Monday, March 17, 2014

An Asian-American Civil War

SCA 5 And Strategic Thinking

The world of Asian-America recently erupted into an epic ideological conflict over Californian aspirations to allow state schools to reintroduce racial criteria (known as SAC5) in their admissions processes. The plans have caused a sharp divide within Asian-America - those who oppose the legislation cite fears that Asian enrollment would be unfairly curtailed as colleges strive for quotas that reflect the balance of the general population, those who support the legislation cite social justice and diversity considerations.

In this post I will not argue for or against the legislation, suffice it to say that whilst I agree that promoting social justice and increasing genuine diversity are the way forward for a racially complex America, I find the idea of affirmative action as advocated by SAC 5 as a means to remedy these issues to be hopelessly insufficient. What interests me about this subject are my observations on the Asian-American commentaries and advocacy for the legislation.

What I find remarkable is that the Asian-American voice on this issue is simultaneously loud but also strangely drowned out and lost in the bigger picture of the debate. It is hard to deny that Asians on both sides of the debate are being extremely vocal about their beliefs, but what seems to be lacking is an imaginative and creative approach to solving the underlying issues that are retarding social justice that contribute to the lack of diversity not just in college admissions, but also in many areas of the socio-economic sphere.

Whilst Asian advocates have been at the forefront of cheerleading for the legislation, I have notice a glaring lack of Asian advocates exploring alternative, ideas for social justice beyond merely relaying the standard tropes of liberal ideology. I am yet to see Asian advocates for social justice who do support the notion of affirmative action in college admissions question whether it actually will have the effect of alleviating the injustices of long-term racialized poverty amongst ethnic minorities. I have doubts, and I am surprised that even those who are passionate about affirmative action seem disinclined to explore the subject beyond what is presented by "higher ups" in the liberal/conservative ideological arena. This is sad because it means that Asians are not actually taking leadership in shaping an Asian-American contribution to the quagmire of racial justice. We are not creating ideological road maps that challenge prevailing wisdoms about how to go about advancing our and other's aspirations for diversity and equality. In short, we are placing ourselves in positions of being mere messengers of other people's and group's ideas.

Much is said about the need for Asian-Americans to step out of the conscientiousness numbing coddling of the model minority stereotype and make a difference in the advancement of racial justice, but in the absence of an innovative road map, where does the inspiration come from that will motivate us to do just that? The conservative/liberal umbrellas under which ideological battles are fought seems to have major holes over the areas where Asians are standing, and many Asians feel that they are invisible in this dichotomy, and I tend to agree. But the answer to invisibility is not to merely shout louder and become the most aggressive cheerleader, but rather to become those who shape the ideological landscape.

One way to think about it is to consider how almost to a person, Asian-Americans will agree that the lack of culturally appropriate Asian images and positive role-models creates problems of identity and sense of exclusion. Likewise, my sense is that in the realm of political action we lack meaningful role models whose approach is original and creative and who inspires ideological identification amongst Asian-Americans. What I mean by this is that - echoing the identity conflicts of Asian-America - there has been a failure of advocates to model an Asian-American political identity that reflects our unique experiences as a minority whose cultures or civilization are viewed as implicitly incompatible, or in existential conflict, with the west. It is almost as though Asian advocates want to parachute Asian faces into the middle of America's political and social landscape without first establishing the unique and specific experiences of Asian-Americans as an autonomous and worthy aspect of that landscape.

What seems to have been the preferred strategy is to act as "persuaders" for the big issues of the day as opposed to the shapers of those issues. Some might suggest that relatively low numbers of Asians makes such an approach practical, but creating original avenues for advocacy does not require large numbers of people - it only requires people willing to question political orthodoxies and look for alternative ways to solve them.

The topical issue of affirmative action in college admissions offers us a clear example of this. At the root of the conflict between the two warring sides is the issue of how the reintroduction of race as part of the admission criteria will affect Asian enrollment. Given the fact of Asian invisibility and general social resentment or indifference towards Asian achievement in American society, the fears that Asians will be unfairly negatively affected by SAC5 in favour of more "likeable" and politically influential minority groups whose achievements are more likely to bolster liberal political careers, are legitimate ones.

Some responses to these concerns have been disappointing to say the least. In what amounts to a smearing tactic, opponents of SAC5 are being labelled as "haters" purveying "lies" by Asian advocates as this piece in the very widely read AngryAsianMan blog (although not written by him) shows. This is sad in a number of ways. Firstly, it is a very childish approach to a very serious problem - "haters"? Really? The only thing missing from the piece is to gloat about "PWNING" the "haters". Secondly, this piece shows a lack of sophistication in Asian-American discourse, and that Asian advocacy also produces second-rate polemics to accompany its lack of creativity.

In conclusion, as I suggested here, people are motivated by inspiration, but, sadly, it seems as though this ability to inspire is what is lacking amongst Asian advocates for social justice. Asian-Americans are often criticized for their supposed political apathy, but the debate over SAC5 has really opened my eyes, and the problem is not that Asians are implicitly placid in politics - that is merely a racist stereotype. Just observe the months of political involvement and protesting in Thailand, labor unrest in Cambodia, rebellions in Burma, and the almost constant protesting in China, as well as the ubiquitous anti-corruption protesting in the Philippines. Asians are not politically apathetic and are quite willing to fight for what they believe in even to the point of dying for their beliefs.

This can only mean that supposed Asian-American political apathy is not the consequence of specific innate racial and cultural qualities of Asian people, but is more likely the result of poor and uninspiring leadership from Asian-American advocates, who sometimes seem to advocate for Asians by ignoring their concerns. Given that proponents of SAC5 are vague in what it entails - at one and the same time it will ensure that college populations are more representative of the demographics of the state, but somehow won't require quotas, the amendment will use race as one of the admissions factors, without telling us what someone's race tells us about their qualities, and most of all, it doesn't tell us how the legislation will improve inter-generational poverty (which is the point of affirmative action) - it is no surprise that Asian-Americans are looking uninspired by the whole idea.


  1. Those are good points. Many of the opponents of SCA5 would have done better to express their own ideas and reasons in their own words to oppose it. The language used by much of the Asian-American opposition I have seen so far contains so much typical white people rhetoric that it is unclear exactly what the reasons are for their position. White influence was definitely a factor, as seen in the example of Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff (white person) suggesting to a crowd of Asian-Americans that their numbers will go down -- then receiving applause and praise from them. He had them eating out of his hand. I suspect from Bob Huff's instigation that he was deliberately being deceptive and practicing racism.

    The people on both sides need to add their own words to express their position.

    1. Rashnu

      It seems to me that the wording is too vague - perhaps deliberately so - for anyone to accurately gauge what effects it might have, and how it will affect the various groups. In that light, it is not surprising that much of the debate is characterized by fearful "what ifs".

  2. Asian Americans have gone from Model Minority Republicans to Model Minority Democrats.

    I think what's happening is that a lot of Asian Americans who've "gotten theirs" (i.e. gone to good schools) are now far more invested in appealing to their politely liberal peers than to the faceless mass of Asian Americans who will be systematically counted out mainly due to race in college admissions.

    1. C.J Baakus

      That's a good point, the debate has really highlighted the gulf in aspiration between the masses and Asian social justice activists.