Power and Politics - I am Not the Yellow Peril

The life and times of an Asian American activist who tells all the truth (and dishes news and analysis) but with a leftwards slant.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Little Asia on a Hill?

This is my gut response to the recent NYTimes article, Little Asia on a hill.

The topic of Asian Americans "crowding" top high schools and colleges has
been rediscovered in the past few months, mostly because of Daniel
Golden's newish book, which I admit I haven't read. Also b/c of the Wall St
Journal article
from a while back that discussed white flight at a
Cupertino high school where parents of white kids were pulling them out
opf the district because they were afraid their kids couldn't compete
against Asian Americans.

There's whole dissertations and books done on this topic, and so much to
discuss in places that the article is lacking, since it simply reaffirms
the model minority stereotype that Asian Americans are some "super race"
that is exceptionally smart and hardworking. Mind you this formulation was
always in contrast to those "lazy welfare queens" and followed by the
question, "They (Asian Americans) made it - why can't you (African
Americans) get off your butts, work hard, and succeed?" Neither stereotype
is fair.

For Asian Americans, the model minority stereotype is coupled with a deep
immigration history - we were the only group to be specifically excluded
from immigrating to the US based upon ethnicity. The Chinese Exclusion
Acts began in 1880s and expanded to cover the whole triangle of Asia, and
were not lifted until the 1940s. They were based on a fear of the "yellow
peril" that was "taking our jobs and stealing our women." But even then,
the population remained low and only saw an uptick with the passage of the
1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act which allowed for family
reunification. Furthermore, the families that came immediately afterwards
tended to be very highly educated, connected and/or wealthy (excepting
mine, which was only highly educated.) Hence, the false perception that
Asian Americans could move here and instantly win the Horatio Alger dream,
gaining skilled jobs and sending kids to the top public and private
schools. And even this, a cherished and oft-belabored point, is just a
myth - there are plenty of highly educated immigrants who were physicians
or professors back home who open delis or drive cabs or work as grocery
cashiers here.

First, let's look at this statement in the New York Times by the chancellor at Berkeley, Robert J. Birgeneau, if there is a perfect demographic recipe on this campus that likes to think of itself as the world’s finest public university — Harvard on the Hill — he demurs.

“We are a meritocracy,” he says. And — by law, he adds — the campus is supposed to be that way. If Asians made up, say, 70 percent of the campus, he insists, there would still be no attempt to reduce their numbers. . . "And many Chinese-Americans are a lot like Caucasians in some of their values and areas of interest."

This cannot even be said to hold true for upper middle class and middle
class Chinese Americans, much less for the Chinese American immigrants who
toil for below minimum wage in Chinatown, or my friend who was smuggled
over here, and still owes the snakehead tens of thousands of dollars for
her journey alone, not to mention her mom's and sister's. Not sure what
values and areas of interest does he mean seeking upwards mobility? But
really, who doesn't want to be upwardly mobile? The Mexican farmworkers I
met burned with a desire to escape the fields. If he is talking religion,
most white Americans practice Christianity, whereas this is decidedly not
the case for Chinese Americans, who may be Buddhist, Taoist, or Bahai
instead or agnostic (many shunned religion in the aftermath of Mao, and
this has carried over.) Perhaps the best way to examine the statement is
to see who he is implicitly comparing Chinese Americans to - what groups
are not like Caucasians? I would guess that the implicit statement he is
making here is that "many Chinese Americans (unlike Latinos and African
Americans) are a lot like Caucasians in some of their values (hard
working) and areas of interest (seeking education.)" And that is just
wedge politics at its dirtiest, hidden behind a veneer.

It is also not a terribly fair and balanced article in that he doesn't
explore root causes, choosing to hover on the surface of a very divisive
and explosive issue. It's 5 pages and he could have gone at it from a much
less covered angle, but he went for the easy filler. Even the title pisses
me off. Egan neglects to interview any Asian Americans who benefitted from
affirmative action, and I know people who fit into this category. Second, California was the first state, followed by Washington, and Michigan just passed a similar proposition this past election cycle.

Asian Americans of all ethnicities were actively opposed to Prop 209 in
Cali and Prop 2 in Michigan. I find it bizarre and yet interesting that he
chooses to focus on California, the state with the highest Asian American
population by far. California is an oddity, not representative of the norm
or even the future of other states in this respect. It is also interesting
that California was the first state to pass an affirmative action ban,
because California was also the heart of the Know Nothing movement and the
anti-Asian American backlash of the 1800s which resulted in riots and
lynchings. Anti-Chinese American sentiment in California ran so high that
former Governor Leland Stanford (whose name graces another top institution
of higher learning) ran and won back then on a platform of exclusion.

In 2001, the Committee of 100 commissioned a survey of Americans' attitudes toward Chinese Americans, with some disturbing key findings including that 25% of Americans have negative feelings toward Chinese Americans:

"23% of Americans are uncomfortable voting for an Asian American to be
President of the United States. This is in contrast to 15% compared with
an African American candidate, 14% compared with a woman candidate and 11%
compared with a Jewish candidate. "

Personally, I am strongly pro-affirmative action. I don't believe in the
2003 Supreme Court ruling which decided that it was okay to get rid of
race-based acceptances because "in 25 years there will be no more racism."
Would I like to see more Asian Americans accepted at institutions of
higher learning? Yes - but I would like to see a wider range of
socioeconomic groups, as well as more Pacific Islanders and refugees.
Mostly it's Indian, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese American students at the
top tier schools, not Hmong or Cambodian Americans. Moreover, it tends to be students from wealthier families who can afford to pay $40,000+ a year. I have benefitted by
being in diverse environments with people who had different backgrounds
and immigration and racial histories than me.

Also a friend who worked in admissions at a highly prestigious school said that the school would reject Asian Americans with amazing scores and that she thought there was a quota. Asian Am enrollment at this school ranged from 8-10% over the past decade. (I realize this is anecdotal.)

Moreover, I hate when admissions is cast as Asian Americans taking the places of African Americans and Latinos when the people who are usually saying this mean that they are scared that spots are being "taken" from Caucasians. Because the opposite game gets played as well, where opponents of affirmative action say that it hurts Asian Americans. Never forget it is a wedge issue that the Right uses quite effectively. When I heard about Jian Li, the Yalie kid who is suing Princeton for denying him admission, I had two thoughts: 1) not crying for the kid; 2) not crying for that elitist institution either.

In reality, schools should abolish the legacy system which strongly advantages rich kids. (Incidentally, the same "they're taking my job/woman/place in school argument was made about ethnic white immigrants and Jews before. It's not a new argument by any means, and it's pretty much the same people recycling it over and over.) I also recognize that not all schools have the financial ability to do this, but I think schools like Harvard could and should lead the way. I think that Derek Bok (new president of Harvard who replaced the atrocious Larry Summers introduced the loan-free acceptances for kids from families making less than $50,00/year as a way of partially rectifying the imbalance, and I applaud him for taking that first step. But higher ed as a whole needs to find solutions and fast, else the days of $500,000 college degrees and a deeply segregated underclass are not far. (Some argue we've already reached the latter.)


  • At 3:59 PM, Blogger RachelsTavern said…

    Very good job tying together several different sets of literature (Gee, that sounds like a comment on a term paper LOL!).

    I've been watching for a good critique of this article.

  • At 9:03 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    Hi there!

    This is Gloria Chan, the Communications Director of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.

    Great website! I am trying to ensure that we have a good list of Asian American bloggers. We know here at CAPAC that the blogger community is extremely important. If you want to add your email to our press list to receive our releases, please email them to gloria.chan@mail.house.gov.

    Here, you can find a list of past releases for your perusal:


  • At 1:38 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I would disagree with the article, at least from my experience. I'm an Asian-American, and my parents came to this country as poor immigrants. In fact, my dad came here in debt, borrowing money from relatives to pay his way here. Through hard work, my parents became successful engineers and entrepreneurs, I am now pursuing a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, and my sister just got her MBA. My parents didn't come here from a "rich" family, and in fact even by Taiwan standards at that time my dad's family was considered poor. All our Asian-American family friends are like this. We even count 1 Harvard, 2 Princetons, 1 Standford, and 2 U. Penns among our family friends' kids (and less close family acquaintances' kids). So at least from my experience the author is wrong about successful AA kids already coming from rich immigrant families.

    As for affirmative action, I guess I support it in general because blacks and other underrepresented minorities were historically discriminated against so that's why they're behind. I agree with the author that it's not entirely their fault. But I don't agree that affirmative action helps AA's. At least from my experience, I remember it was really hard for me to get into the college that I did, but one of my Hispanic roommates was totally unqualified. A lot of times I couldn't even understand his English and he complained one time about how his professor gave him a B for a paper! If it wasn't for affirmative action, I don't how he would have gotten in.

    But I guess I agree with what you said about the legacies. A lot of the legacies were less qualified than us Asians, and most of them didn't do hard majors like science and engineering. But they were *way* more qualified than the affirmative action minorities. Plus, it's kind of understandable because the school also has a budget to meet and admitting legacies is good for business. Anyway, the whole legacy thing may work in our favor in the future anyway. Now that so many of us Asians are in nowadays, our next generation will be considered legacies. I know when I have kids that they're going to be favored. That's probably unfair, but it's just business. I intend to carry on my parents' business and use it to become really rich, and I would be more likely to donate more money to the school if my kids went there. I'd just feel more loyalty and happiness. Right now, when I get my alumni drives in the mail, I pretty much throw them away. I've donated very minimally. It's also partially because I'm still a grad student. But if my kids go to my same school 20 years down the line, you can be sure I'll be writing big checks.

    Another big thing which you totally didn't mention is the whole "sports affirmative action" thing. Those kids in my college who got in because of sports were much less academically qualified than the legacies. One time my electrical engineering classmate told a football player friend that he was studying electrical engineering, and the football player said something like, "So you want to be an electrician or something?" OMG! How stupid do you have to be before the school rejects a jock? Well, at least he could speak English! LOL

    So I guess this is the summary of what kinds of affirmative action I support:

    1. Racial affirmative action: Yes, but only until society achieves racial equality.

    2. Legacy affirmative action: In principle, No. But in practice, it's smart business practice, so you're never gonna get rid of it.

    3. Sports affirmative action: Definitely not. A college is a place of *academic* learning. Your application should be judged based on your academic qualifications and your ability to graduate from the school and obtain an academic education.

    4. Economic affirmative action: Yes. I think schools and the government should continue to make scholarships available based on economic need. If that means some rich kids will not qualify, I have no problem with that. Probably my kids won't qualify at that time, but they will have had other advantages because of their economic situation, especially since we want to send our kids to private school anyway. If economic affirmative action makes certain elite colleges reachable to poorer students who would otherwise have no chance to attend, I wouldn't have a problem with that.

    Also, just a side comment, probably unrelated, but since we're on the subject of racial distributions in college: I've noticed that among the black population in academia, there is an over-representation of females over males. In fact, our family friend kid from Harvard, who is Asian-American, married a black girl from his class. I haven't met her yet, but my parents say she's real sweet. Anyway, I wonder if anyone can explain this phenomenon of more black females than males to me. Maybe it's just coincidence.


  • At 8:44 PM, Blogger powerpolitics said…


    Thanks for your thoughtful response and for sharing your story. It's been a while since I wrote this piece but it continues to get a lot of hits and interest. So apologizes if the piece is far from fresh in my mind.

    I agree that sports affirmative action should probably be gotten rid of, but it brings in alumni money like the legacies. (Since alums get really teary when the home team wins or something - scratch me, I don't understand the appeal of Homecoming.)

    I would love for racial discrimination to be over, and I would agree with getting rid of affirmative action at that time, but I don't think that time has come, even if we have an African American president. And I definitely don't agree with Ward Connerly's claims that Obama as president is a good enough argument to end AA policies.

    And I absolutely believe in financial aid (otherwise known as economic affirmative action.) I also believe in merit aid.

    Historically, affirmative action has helped Asian Americans, whether it's in the university, grad school, or in the workplace. And unfortunately, Asian American owned businesses tend to be overlooked for government contracts. For example, Chicago actually got rid of the inclusion for Asian American small businesses under Minority Owned Business allotments because they didn't think that APA businesses needed it. It was reinstated after significant protests and efforts.

    AAJC has a good explanation of the issue and why affirmative action remains important. Sometimes we forget that AA has more implications than just the classroom.

    And on the classroom argument, I think that admissions officers are now savvier and take into consideration ethnicity, esp. Southeast Asian descent, or family incomes, when looking at applications, and that someone with that profile would be more interesting to them than a perfect SAT from a wealthy family in the suburbs.

  • At 10:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

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