Image by Ivy Sanders Schneider

A Racist Cause-and-Effect Story

Andy Liu

I remember hearing in high school that I needed to score about 200 points higher on my SATs than an otherwise equivalent white student for an equal shot at college admissions. I don’t recall my reaction at the time, but it wasn’t anger. Most likely, I felt teenage self-loathing over how nerdy the statistic implied Asians were. The memory came back to me a few years ago, when Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) made headlines for their efforts to dismantle affirmative action by cynically highlighting discrimination faced by Asian American plaintiffs. They even made the SAT score thing — typically cited as 140 points now — a centerpiece of their strategy. All this precipitated an even deeper embarrassment: that we were now becoming the props of white conservatives. But the specific claims of anti-Asian bias themselves? Those were unsurprising to me, and, I’m sure, to the countless other Asians who had heard similar rumors for years. 

In court, SFFA presented evidence that admissions officers at Harvard and the University of North Carolina privately described Asian students as uncreative and interchangeable test-taking robots, using nebulous “personal ratings” to screen out applicants with otherwise excellent scores in order to limit overrepresentation on their (still) mostly white campuses. Fair enough. 

But the trick SFFA pulled was to appropriate intuitive claims of anti-Asian bias and then scapegoat programs designed to redress historical injustices against black, Latino, and Indigenous students. The zero-sum, cause-and-effect argument was seductively simple, but its logical implications don’t really hold up: that anti-Asian practices were somehow the byproduct of the race-conscious policies initiated in the 1960s (originally aimed at helping Asians, among others), or, conversely, that anti-Asian discrimination would be rectified by banning the race-conscious policies, per Justice Sotomayor’s dissent.

In my view, addressing the reality of the situation honestly would mean defending race-conscious policies while also taking anti-Asian bias in admissions seriously. But for tactical reasons, I presume, in their dissents neither Sotomayor nor Justice Jackson actually admitted the existence of anti-Asian discrimination in college admissions. Sotomayor couched the possibility in a hypothetical, then pointed to a federal court ruling that relied on statistical models proffered by Harvard’s lawyers to quash the question. She even asserted that the current “use of race in college admissions” was so vital “precisely because” the “Asian American community continues to struggle against potent and dehumanizing stereotypes in our society.”

It’s hardly surprising that lawyers and judges would deny a pattern of anti-Asian prejudice in college admissions for the sake of legal strategy. What I find confusing, though, is that the same blanket denial was generally adopted by writers, academics, and activists in the public sphere. Parroting university lawyers, they defended “holistic” admissions practices by criticizing the arbitrariness of exams and grades, demonstrating how affirmative action did in fact benefit a subset of Asian applicants, and pointing out the steadily rising number of Asian admits at elite schools. 

By contrast, there is a robust history of progressive Asian activists who in the 1980s did object to anti-Asian discrimination in admissions but who also avoided scapegoating other racial minorities, instead saving their criticism for the white institutions shutting out Asian applicants. Many universities, including the University of California and Brown, acknowledged and sought to rectify their biases in an effort to expand, rather than dismantle, race-conscious admissions policies. Why were such arguments mostly absent this time around? And why were so many progressives, even those who distrust the Court as a whole, uninterested in criticizing its dissent?

In the end, I sensed that many were afraid that if they acknowledged anti-Asian bias at all — even implicit, informal bias — they would be complicit in ending affirmative action; in order to show solidarity with black and Latino communities, therefore, progressives absurdly had to deny the existence of anti-Asian discrimination in admissions even as they loudly identified it in countless other areas of American life. I wonder if this impulse towards racial allyship actually helped SFFA lock in the public association between the two: the racist cause-and-effect story that posited pro-black policies as the source of anti-Asian racism. (Public support for race-conscious admissions is quite low these days, with only 33 percent of Americans expressing approval for the policy.) 

Who knows what will happen next. As all parties agreed, there was no formal anti-Asian policy on the books anywhere. (The personal ratings system was “facially race-neutral” in Sotomayor’s words.) Surely, schools will find workaround solutions to curate their desired student populations. But the underlying demographic tensions are not disappearing anytime soon, at elite colleges or more broadly. 

Asian America began to transform only a few years after affirmative action began, as 1960s immigration laws enabled the entrance of a selective group from Asia far more educated and economically mobile than the rest of their home societies in nations like South Korea, Taiwan, or India. A similar dynamic, with greater intensity, arose with the opening and rise of China. Asian Americans are now the fastest-growing group in the U.S., on average earning higher incomes and attending — and, presumably, applying to — college more than any other. At some point, we will need to have a more nuanced discussion about the specificity and interplay of different forms of racism in our society, and the way they’ve been underpinned by historical, legal, and class dynamics — all without subordinating these conversations to the pressures of allyship. Otherwise, it seems to me, conservatives will continue to successfully frame these debates on their own terms: as an ahistorical, zero-sum war between the colored races.

Andy Liu is an associate professor of history at Villanova University. He is the author of Tea War: A History of Capitalism in China and India.