The Normal Minority
How Asian-Americans Became the Target of Our Racial Politics
Just as we were all headed into an especially long Fourth of July weekend, the Supreme Court posted a decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard declaring affirmative action in college admissions to be illegal racial discrimination.
My first question about the ruling was about the basis for applying this to private universities. The decision, which you can read here, is based on the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, which guarantees the “equal protection of the laws” to people of all races. Since Brown v. Board of Education, this has been recognized to imply the “fundamental principle that racial discrimination in public education is unconstitutional.” (That’s from the Brown decision, as quoted in this new decision.) The defendants in this new case are Harvard University and the University of North Carolina. UNC is a state school, so the Equal Protection Clause applies to it directly. Harvard is a private school, but under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the same principle is extended to any institution that receives federal funding: “No person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance.”
The court found that Harvard and UNC have been doing precisely that. They have actively and systematically excluded applicants from one particular kind of ethnic background.
What is really interesting about this case, though, is that this excluded group is not white kids. This is not a claim about “reverse discrimination,” which was the basis for earlier lawsuits that were rejected. This case is about plain old regular discrimination aimed at excluding Asian-American students—a wide ethnic category, of which the largest subgroups are students of Chinese and Indian descent.
That leads to the most remarkable part of the reaction to this ruling, which is how little attention has been paid to Asian-Americans and their concerns. As Jay Caspian Kang observed:
Asian-Americans, the group whom the suit was supposedly about, have been oddly absent from the conversations that have followed the ruling. The repetitiveness of the affirmative-action debate has come about, in large part, because both the courts and the media have mostly ignored the Asian-American plaintiffs and chosen, instead, to relitigate the same arguments about merit, white supremacy, and privilege.
I noticed this in an article in the Washington Post fretting about the impact of the affirmative action ruling on “diversity” in Silicon Valley. Quoted in the article as experts are Reyhan Ayas, who is Turkish, and Bhaskar Chakravorti, who is Indian. Anyone who has worked in or had contact with any scientific or technological field knows that these are hardly unusual background. There is plenty of “diversity”—if you count people of Chinese and Indian descent, along with Asians in general and all the other immigrants from every corner of the world who excel in these fields. But no one ever does include Asian-Americans in counts of racial diversity, because our discussions about race in this country are still stuck in Arkansas in 1958, when it was all about black versus white. It is not a very diverse concept of “diversity.”
That in itself is very suggestive.