(RNS) — I was in no way surprised by the recent ruling on affirmative action, but I was disappointed. And not just with the Supreme Court justices who ruled in favor of Students for Fair Admissions. As an Asian American scholar of race and religion, my real disappointment was with the Asian American students being represented.
I think it’s fair to say America has had an uneasy relationship with affirmative action. A big reason for this tension is the American Dream. At the heart of this country’s identity is the claim that anyone from anywhere can arrive on American soil, work diligently and, doing so, make a place for themselves and their family. This is a narrative that praises perseverance, hard work and discipline. It is a narrative that claims everyone gets a fair shake, and a person’s success or failure here is predicated upon personal work ethic and innate talent.
We so badly want to believe this story. And affirmative action, by its definition, demanded an honest reckoning with the realities on the ground — that racism’s role in this country, both past and present, has kept the American dream a myth for so many.
But in casting Asian Americans as a hard-working, gifted, nonwhite group unfairly disadvantaged by these policies, the anti-affirmative-action coalition was able to rebrand itself, shifting its efforts from being a struggle over white privilege to being a struggle over justice for all people, including people of color.
Chief Justice John Roberts argues in the 6-3 decision that the problem with Harvard and the University of North Carolina’s approach to admissions is that it treats race in an essentialist manner, as indicative of who a person is. In this sense, the race-conscious admissions process engages in a form of “stereotyping.” It is a kind of institutional racism. Instead, Justice Roberts states that each applicant should be judged “by his or her own merit and essential qualities.”
By privileging individualism and the meritocracy that accompanies it, Justice Roberts is pointing not only to the dominant ideological commitments undergirding the American Dream, but also to parallel commitments that developed within American white evangelicalism under leaders like Billy Graham. More than an emphasis on one’s “personal relationship” with Christ, Graham’s Jesus is marked by a “rugged individualism” that coincides with white evangelicalism’s strong belief in free will and personal responsibility. Each person has been given the freedom to make choices in life, whether that choice be to believe in God or to diligently apply oneself to one’s work.
The story being told about college admissions, then, is one of broken meritocracy — one where those who are most worthy, who have made the right choices, are denied the opportunity they deserve in order to create space for those who have chosen poorly. The story being told is that affirmative action advantages certain nonwhite groups, like the Black and LatinX populations, at the expense of others, in this case, Asian Americans.
This move to obscure the fight for white advancement behind that of a people of color was on display in the Students for Fair Admissions’ case against UNC, which identified both Asian American and white applicants as wronged by the school’s admissions practices. According to Edward Blum, the lawyer representing SFFA, the Supreme Court’s decision is “an outcome that the vast majority of all races and ethnicities will celebrate.” This is, in other words, a win for us all.
However, as Claire Jean Kim, professor of political science and Asian American studies at the University of California, Irvine, recognizes, telling the story of “Asian Americans as a model minority who have made it on their own cultural steam only to be victimized by the ‘reverse discrimination’ of race-conscious programs allows White opinion makers to lambast such programs without appearing racist — or to reassert their racial privileges while abiding by the norms of colorblindness. It allows them to displace what is fundamentally a White–non-White conflict over resources (higher education, jobs, businesses, contracts) onto a proxy skirmish between non-Whites, thus shifting attention away from the exercise of White racial power.”
By identifying Asian Americans as a nonwhite minority harmed by affirmative action, we are made into a buffer used to defend white power against Black encroachment. The consequence being that the energy Asian Americans invest into this fight for justice is cut off from and set at odds with the efforts put forward by other people of color. We become a house divided.
This, of course, is not the first time Asian Americans have been triangulated between white and Black Americans in this manner. Since the end of World War II, with its regrettable internment of Japanese Americans, Asian Americans have been haunted by the model minority myth. The story, however, was not only one of Asian American industriousness and ingenuity. It was also a story of Black laziness and inability. If Asian Americans could face such adversity and thrive, why couldn’t Black Americans?
It is interesting to note that such anti-Black rhetoric did not appear out of thin air. It arose during a time of growing racial pressure, as Black Americans began to more forcefully organize against segregation and discriminatory policies at the close of the war.
Likewise, as the civil rights movement gained traction in the 1960s, this same narrative and problematic racial dynamic resurfaced again. This time the idea of docile, hardworking, law-abiding Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans was used as a counterpoint to Black public protest.
In both cases, Asian Americans were used to delegitimize or undermine the Black struggle for justice. Now, in the wake of the racial reckoning of 2020 and the discontentment marked by the rise of white nationalism and the anti-woke movement, Asian Americans have been used, once again, to undermine Black political demands for change.
How we fight for justice and who we fight alongside is an indication of the way we see the world, whether we believe we are living within an economy of scarcity or God’s economy of abundance. The majority justices have called college admissions a zero-sum game and implied the same about affirmative action. Such thinking assumes we are in competition with others for limited resources and that, if we want to succeed, we must assert our own interest over the interests of others. It assumes we are living within an economy of scarcity with its limited potential for any meaningful realization of justice. From this perspective, it makes sense for Asian Americans like those represented by SFFA to fight for their own advantage, real or perceived, at the expense of Black and brown Americans.
However, both history and religion suggest otherwise. The past has shown us that substantive change is possible, but it is not found in fighting over scraps within a broken, unjust system nor in fighting only for ourselves. True justice cannot be won through racially siloed efforts. Real progress is achieved by joining in solidarity with others to reimagine, dream and strive to bring an altogether different world into existence. As we saw with the civil rights movement and the early church alike, meaningful change is born not out of selfish concern or siloed efforts, but out of a transgressive commitment to others and a steadfast belief in the possibility of abundance.
(Jessica Wai-Fong Wong is an associate professor of systematic theology at Azusa Pacific University and an ordained ruling elder in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She is the author of “Disordered: The Holy Icon and Racial Myths” (Baylor University Press, 2021) and co-author of the curriculum “Lamenting Racism: A Christian Response to Racial Injustice” (MennoMedia, 2021). The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)