the interloper in the racial discourses re-evaluating AFFIRMATIVE ACTION from the perspective of asian americans


Many universities in the United States have practiced Affirmative Action in the admission process to support disadvantaged groups of students. In 2018, the admission process of Harvard University was sued by SFFA(Students for Fair Admissions) for discriminating against Asian American students. Asian Americans were historically considered the "interlopers" of the arguments on racial inequality in the educational field, which mainly involves white students and black/hispanic students. Although there are two different voices commenting on this lawsuit from Asian Americans community as the supporters and opponents of Harvard admission process, the presence of Asian Americans, who were less heard on the historical stage, performs America and its racial inequality by revealing the tension behind a seemingly solved problem and seemingly reached consensus. These protests and discourses are not obstacles but incentives to envision better solutions to racial equality.


AACE protesters of Harvard Admission, 2018

After Harvard University was accused of discriminating against Asian-American applicants by SFFA(Students for Fair Admissions), with admitting that "Harvard's admission was not perfect,'' federal judge Allison D. Burroughs rejected this accusation. SFFA accused Harvard's admission process for violating the federal civil rights law based on several claims, including the difference in standard testing scores of admitted students from different racial backgrounds, rating system that downgrades Asian applicants in order to create diversity, etc. The arguments around the Affirmative Action(AA) in college admission system have been going on for decades. In the previous years, the majority of the opposing voices came from white students who questions the fairness of the and the supporting voices are composed of various racial demographics. However, in the recent suit against Harvard University, the majority of the opposition was from Asian Americans, a relatively quiet group on the historical stage. These protests performs racial equality from the perspectives of Asian Americans by revealing a different voice behind a historically justified solution to racial inequality. Asian-American parents who are protesters and Asian American students who are supporters of AA represented two sides, both strong but neglected, of the definition of racial equality.

The historical background of Affirmative Action is created to "support members of a disadvantaged group that has previously suffered discrimination in such areas as education, employment, or housing." In the fifties, American schools are racially segregated. Black parents protested with the banner "Don't Treat Our Children Like PRISONERS". The Brown v. Board of Education case was a response to this discriminative system. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled the racially segregated schools violated the Constitution. After the AA was enforced, lawsuits on AA usually involved group that suffered from discrimination in the past or present, such as Black and Latino students, and the group that benefited from systematic inequality in the past or present, which indicates the white students. In the past, conflicts were focused on these two groups and their stands in the scales of racial equality. For example, Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978 and Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin in 2008 are two law cases happened after the AA is enforced in the college admission process, and they both involve a white male applicant who is rejected from a college program. The logic behind the loss of both lawsuits and the movements was straightforward and can be perfectly justified by the definition of AA itself. Black and Latino students were treated with discrimination and not receiving education with good quality in the history, therefore the society needs to support the next generation to end the vicious circle. White students were entitled to better education in the history, therefore they receive no privileges in the admission process today. However, the Harvard case introduced more perspectives to racial equality from a group that is often excluded from the discussion. Why do Asian Americans feel that they are treated unfairly in the admission process? Is it and is it only because of AA? Are Asian Americans “members of a disadvantaged group that has previously suffered discrimination in such areas as education, employment, or housing” and should they support them? There are two answers to these questions held by supporters and protestors. Each side are played by actors/actresses from different race, age, and socio-economic demographics and their views on America and its racial equality.

Protestor in Harvard Admission, 2018
Protestor of AA in the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, 1978

The protestors of Harvard Admission are composed with majority of Asian Americans and some legal representatives who are white. From the photos of the protest, there seem to be more middle-aged Asian parents than teenagers. Articles that condemns the admission process of Ivy League schools were also widespread in WeChat, which is mostly used by first generation immigrants who are native Chinese speakers. In addition to the sighs and gestures they used in the street protest. These articles, titled with "Do Harvard Penalize Asian-American applicants?", "The Broken Dreams behind Harvard Admission", "When the Racial Quota is Filled", etc., can be regarded as verbal performatives used by Asian parents in this protest. In comparison, photos of California v. Bakke in 1978 and Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin in 2008 demonstrate that the age groups were distributed more evenly and even more heavily on the youth. There are three reasonable explanations for the difference in the demographic distribution. First is through the cultural lens. Although the statement that all Asian families put high importance on education sounds stereotypical, it is applicable on many middle class Asian families, including the protestors. Second, According to SFFA, Harvard had “intentionally discriminated against Asian-Americans; that it used race as a predominant factor in admissions decisions; that it racially balanced its classes; and that it had considered applicants’ race without first exhausting race-neutral alternatives to create diversity.” Although these claims were cleared by the judges, they were concluded by Asian American parents from the admission statistics, including the difference in the racial percentages from schools that are practicing AA or taking racial factor out of the admission processes, such as Ivy Leagues and the UC system, racial gap in SAT and ACT scores revealed by College Board, etc. It seems reasonable to assume unfairness if taking the historical context out of the play but simply evaluating on personal trait.

SAT gap between different racial groups, College Board

The third explanation directly performs the viewpoint on racial equality by Asian American protesters. Ironically, one of the banners quoted Martin Luther King, who is perceived as an icon for the minorities to pursue racial equality and was often quoted to support Affirmative Action. “I am Asian American. I have a dream too.” They are not protesting against Affirmative Action for its cause to bring racial equality, but the fact that they were hurt instead of benefiting from Affirmative Action like other minority groups. Many of the first generation Asian immigrants experienced mistreatment and discrimination in education and employment when they arrived in the United States. The Exclusion Act, language barrier, and cultural conflicts, shaped their identities of surviving as a disadvantaged but hardworking group. data indicates that they are not protected by the AA, but rather negatively affected. There were many studies related to the model minority and perpetual foreigner stereotypes that resonates with their points. “Asian American continue to be cast as interlopers in a Black/White racial discourse; being neither Black nor White. Asian Americans rarely gain visibility and voice ads racial minorities.” When the protestors are protesting against unfairness towards a particular group, Harvard avoided giving direct response but delved into the importance of racial diversity and social justice. Similar to the "All Lives Matter" statement in response to "Black Lives Matter". Such response is definitely correct but not answering the problem pointed out by the protestors.

Protestor in Harvard Admission, 2018

On the other hand, the supporters of AA and Harvard admissions are mostly consisted of students, including Harvard students and alumni. To invest the other side of the view of the Asian American population, we can again look at the banners, which are direct verbal performatives by the participants. There are two different arguments on the slogan. One is “Defend Diversity” and the other is “Stop investing in the whiteness that has always called you YELLOW.” The former one is a neural statement and the latter one is more aggressive on issues around racial classification. Logically, neither of these two standpoint addressed the issue “Harvard discriminates against Asians”, but both expressed opposition to one of the solutions proposed by the protestors, which is “Stop AA in the admission process.'' These are also multiple explanations to the views held by supporters of Affirmative Action. First is the change in social environment of the first and later generation Asian American. Second or third Asian Americans had different experiences in education and employment environment. Their conceptual maps of America were pictured by U.S. history, media, and their peers, which can be more similar to their friends of other racial groups than to their parents. Therefore, they resonate with the terms racial equality and racial diversity more than their parents. “Rugged individualism” was a real depiction of the stories of previous Asian American immigrants as they pursued academic achievements and career success with drawbacks from social pressure and discrimination. However, the new generation learned more about the history of white supremacy and the suppressive history of other minorities. In the 1960s, the mainstream media used the “Rugged individualism” or "model minority" of Asian immigrants to unfoundedly compare two racial groups and attack the African American populations. The main argument is “Asians did not need government support to make it in the U.S. society.” The first generation of Asian immigrants might agree and even take pride in this argument because they did not see the implication and racist intension behind this argument. Their children, however, see the layer behind. The lack of resonance with their parents’ hardships due to the improvement of structural racism, as well as a more comprehensive view on American history regarding racial structure, both cause younger Asian Americans to consider themselves “the advantaged group” instead of the "disadvantaged group". Therefore they justify Affirmative Action with other minorities and made the statement “defend diversity”, which might sound strange to their parents.

Supporter of AA in Harvard Admission, 2018
Supporter of AA in Harvard Admission, 2018
Protest on "Model Minority"

Both the protesters and the supporters of the Harvard lawsuit performed America and its controversy on racial equality from the perspective of Asian Americans. According to legal author Ancheta, Asian Americans were historically racialized as “non-Americans or model minority” and therefore invisible in many discussions on racial justice. The Harvard lawsuit revealed the tension but also provided a stage for Asian Americans to speak their voices in the educational field. The conflicts behind Affirmative Action and many other policies addressing racial equality were not only obstacles to overcome but also reminders that there isn’t any perfect solutions yet. There are people who are still treated unfairly in the current system. Such performance reminds us that we should not stop making progress.


Parker, Laurence. Difference, Diversity, and Distinctiveness in Education and Learning. Washington, D.C.: American Educational Research Association, 2007. p95-130

Hartocollis, Anemona. “Harvard Does Not Discriminate Against Asian-Americans in Admissions, Judge Rules.” The New York Times. The New York Times, October 1, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/01/us/harvard-admissions-lawsuit.html.