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Excerpted From: Sharon S. Lee, The De-minoritization of Asian Americans: A Historical Examination of the Representations of Asian Americans in Affirmative Action Admissions Policies at the University of California, 15 Asian American Law Journal 129 (May 2008) (112 Footnotes) (Full Document)


SharonLeeIn today's higher education admissions policies, Asian Americans have ceased to be “minorities” because they are no longer underrepresented. In affirmative action policy debates, the statistical representation of racially defined groups, such as Asian Americans, in social institutions has served as a proxy for discrimination. Indeed, the statistically robust presence of Asian Americans in higher education is no secret. In 2000, for example, Asian and Pacific Islander Americans constituted 5.9% of college and university students, as compared to only 4% of the United States population. As such, Asian Americans' alleged overrepresentation in higher education has served as grounds for excluding them from affirmative action programs that address the effects of past and persistent racial discrimination.

This article examines the historical process by which Asian Americans have been removed from minority status--de-minoritized--at the University of California (“UC”). Because of the decentralized structure of higher education in the United States, it is difficult to generalize across institutions, as each develops policies from its own historical, social, and political context. In light of this consideration, the UC system is an apt focal point for the present examination because California is home to significant numbers of Asian Americans and has also been the site of critical affirmative action developments and controversies about Asian American admissions.

An examination of policy shifts at UC reveals how Asian Americans have been “racialized” over time, through an unstable and contested process that began with the establishment of Asian Americans' minority status in the 1960s and its removal in the 1980s. Of particular note is the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case, in which Asian Americans' minority status was scrutinized. While some legal scholars interpret Justice Powell's opinion as embodying judicial indifference toward Asian Americans in the affirmative action discussion, this article considers the surrounding historical and sociopolitical context--including activist responses from the Asian American community--and places the Bakke case at the center of an important struggle over the issue of Asian Americans' minority status. A useful lens for examining these historical shifts is the notion of representation. In the present discussion, two senses of representation are important: the statistical representation of Asian Americans in higher education and the ideological representation of Asian Americans as a model minority. These two senses of representation have interacted and become intertwined in the discourse of attorneys, university administrators, and judicial authorities, a discourse that has effectively de-minoritized Asian American students.

Meanwhile, Asian American students, faculty, and community members have contested these representations. Because social and ideological constructions of Asian Americans--as those of all minority groups--evolve and are perennially contested, it is always possible to reshape existing representations. Thus, with an eye to facilitating positive developments in public and professional discourses, I conclude this essay by critiquing, first, the use of parity measures as proof that discrimination against Asian Americans has ended, and second, the deployment of “model minority” discourse as a way to explain Asian American progress. My aim in so doing is to join the larger movement that challenges stereotypical assumptions and pushes for newer, more accurate means of understanding Asian American experiences.

[. . .]

As affirmative action policies have changed over time, the statistical and ideological representations of Asian Americans have shifted. Asian Americans were treated as a protected minority group when their numerical presence was less pronounced in academic and professional spheres. However, as their proportional representation in these spheres increased, Asian Americans became de-minoritized in university policies and in the surrounding public discourse. Simultaneously, ideologically driven “model minority” rhetoric cast Asian Americans as a monolithic group of diligent citizens who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps and who had become innocent casualties of affirmative action. Such rhetoric persists in today's legal and political discourse.

This article has surveyed the historical process of Asian American de-minoritization in the context of affirmative action policy history. Beginning in the late 1970s, the era of Bakke, a problematic focus on parity, numerically defined, promoted the redefinition of Asian Americans as no longer disadvantaged. This led to admissions policy changes that negatively affected Asian Americans through the 1980s. As opponents of affirmative action gained political momentum in the 1990s, they cast Asian Americans as victims of race-conscious policies, reifying the notion of Asian Americans as non-minorities who were excluded and thus harmed by minority programs.

Concerned Asian American groups have maintained that Asian Americans are indeed minorities whose historical experiences include decades of racial discrimination and whose ongoing experiences of racial discrimination cannot be fully captured in quantitative terms. Challenging the standard statistical and ideological rationales for de-minoritizing Asian Americans, these advocates have argued that issues of Asian American representation are complex and not reducible to numerical parity measures. For one thing, Asian American communities are diverse, and policy makers must obtain and consider data disaggregated by sub-groups. More importantly, even for “at-parity” (or “over-parity”) Asian American groups, proportional representation does not necessarily signify fully equitable integration in educational or other social institutions. To maintain the same narrow focus on parity that administrative and legal decision makers have exhibited, then, would be to preclude the adequate treatment of Asian American needs and interests, both in the affirmative action debate and in the broader public discourse.

Scholars, policymakers, university administrators, and judicial officials must not simply equate “minority status” with “statistical underrepresentation.” Although underrepresentation is a useful starting measure, a single-minded quest for numerical parity masks the complexities of race and racialization as experienced by Asian Americans. Granted, in affirmative action debates--as in any policy debate--political pressures and budget constraints push the focus toward quantifiable “bottom line” outcomes. However, if decision makers and their constituents can gain an informed appreciation of Asian American experiences, the public discourse may be enriched by the reintroduction of Asian Americans into the minority discussion. When this occurs and the diverse experiences of Asian American communities are recognized, we may begin collectively to clear the distorted representations that have fueled the de-minoritization of Asian Americans.

Ph.D. candidate, Department of Educational Policy Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. M.A., 1997, University of Wisconsin-Madison; B.A., 1994, Oberlin College.

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