Brown Bag Talk on Affirmative Action Addresses Complex Role of Asian American Students

Asian Americans And Affirmative Action: An Activist History

This past summer, the Supreme Court ruled that affirmative action violates the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment, catalyzing a broad spectrum of conversations about the role that race plays (or should play) in college admissions. Dr. Cheung-Miaw’s brown bag talk last week, entitled “Asian Americans and Affirmative Action: An Activist History,” took on Jameson’s maxim to “always historicize!” pushing against conversations positing affirmative action in a vacuum and gesturing at the complex role that Asian/American students have played in the history of race-conscious admission policies. 

The term “Asian American” was conceptualized in the late 1960s, in a long moment of global resistance against militarism and racism. “Asian American” was formed as a political identity necessarily in solidarity with Black, Native American, and Latinx communities, not only at universities, but also globally. Firmly rooted in the links between anti-imperialist and anti-racist ideologies, the Third World Liberation Fronts at San Francisco State and Berkeley organized towards curricular shifts, policy changes, and, importantly, open admissions for Third World students. 

 Asian/American student activism for affirmative action continued – in 1975, students at Michigan made demands along the lines of what we’d call affirmative action today, calling for race-conscious admissions for Asian, Native, Mexican, and Black students. Mostly, though, university administrators refused to acknowledge the material reality of anti-Asian racism and its implications for higher education. Efforts to change the landscape of higher ed into one not actively hostile to Asian students, Dr. Cheung-Miaw reminded us, have always depended on multiracial coalitions. At the UCLA Law School, for example, demands for affirmative action policies for Asian students were supported by Black/Latinx students to the extent that they were willing to give up seats for Asian students. 

In the late 70s and 80s, the demographics of Asian/American populations in the United States began to change as a result of the 1965 Immigration Act. The class and educational profile of Asian/Americans began shifting upwards, and Asian people (especially middle to upper class Asian people) started going to college at much higher rates. Rising percentages of Asian/American students at colleges isn’t the neat resolution to the arc of racial injustice, though – this demographic shift is entangled with a shift in class and geopolitical dynamics. At Berkeley in 1983, for example, administrators implemented a policy essentially making admission more difficult for low-income Asian applicants. When the admission of Asian students went down, they blamed affirmative action policies, claiming that the increased admission of underrepresented racial groups depended on the decreased admission of Asian students, uncritically framed as ‘overrepresented.’ This sort of rhetoric, which pits Asian/Americans against other communities of color, has been accepted by many Asian/Americans. Historical analysis, however, reveals not only the unstable fictions which constitute racial categories, but also the calculated ways in which these fictions are wielded towards the consolidation of profit for the ruling class.  

To learn more about affirmative action and untangle the myriad of myths surrounding its cultural invocations, Dr. Cheung-Miaw recommended Race on Campus, a data-driven exploration of racial dynamics on college campuses today. You can also read AADS’ statement on affirmative action here for more historical context and further resources.