities onto college campuses. That’s despite the fact that they have often been helped by these policies.

Higher education researcher and activist OiYan Poon has examined the Asian American community’s role in the policy debate for much of her career. She’s currently on a fellowship with the Spencer Foundation in Chicago.

She shared her reflections as a scholar and as a Chinese American with WBEZ’s Lisa Philip.

Lisa Philip: In the 1980s, Asian American students noticed their numbers at selective universities were flatlining. A few alleged they were being discriminated against in favor of white students, whose numbers appeared to be increasing. What happened next?

OiYan Poon: Our country was continually getting more diverse. And so these young people asked for investigations into whether this was happening – an anti-Asian bias in favor of white applicants. However, what ended up happening was conservative politicians seized onto it and said, ‘Yeah, because of affirmative action, that’s why Asian Americans are being harmed.’

These young Asian American student activists were like, ‘We never said that. We are saying affirmative action is absolutely essential and vital to why the numbers of Asian Americans are increasing. And we have questions about why it seems to have suddenly flatlined in favor of white applicants.’

So these conservative anti-affirmative action politicians were just kind of mixing the pot and getting things really confused and leaning into people’s biases and stereotypes.

What kind of stereotypes?

Of Black and Latinx and Indigenous students – they’re not intelligent, they’re not deserving of educational opportunities. Because they just need to work harder, like Asian Americans. So leaning into stereotypes of all different groups of color.

Why do you think Asian Americans were positioned as victims of affirmative action?

Every time I go talk to a group of people about these cases, I always start by asking, ‘How many of you think Asian Americans are suing Harvard?’ And almost every hand goes up, and then I show a picture of Ed Blum [a white man who runs the group Students for Fair Admissions, the plaintiff in the Supreme Court cases]. And then people are very shocked and feel that they’ve been bamboozled.

I think it’s just very easy. The rhetoric that Ed Blum and SFFA are putting forward goes back to the model that was used in the 80s: If you put forward a face or an image of a stereotype of Asian Americans then anti-affirmative action forces who are predominantly white can deflect claims that they are racist. [The idea is] if they’re fighting for this community of color, how can they be racist? I don’t need them to fight for me though.

Opponents of affirmative action have painted a picture of Asian Americans as largely critical of the policy. But what did your research reveal?

Our people in this community have played a central role in the development and history of affirmative action and political opinion polls continue to find support. Yet, I think a lot of the time, if you look up … news of Asian Americans and affirmative action, the images that will pop up are these very activated, very passionate groups of mostly Chinese Americans who are out there protesting, rallying [against affirmative action].

They get a lot of attention. But they represent a very small minority of the Asian American population. Asian Americans represent about 6% of the national population, and Chinese Americans are only about a quarter of that population. And then you further dissect that, and recognize that maybe about half of that quarter of Chinese Americans are opposed to affirmative action, then you see that a minority of Asian Americans is being lifted up in the national discourse. [The group Students for Fair Admissions does include some Asian American members.]

How does the largely false perception of Asian Americans as anti-affirmative action impact Asian American students?

A friend of mine actually said that she’s really afraid that our children are going to be seen as the enemy of racial justice and progress rather than really central to that coalition for progress.

When you know that your community has benefited greatly from an anti-racist policy like affirmative action and you have these other people using your face and your image to then destroy the policies that were so central to the progress in your community, the benefits in your family – it’s not okay.

It feels like there’s nothing that can be done right now, [except to] wait and just keep fighting. And just really tend to the coalitions that have been built over time and keep investing in those coalitions and cross-racial solidarity for racial equity and justice. What else can we do, and hope that those fractures that the outsiders are trying to create can be healed?

Lisa Philip covers higher education for WBEZ, in partnership with Open Campus. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @LAPhilip.

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