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What Asian Americans really think of affirmative action

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

There are some tenacious myths around Asian American students in this country - that they have to get higher SAT scores than other students to get into college, that they shouldn't even identify their race on applications. And yesterday the Supreme Court gutted affirmative action, finding that two universities discriminated against white and Asian American students in the admissions process. It's a decision that might seem to validate those myths. So we turn now to Janelle Wong for some insight. She is a professor of Asian American studies at the University of Maryland who has dedicated her research to breaking down and understanding Asian American demographic information. Welcome.

JANELLE WONG: Thank you so much for having me, Juana.

SUMMERS: So, Janelle, I want to start by talking about these myths, which both kind of stem from the big one, the model minority myth - that, for some reason, Asian people are smarter and work harder. And it's often associated with being quiet and introverted. Does your research show that perception having an impact on college admissions decisions?

WONG: So this lawsuit makes a lot out of the fact that the small numbers of Asian American applications that the plaintiffs team - that is, the group that sued Harvard, alleging racial discrimination - that that team reviewed contained comments reinforcing the model minority stereotype, portraying Asian Americans as passive nerds, lacking leadership, with phrases on the applications like very quiet and quiet and strong. But very quiet and quiet and strong were comments that appeared on the files of Black, Latino and white applicant files as well. This wasn't an Asian American thing. So the truth is that the lower courts found no evidence of racial discrimination against Asian Americans.

SUMMERS: The group Students for Fair Admissions brought the case before the court and centered several Asian students when they presented it. This group was created by Edward Blum, who is a longtime opponent of affirmative action. And I want to acknowledge in this conversation upfront that the category Asian American encompasses people from a huge variety of backgrounds. And I want to ask you, what does your work show about how Asian Americans from different countries feel about affirmative action itself?

WONG: Well, it's actually one of the most remarkable and consistent findings over the last 10 years that Asian Americans across different national origins - that includes Korean Americans, Filipino Americans, Indian Americans and other groups - support affirmative action.

SUMMERS: You wrote on Twitter back in 2018 arguing that race-conscious admissions are good for Asian Americans. And I'm going to quote your tweet here. "This is not about Harvard and elite institutions. This is about whether Asian Americans will defend racial justice more broadly or be a weapon against it." And I want to know a little bit more about what you meant by that weaponization.

WONG: There is no doubt that Asian Americans face racial discrimination. I've certainly been told to go back to where I came from. But it's really, I think, a very dangerous time when Asian Americans and especially a false narrative about an Asian American penalty is being used to target this essential tool, affirmative action, that helps to open up doors to diversity and opportunities for education. That is, Asian Americans can provide cover to conservatives to further their white supremacist agenda.

SUMMERS: Well, I mean, I want to ask you - there's a reaction that some have had that this case reinforces the idea that Asian people are anti-Black or that they enjoy proximity to whiteness that grants them some version of almost white privilege. How do you respond to those reactions?

WONG: So one of the things that has happened is that Asian Americans themselves have internalized the model minority stereotype. So many are falling into this trap and are promoting stereotypes that Black and Latino students are less academically worthy than Asian Americans. And so this is, I think, an instance where not all Asian Americans, not even a majority of Asian Americans but too many Asian Americans have been complicit with not only white supremacy but profound anti-Black stereotypes in the U.S.

SUMMERS: Janelle Wong directs the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Maryland. Janelle, thank you.

WONG: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Megan Lim
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Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
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