On Monday, the U.S. District Court for Massachusetts will begin to hear arguments for Students for Fair Admissions, Inc v. and Fellows of Harvard College, thrusting into the national spotlight the idea that the university’s affirmative action policies discriminate against Asian-Americans. A few weeks ago, the Department of Justice under Donald Trump also began to investigate Yale for discrimination against Asian-Americans in admissions.
I am part of the 66 percent of Asian-Americans who support affirmative action. As a scholar of and activist for Asian-American studies, I want to emphasize how these two events fall into a 100-year-old narrative largely created by white Americans, a narrative bolstered by decades of immigration policy. Asian-Americans are being used a wedge to roll back civil rights legislation and push down other communities of color. It’s important to remember that this myth was not created to uplift Asian-American communities. Rather, it was explicitly crafted to push down black, Latinx and Native Americans.
Before World War II, Asian-Americans were viewed by the white working class as labor competition. Chinese-American laborers were depicted as rats and inhuman creatures in novels, cartoons and advertisements, culminating in the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which banned an entire ethnicity from immigrating to the U.S. and set the stage for modern immigration laws. After Pearl Harbor, Japanese-American incarceration highlighted how Asian bodies were seen as perpetually foreign.
It was only at the end of World War II that the model minority myth began to form. It is difficult to acknowledge all of the complicated historical processes that began to construct this myth. However, the U.S. occupation of Japan, rejection of discriminatory laws governing property ownership, employment and miscegenation starting in the late 1940s, the Cold War’s hot conflicts in Asia and minor reforms of immigration laws that preceded the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act all played a role in the “conditional inclusion” of Asian-Americans. By emphasizing the success of Asian-American immigrants in articles such as U.S. News and World Report’s “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.,” Asian-Americans were able to gain more social mobility while the U.S. was able to advertise its inclusiveness and diversity. However, this conditional inclusion was premised on the fact that Asian-American success was consistently used as a tool to deride black and brown communities’ “inability to work themselves out of poverty.”
This myth was cemented by the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, also known as the Hart-Celler Act, which astronomically increased immigration quotas from Asian countries. Hart-Cellar created two preference pathways for immigration: one for close relatives of U.S. citizens and the other for skills in low supply. As a result, many Asians were able to immigrant due to their skills in math, science and engineering, due to the federal government’s desire to maintain their standing in the Cold War. The selective recruitment of educated Asian immigrants is why the stereotype of Asians being “good at math and science” exists. “Hardworking Asian values,” or American perceptions of them, are thus a product of U.S. immigration law, not Confucian values.
During the period of Hart-Cellar, the United States also wanted to contain communism in Southeast Asia. They fought wars to overthrow communist governments, including the Vietnam War, the “Secret War” in Laos and the war in Cambodia. Wars created strife that led to Southeast Asian refugees. The U.S. decided to give immigration preference to Southeast Asian refugees who cooperated with the U.S. government against communism, resettling many of them in urban areas. These refugees often had to rely on public benefits.
In the debate around affirmative action and the “model minority,” it is Asian-Americans like those Southeast Asian refugees who are left out of the conversation. When we talk about the Asian-American community, we need to hold these two stories in tandem — that of Asians who were recruited for higher education and that of Asians who came as refugees fleeing from war. While vastly different, these two groups were both formed as a direct consequence of U.S. policy.
These two stories and the history behind them tell us one thing about the Asian-American experience — that whether they are recruited for their STEM skills to get ahead in the Cold War or accepted as refugees due to the country’s stance against communism, they are used continually as a tool by white Americans. This lawsuit, conducted by Edward Blum, a conservative legal strategist, chose us as his next tool after losing Fisher v. University of Texas in 2016. Even if he wins this lawsuit, it will not benefit the Asian-American community. Even if it did, we still should not stand for it. We are more than a wedge — we are anything but.
As a Yale student, I have reaped immeasurable benefits from studying alongside an extremely diverse group of peers. When I talk to prospective students, I emphasize how my Yale education and personal growth have been just as much in the classroom as outside of it, with classmates drastically different from me. It is with these reasons — the historical and the personal — that I have and will continue to resist the wedge dynamic dividing communities of color. Many of my Asian-American classmates feel the same. No matter what happens regarding the Harvard case, I know that this moment is just the beginning of a burgeoning Asian-American movement in support of affirmative action.
Rita Wang is a senior in Morse College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .