By Courtney Connley and Sharon Yi
As Vice President of Strategic Initiatives at Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), Marita Etcubañez knows that America’s education system is filled with flaws and inequalities. That’s why, she says AAJC’s goal includes “supporting affirmative action as part of our work to advance equity, and in particular educational equity.”
“We recognize that diversity benefits everyone, including Asian Americans,” she says. “And we recognize that we need it to be part of the litigation and debates around affirmative action because Asians have always been cast as a wedge on these topics.”
Following the Supreme Court’s ban on the consideration of race in the college admissions process, Etcubañez along with many other Asian activists and scholars have spoken out about the ripple effect of this decision and the way in which the API community was involved. At the center of the ruling were two cases involving the Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. (SFFA) suing Harvard University and the University of North Carolina for unfairly discriminating against Asians when factoring race in its admission process.
“Asians did not seek out SFFA,” says Janelle Wong, University of Maryland Professor and Director of Asian American Studies. “SFFA, an organization led by legal activist Edward Blum, sought out an Asian American plaintiff.” Wong and Etcubañez point out that Blum has been working for years to ban affirmative action and other race-conscious diversity practices. One of his most notable cases is the 2016 case of Abigail Fisher v. University of Texas where a court ruled against Fisher’s claims that as a White woman she was discriminated against in the college admissions process due to the consideration of race.
“In previous lawsuits the named plaintiffs were White women,” says Etcubañez. “When those efforts failed, [Blum] deliberately started casting the net looking for Asian Americans. Now, we know there are Asian Americans supporting him. But I think it's telling that there is no Asian American named plaintiff in these cases.”
of Asian Americans favor affirmative action
According to a 2022 survey released by AAPI Data, AAJC, and Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote (APIAVote), 69% of Asian Americans favor affirmative action programs “designed to help Black people, women, and other minorities get better access to higher education.” But despite this majority support, Etcubañez says that Blum and SFFA relied on the tireless tactic of using Asians and the model minority myth to divide communities of color, implying that affirmative action benefits Black and Latinx students but hurts Asians.
“It's a White supremacist tactic to divide communities of color and put them against each other,” says Etcubañez. “And we cannot allow ourselves to fall into it.” Instead of underrepresented communities focusing on dismantling the systems that enable White supremacy to persist (such as legacy admissions, which primarily benefit those of privileged White backgrounds), these cases were an elegant, malicious way to pit Asians against all other people of marginalized backgrounds — a narrative that has existed for far too long.
The model minority myth has long been used to stow competition and divisiveness among communities of color, preventing them from coming together to pursue racial justice for all. The history of the model minority narrative begins in the 1940s, originated by Chinese and Japanese families.
“Asian community leaders presented this narrative that Asian American kids were super studious and never got into trouble to convince White [people] that they were not a threat,” Wong explains. “This was during a time when Chinese and Japanese were seen as a threat in terms of labor competition and bringing foreign elements into the United States.” As the civil rights movement with Black Americans grew, however, Wong says that some White people became “more and more uncomfortable with Black demands for justice and they used the model minority stereotype as a counterpoint, arguing that Asian Americans were a non-White group that faced racism, but were able to overcome it.”
Yet this ideology couldn’t be farther from the truth, with the model minority myth doing more harm than good to the Asian community. Due to this stereotype, Asians are often viewed as a monolithic community that is highly successful and highly educated, undercutting the racism, sexism, and classism that many Asians face. In fact, the API community has one of the widest racial pay disparities among racial groups, with Taiwanese women making as much as $1.08 for every dollar paid to White men and Nepalese and Bangladeshi women making as low as $0.48.
“The Asian American community is tremendously diverse,” says Etcubañez. “We come from many different countries of origin in Asia and we have a lot of different immigration experiences. There are groups within the Asian American community that are arguably disadvantaged in the education process and there are many that stand to benefit from affirmative action when it comes to admissions processes.”
UC Berkeley Law Professor Dr. Khiara M. Bridges says that in the case of Harvard University, much of the discrimination Asian students face is not due to affirmative action, but “likely due to some combination of explicit and implicit bias in interviews and the model minority myth working to disadvantage them.” According to a 2013 report, Asian applicants earned significantly lower personality ratings from Harvard’s admissions officers than other racial groups, decreasing their chances of being admitted into the university.
While the focus around these cases is on high school graduates applying to elite universities, affirmative action also benefits community college students who want to transfer. In California, the state with the highest population of Asian Americans, 41% of Asian American freshmen in 2020 were enrolled in community colleges.
“Research shows that all groups, including Asian Americans, benefit from campus racial diversity in terms of learning outcomes,” says Wong. “And, research also shows that more than 20% of Asian Americans would not be admitted to highly selective institutions without race-conscious admissions.”
Sally Chen, Education Equity Policy Manager at Chinese for Affirmative Action (CAA), says that maintaining a race-conscious work culture amid a college affirmative action ban is critical for a diverse workforce. In fact, she says that CAA was built in 1969 on the legacy of the civil rights movement and they’ve relied on affirmative action policies to help diversify employment opportunities for Asian people. According to a Harvard study, when affirmative action was repealed in four states between 1996 and 2008, the employment rate for Black, Latinx, and Asian workers decreased in those areas. And since the University of Michigan and the University of California banned affirmative action more than 15 years ago, both schools say they’ve since struggled to build diverse classes (despite spending billions of dollars in recruitment efforts), which in turn dwindles the pipeline of diverse talent entering the workforce.
While there has been a lot of discussion about the spillover effects of this decision into corporate America, Wong and Etcubañez make it clear that the current ruling does not prevent businesses from having race-conscious recruiting or hiring policies. But rather, now is the time for business leaders to take strong actions to counter the repercussions of this decision and circumvent the diversity chokehold this will create in their recruitment pipeline.
Actions Business Leaders Can Take Now:
1. Address the Gap Early
“Business leaders can offer to support targeted scholarships for first-generation and low-income students, and they can help to support college success programs and recruitment programs that target groups that have faced the highest barriers to admission,” says Wong.
2. Widen the Scope of Where You Look for Talent
Amid this ban at the college level, company leaders are encouraged to ramp up their DEI practices during the hiring and recruitment process in order to ensure that their pipeline of talent is expansive and not limited to elite colleges and universities. This includes looking at community colleges, public state schools, Hispanic-Serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges, and historically Black colleges and universities for talent. This also includes focusing on a skills-first workforce that doesn’t put extra weight on a college degree.
3. Challenge the Model Minority Myth in Your Own Workplace
Business leaders must dismantle any notion that Asian employees are doing fine at work when stats tell a different story. It’s not enough to hire API employees if you don’t promote them. The model minority myth is pervasive and gives permission to keep Asian employees as workers, not leaders. Auditing your promotion cycles to ensure that your Asian staff isn’t being subjected to personality bias and is being reviewed on their work is key. Lastly, create a focused strategy on sponsorship and mentorship opportunities for all employees, including API individuals.
4. Support the Asian Community Bracing for Impact
The anti-Asian hate crimes spike during the pandemic is not a distant memory. There is an undercurrent of fear in the Asian community that is bracing for backlash as the destructive narrative of these cases circulates. Leaders can offer support through establishing ERGs and setting up listening sessions with Asian employees in order to understand what they need at this time and provide support.
Advancing proactive strategies such as these is key in dismantling biased hiring practices and building a diverse workforce because as Chen puts it, “You can’t take a society that is racist and do nothing and expect there to be change.”
In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote, “Today, this court stands in the way and rolls back decades of precedent and momentous progress,” adding that the decision “cements a superficial rule of colorblindness as a constitutional principle in an endemically segregated society where race has always mattered and continues to matter.”