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Asian Americans 'will not be used' by conservatives attacking affirmative action

A white-led organization is using Asian American plaintiffs to beat back affirmative action polices in colleges. But Asian Americans broadly back affirmative action.


As my colleague Kimmy Yam reported in 2020, an overwhelming majority of Asian Americans support affirmative action policies designed to help marginalized communities make progress. 

That makes complete sense, given Asian Americans — a broad term for an incredibly diverse, multinational group of people — suffer marginalization themselves, despite attempts (often by white people) to present them as the “model minority.” 

That’s helpful context as we think about Monday’s news that the Supreme Court will take up two cases filed on behalf of Asian American students, who allege race-conscious college admissions policies amount to racist discrimination. The lawsuits target policies at the University of North Carolina and Harvard University, and they were filed by Students for Fair Admissions, an organization led by a white man named Edward Blum. Blum’s organization has filed several cases with white and Asian American plaintiffs aiming to ban race-conscious admissions, which some schools use to foster a healthy and diverse campus culture.  

Without knowing history, some may take as truth the idea that Asian American students — or Asian Americans generally — strongly oppose these policies. That would be foolish. 

Photo illustration: The Supreme Court is taking up college admissions cases
MSNBC / Getty Images

On last night’s episode of "The ReidOut," OiYan Poon — an associate professor at Colorado State University who studies the racial politics of education — noted that Asian, Black and Latino communities have traditionally supported affirmative action. Specifically, she referenced Mari Matsuda, one of the early developers of critical race theory and the first tenured Asian American female law professor in the United States. You should know her.

Matsuda famously delivered a speech to the Asian Law Caucus in 1990, titled “We Will Not Be Used,” in support of affirmative action policies. 

“I want to speak of my fear that Asian-Americans are in danger of becoming the racial bourgeoisie, and of my resolve to resist that path,” she said in her powerful remarks.

Here’s a passage I’ve been sitting with for a bit: 

Asian success was success with a dark, painful price. To use that success to discount the hardship facing poor and working people in this country today is a sacrilege to the memory of our ancestors. It is an insult to today’s Asian-American immigrants, who work the double-triple shift, who know no leisure, who crowd two and three families to a home, who put children and old-folks alike to work at struggling family businesses or at home doing piece-work until midnight. Yes, we take pride in our success, but we should also remember the cost. The success that is our pride is not to be given over as a weapon to use against other struggling communities. I hope we will not be used to blame the poor for their poverty. Nor should we be used to deny employment or educational opportunities to others.

Mari Matsuda, Activist lawyer

Today, there’s a multipronged, conservative attack on learning institutions. On one hand, conservatives are trying to erase the history of America’s racist past — and that past includes stories of Black, Latino and Asian American solidarity and the oppressive policies that have historically encouraged it. On the other hand, conservatives are trying to force colleges and universities to support their rigid racial hierarchy, which prioritizes whites and uses Asian American achievement to beat back claims of racist discrimination. 

It’s important to know that Asian Americans have been hip to this game for years, and a great many of them have spoken against being made into pawns.

Read Matsuda's full speech.

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