• Richard Kim

Affirmative Action & The Model Minority

The Supreme Court is currently debating two cases about affirmative action in college admissions. This is the latest test of affirmative action which has been used for over 50 years in college and university admissions to encourage participation from historically marginalized groups and to address the impact of decades of discrimination by university systems. Though these cases are complex and nuanced, the core argument is one brought by an organization claiming to represent Asian Americans who feel that affirmative action policies place Asian American applicants at a disadvantage while favoring Black and Latine applicants. Though the details of each case are complex and nuanced, the general arguments reflect a familiar tool that is commonly used to stifle progress and perpetuate white supremacy.


The “strategy” used here to uphold white supremacy is the use of a vocal minority of Asian Americans (almost 70% of Asian Americans support affirmative action) as a racial wedge. As the name implies, a wedge is a tool used to divide (within or between) racial groups rather than coming together to fight hate and white supremacy. In her new book, Inside Out: The Equity Leader’s Guide to Undoing Institutional Racism, Dr. Hollins writes, “Throughout history, pitting one group against another has been a strategic ploy to keep us fighting one another rather than the systems that are holding us back.”


The claims made in these court cases tap into a particular stereotype of Asian Americans as the Model Minority, a common and effective wedge. In cases like these, the argument seeks to highlight the achievements of Asian Americans when it supports their case, while masking other data that tells a bigger more accurate story.


As an Asian American facilitator on race, I have seen the Model Minority stereotype impact the equity work in organizations as well. The challenges of Asian American staff can sometimes be minimized or not heard. Comparing whose oppression is worse (oppression Olympics) and whose challenges matter more can stifle and progress towards equity.


I have felt what Claude Steele calls stereotype threat, impact the way I show up, especially in predominantly PoC spaces. Will I be accepted? Do my story and experiences matter? Does my pain matter? These are all things I have and continue to fight against to be my full authentic self. As a facilitator I am often in positions where I get to share my story speak on issues but I wonder how many Asian American participants shrink themselves and not participate because of this stereotype.


When we zoom in to any group, we can always find exceptions. Sometimes these exceptions are amplified and become the narrative applied to the whole group. These are stereotypes. White supremacy wins when we internalize these stereotypes. If these stereotypes are left unchecked, we become susceptible to divisive wedge arguments and look with suspicion at those who suffer under the same weight of racism and oppression.


In Inside Out, Dr. Hollins goes on to say that during the Civil Rights Movement in particular, “it was the unity of diverse groups that strengthened us and led to change” echoing the words of activist Fred Hampton who reminds us that the best way to fight against racism is through solidarity.


From social issues like the fight for affirmative action, critical race theory in education, and discussions in immigration to more subtle issues like the Model Minority stereotype, the use of BIPoC vs. PoC, and many others, racial wedges are a threat to equity and justice work.


In this season, it is important to stay vigilant and look out for those who seek to sow seeds of division. Be aware of stereotypes and be willing to call them in to conversation even when they appear in you.


In Solidarity,

Richard Kim

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