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
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
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
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.)