“Is Harvard Unfair to Asian-Americans?” The New York Times headline made me do a double take.
The date was November 25, 2014. The op-ed responded to a lawsuit filed the previous week by a group called Project for Fair Representation. The organization alleged that the university’s objective of racial “balancing” unfairly discriminated against high-achieving applicants of Asian ancestry.
This was same day that a St. Louis County grand jury decided not to indict police officer Darren Wilson (white) for the shooting death of 18-year-old Michael Brown (black). The verdict impelled distraught protests by area residents in the streets of Ferguson, Missouri—Brown’s home and the scene of his murder. Local law enforcement, in turn, answered with disturbingly militarized responses.
Something about the juxtaposition of Ivy League admissions and police violence felt awfully strange. A question of access to elite privilege seemed almost frivolous next to a literal and terrifying matter of life and death. It was as if the two issues did not reside in the same political universe. Writer Nicole Chung captured my uneasiness when she tweeted:
Yet as a historian, it is precisely this type of disconnect that has propelled me to launch a new book project about Asian Americans and race in the United States since the 1960s. I see this as a messy, complicated story with unpredictable fluctuations and fault lines. For instance, Boston city officials designated children of Chinese ancestry as “white” for the purposes of school desegregation in 1966. Five years later, Newsweek declared Southern California’s Japanese Americans to be “Outwhiting the Whites”—suggesting both admiration and suspicion. Today, journalists and pundits admire Indian American spelling bee champions while federal authorities profile their community members as “terrorists.”
I’m beginning with questions that have long puzzled me: Why have Asians generally not been considered “underrepresented” even as they have been officially recognized as a racial minority group? And what have been the wider consequences of this omission, this commonsense that Asian Americans are sort of, but not really, “minorities” in the same ways as blacks, Latinos, and Native peoples? I suspect that “majority” and “minority” might ultimately be insufficient categories for comprehending the racial dynamics of the late 20th century and early 21st.
By tracking the beliefs, policies, and social interactions that have placed Asians in a kind of racial limbo, my goal is to generate novel perspectives on American life in recent times. I’m intrigued by major developments that have characterized the past half-century: the birth of affirmative action, the mobilization of the right, large-scale immigration from Asia, and U.S.-Asia marketplace competition.
Exploring these changes with Asian Americans at the center has great potential for making sense of the contradictions between growing racial inclusion and the spread of conservatism in U.S. political culture. It can also reveal the deep connections between domestic interactions and global currents, such as the impact of China’s economic muscle on perceptions and treatment of Asians in the United States as racial threats.
In May, some 60 Asian American groups converged to file their own complaint with the Department of Justice and the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, charging Harvard with discrimination against Asian applicants. They also argued that race should be eliminated as a factor in college admissions. Then 130 other Asian American groups pushed back, refuting the grievance and defending affirmative action. Media outlets across the ideological spectrum—from Think Progress to Buzzfeed to National Review—reported on the controversy. There is much interest—and much at stake.
So “Is Harvard Unfair to Asian-Americans?” In the end, I’m less interested in the answer to this query than its significance as a lightning rod for debate. As I head into the archives, I’ll bet that the peculiarities of this firestorm will teach us much about the fundamental importance of Asian Americans and Asia to the reconfiguration of the nation’s racial order and political alignments in the post-civil rights era.