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Between her pricey private tutors and SAT camp, Julie Yao knew that her education meant everything to her Chinese immigrant parents. They believed that because she was Asian, colleges would judge her by higher standards.
But Ms. Yao, who was 14 when the family moved to the United States from Shenzhen, also came to appreciate the struggles of racial minorities in America through what she learned from textbooks and friends. She saw firsthand how black and Latino classmates who didn’t have some of the educational and economic privileges she did were just as studious and successful.
Ms. Yao, now 21 and a junior at Barnard College, grew to support affirmative action. Test scores, she believed, were not the only measure of academic potential.
“On the other hand,” Ms. Yao said, “I have all this information from Asian parents, the older generation, saying how it’s discriminating against Asian-American children.”
Ms. Yao’s internal conflict reflects a broader ambivalence among Asian-Americans over not just affirmative action, but also their place in the American racial order.
A lawsuit that accuses Harvard of systematically discriminating against Asian-Americans in admissions, as well as a proposal to change the way New York City’s specialized high schools admit students, have brought new attention to fault lines in the racial politics both inside and outside the country’s diverse Asian communities.
Asian-Americans have been among the most vocal and visible opponents of race-based affirmative action policies, creating a popular perception that they are at odds with black and Latino people, who remain underrepresented in many elite educational institutions. But that framing obscures the reality of national surveys that show that most Asian-Americans favor affirmative action in education. Many find solidarity with other minorities.
Still, the various generational, geographic and socioeconomic backgrounds of Asian-Americans have contributed to rifts in how they approach their most pressing issues.
Southeast Asian communities, for instance, have high rates of poverty and their interests often align with black and Latino communities on affirmative action and other social justice causes. South Asians, who surveys show are often not perceived as Asian, are among the highest earners and educational achievers; they are also strong supporters of affirmative action. They report experiencing more discrimination than other Asians in the United States.
Meanwhile, some of the most fervent activism against affirmative action comes from a growing movement of recent first-generation Chinese immigrants, academics said. They have found their political voice in the past few years in battles over education, the conviction of a Chinese-American police officer in a shooting in New York, and proposals by different states to compile demographic data on Asians by country of origin.
Much of their advocacy boils down to concerns that they face double standards in American life. But some Asian-Americans worry that they might appear to be providing cover for causes that run counter to minority interests. They find themselves trying to protect their own stakes but not at the expense of other groups’.
“We are slotted into this middle position that a lot of Asian-Americans sort of feel comfortable thinking that ‘I’ll be a colorblind person,’ which really means, ‘I’ll swear fealty to the white supremacy,’” said the author of the “Ask a Korean!” blog, who goes by the pen name T. K. Park.
Debates over affirmative action sometimes turn into arguments with other minority groups over who is more oppressed, obscuring common struggles.
In the Harvard lawsuit, the Asian-American plaintiffs, represented by a group led by a white conservative legal advocate, argued in a recent court filing that admissions officials docked Asian-American applicants based on personality traits. That type of judgment can be severely damaging, said a 30-year-old man of Korean heritage who writes about Asian issues under the pseudonym Oxford Kondo.
“If they’re sending the message that Asians are actually less personable and less likable and generally less human than other people, that’s why it’s O.K. to exclude them from these places, then of course young Asian-Americans are going to grow up internalizing that message,” said Mr. Kondo, a founder of Plan A Magazine, an online journal focused on Asian-American culture and politics.
Like many of his generation, Mr. Kondo, who graduated from Brown University, said he was supportive of affirmative action. But others remain concerned that such admissions policies could be discriminatory.
In New York, Mayor Bill de Blasio recently recommended changing the admissions criteria for the city’s most elite public schools, where Asian-Americans are vastly overrepresented and black and Latino students are underrepresented. Currently, the only metric for admission is a test, but Mr. de Blasio wants to allot seats to the top students from all of the city’s middle schools, which would most likely cut into the number of spots for Asian-Americans.
Mr. Park said he found the plan discriminatory, but not because he thought there was animosity toward Asian-American students. The problem, he said, was that it forced Asian-Americans to give up something instead of compelling high-performing schools that are predominantly white to integrate.
“The real conversation, I think, is why these exclusive prep schools are not under discussion,” Mr. Park said. “No matter how you try to put it nicely, this is about white people having theirs, and telling Asians and African-Americans and Latinos to fight over the rest.”
Black and Asian-American people have often been pitted against one another over the years, dating to the mid-20th century, when white people praised the work ethic and ability of Asian-Americans as a way to disparage the African-American struggle.
Differences over the nature of the discrimination that each group faces remain something of a sore spot. The fact that many of the Asian-American students at New York’s specialized high schools come from poor families has been one argument raised in opposition to race-conscious admission policies.
But that ignores the fact that black people have and continue to be discriminated against in highly damaging ways, such as mass incarceration, police violence and segregation, said Claire Jean Kim, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of California, Irvine.
“The question of how Asian-Americans are positioned relative to black people is a very serious and important question that Asian-Americans have not grappled with,” Professor Kim said. “Asians in general are getting certain types of advantages by not being black.”
That is not to discount the ugly history of violence, racism and exclusion that Asian-Americans have and continue to endure. Studies have found that Asian-Americans are the least likely of any race to be promoted to management roles in the professional world. They have the highest poverty rates in some communities. And some Asian-Americans say their causes usually get little mainstream political support.
That might be changing with a budding movement led by some Chinese-American activists against affirmative action. That movement took off in 2014, with a campaign that defeated a California bill that would have allowed affirmative action in the state’s public colleges and universities. The activists generally immigrated to the United States over the past 20 years from mainland China. They are mostly well-educated and often communicate through WeChat, a Chinese messaging app.
“On some affirmative action debates they are used as a wedge,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, associate dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside. “But what you’re seeing more and more, Asian-American activists, specifically Chinese activists, are more than happy to play that role of wedge. They use the language of discrimination and victimhood.”
Tony Xu, a 48-year-old Chinese immigrant, sees affirmative action as a form of racism, calling it “a tool to discriminate against Asian-Americans.”
Mr. Xu, who lives in Fremont, Calif., came to the United States two decades ago as a software engineer and now owns a real estate company. He said his daughter was a rising junior in high school and planned to apply to several elite universities including Stanford and Ivy League schools. He became politically active during the fight over the California bill, he said, and belongs to the Silicon Valley Chinese Association, which opposes affirmative action.
Mr. Xu said he did not see the benefit of racial diversity in schools. In China and Japan, for instance, schools are basically monoracial, but those students turn out just fine, he said.
“I believe everyone, if you work hard, you spend time, you can achieve the same goal,” he said.
Other first-generation Chinese immigrants see a more complex reality. Steven Chen, who came to the United States three decades ago from Hangzhou, said he believed many fellow immigrants were misled by false information in online echo chambers. Mr. Chen, a 54-year-old network administrator who lives in Irvine, Calif., and supports affirmative action, said he hoped to help change that, though he didn’t fault others for their desire to protest.
“If the message sounds like we are very selfish people, we don’t care about minorities, that will be bad,” he said. But if “the message given out is reasonable, trying to solve the real issues, then it is O.K.”
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