Both the left and the right discriminate against Asian Americans
The dramatic increase in hate crimes against Asian-Americans over the last year has focused attention on ongoing prejudice and discrimination against this minority group. Many on the left understandably blame Donald Trump’s and other right-wing politicians’ irresponsible rhetoric about the Coronavirus crisis, which often blurred the line between blaming the Chinese government (which does indeed deserve condemnation for its actions), and blaming Chinese people more generally. The right also deserves condemnation for its increasing hostility to Asian immigrants and refugees, epitomized by GOP Sen. Ted Cruz’s scuttling of efforts to grant asylum to Hong Kong refugees fleeing Chinese repression, on the specious ground that they are a threat to national security.
For their part, many conservatives have highlighted the growing trend of elite universities and high schools seeking to reduce the percentage of Asian-Americans in their student bodies. This type of anti-Asian discrimination is primarily driven by left-wing public officials and university administrators.
Lost in this partisan war of words is the reality that both the right and left-wing versions of anti-Asian bigotry deserve condemnation. The two rest on similar flawed foundations and perpetrate similar injustices.
Anti-Asian prejudice has a long history in the United States, dating back to such policies as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and numerous state laws discriminating against Asian immigrants. But there is evidence that anti-Asian hate crimes have indeed risen dramatically during the COVID crisis, and that Trump’s rhetoric has played a role in inspiring them. Even more damaging, conservative politicians such as Sen. Ted Cruz have worked to exclude most Chinese refugees, immigrants, and students from the United States, claiming they create security risks. In reality, the risk of espionage by Chinese immigrants and students is negligible, and can be managed by means less draconian than exclusion of many thousands of people in order to block a few spies. Others, such as Trump adviser Steve Bannon, claim Asian tech workers are a menace because they somehow threaten our culture and “civic society.”
Such measures would keep out of the United States refugees fleeing the oppression of the very same Chinese government whose influence conservatives seek to combat. It also reduces the flow of talented migrants and students who make major contributions to American scientific and technological innovation. Forcing these people to remain in China actually benefits the Chinese government (which thus retains control of their talents) at the expense of the United States. During the Cold War, conservatives readily recognized the moral and strategic benefits of welcoming refugees from communist nations. They would do well to recognize that same is true of those fleeing Chinese government oppression today.
On the left, school officials and university administrators have sought to force down the number of Asian students at elite universities and high schools. In Fairfax, Va., officials recently altered admissions policies at the prestigious Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology (“TJ”) for the specific purpose of reducing the percentage of Asian-American students (which currently stands at 73 percent) in order to get a student body where racial representation is “proportional to the population numbers” of Fairfax County, as the principal put it. (Full disclosure: my wife, Alison Somin, is one of the attorneys representing parents of Asian-American students, and others, in a lawsuit challenging the policy). Other officials asserted that having too many Asians is damaging to the school’s “culture.” Democratic state legislator Thomas Keam claimed driving down the percentage of Asian students is needed to counter “unethical ways” Asian-American parents “push their kids into [TJ],” when those parents are “not even going to stay in America.”
The same issue has arisen at elite universities, some of which also seek to reduce the percentage of Asians in the name of promoting demographic balance and increasing representation for other minority groups. An ongoing lawsuit against Harvard University has revealed that the school seeks to reduce the percentage of Asian applicants admitted, in part by giving them lower subjective “personal ratings” compared to white applicants and those from other minority groups — despite the fact that their academic and extracurricular credentials are generally better (the Supreme Court is currently considering whether to take the case, after Harvard prevailed in the lower courts). Yale is the focus of a similar, recently filed case.
In many of these cases, Asian-American students are disfavored not only relative to other racial minorities, but even relative to whites. White applicants will, for example, be the primary beneficiaries of efforts to make TJ’s student population more reflective of the demographics of Fairfax County.
While superficially different, left- and right-wing versions of anti-Asian discrimination actually have much in common. Both rely on crude ethnic generalizations about a highly diverse group. Lumping such different groups as Chinese, Japanese, Indians, and Filipinos into a single category — as school and university administrators routinely do — makes no sense under either the “diversity” or compensatory justice rationales offered to justify racial preferences in education. Among other things, it ignores the fact that many Asian-American groups themselves have historically been victims of discrimination. The same goes for right-wing tendencies to paint Chinese immigrants and students as a threat to our culture and national security — a generalization that ignores the fact that many of them are here precisely because they wish to escape the repressive policies of the Chinese government. In these instances, both right and left judge Asians by the color of their skin and their racial and ethnic ancestry, not by the “content of their character.”
Right and left-wing hostility to Asians also often rests on the fallacy that there is a zero-sum game between the interests of different ethnic groups. If Asians take “too many” jobs or slots at elite educational institutions, it is assumed that other groups necessarily suffer. It is true that Asian-Americans can reduce the welfare of those immediately competing with them for jobs or places at school. Overall, however, the success of Asian-Americans is an enormous benefit to the rest of society.
Asian immigrants, like those from other countries, have made a major contribution to American entrepreneurship, scientific research and innovation. They make disproportionate contributions in all three areas. Asian-American graduates of elite high schools and universities have similarly made enormous contributions to American society. Weakening academic standards in order to get a more demographically “representative” student body would reduce that contribution, without achieving any comparably great benefit in return. Asians and other groups can advance and prosper together if we abjure racial and ethnic discrimination.
Much of today’s discrimination against Asian-Americans is reminiscent of earlier hostility towards Jews. As with Hong Kong refugees today, nativists in the 1930s claimed that Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany must be kept out because they might turn out to be spies for the very regime that oppressed them. Similarly, elite universities of that era sought to keep down the number of Jewish students on the grounds that doing so was necessary to maintain demographic balance and expand opportunities for other groups.
Today, almost everyone regards these anti-Semitic policies as shameful episodes in our history, that should never be repeated. But, when it comes to Asian-Americans, many on both right and left apply that lesson only when it comes to denouncing the misdeeds of their political adversaries. Both would do well apply the same standards to their own side.
Ilya Somin is a professor of law at George Mason University and author of “Free to Move: Foot Voting, Migration and Political Freedom.” His wife, Alison Somin, is one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs in the Thomas Jefferson case, as part of her work for the Pacific Legal Foundation, a public interest law firm. Follow him on Twitter @IlyaSomin.
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.