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Excerpted From: Philip Lee, Rejecting Honorary Whiteness: Asian Americans and the Attack on Race-conscious Admissions, 70 Emory Law Journal 1475 (2021) (174 Footnotes) (Full Document)
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Honorary whiteness is not an honorable status for a number of reasons. First, this status is based on a falsehood--the legitimizing myth of the model minority that serves to increase inequality both within and between racial groups. The model minority narrative is not an accurate description of the reality of most Asian Americans. Specifically, the idea that all Asian Americans have achieved financial and educational success is simply not true. At the national level, while Asian Americans are less likely to live in poverty than the general U.S. population (12% v. 15%), tremendous disparities exist within this category with the highest poverty rates existing among subgroups such as the Hmong (28%), Bhutanese (33%), and Burmese (35%). A similar pattern exists with educational attainment. About half of Asian Americans twenty-five and older have a bachelor's degree or more, compared with 30% of all Americans this age; however, these rates are much lower for Asian American subgroups such as Vietnamese (29%), Cambodians (18%), Hmong (17%), Laotians (16%), and Bhutanese (9%).
In addition to these intragroup differences, intergroup disparities in job opportunities and life outcomes can be found between Asian Americans and others. For example, in one study, Asian Americans who "whitened" their resumes--meaning concealed or downplayed racial cues--received far more initial job interviews than those who did not. In this context, markers of whiteness served as an access card for increased employment opportunities. Furthermore, in a different study, professors in various academic disciplines received unsolicited emails from fictional prospective graduate students requesting a ten-minute discussion to learn more about the programs. Almost without exception, the professors responded at a greater rate to emails from white-male-sounding names than those with Asian-sounding names. In this case, whiteness served as an access card to learning about academia directly from a faculty member. Studies have also shown that there exists a "bamboo ceiling" in which Asian American professionals are hindered in reaching the highest levels of leadership within their organizations. Finally, at a time when the former president racialized COVID-19 during the global pandemic by calling it the "China Plague," hate crimes and incidents against Asian Americans rose dramatically. Thus, America's so-called model minority is not immune to racial biases, race-based barriers to advancement, or racist attacks across the country. These significant intragroup disparities as well as intergroup differences become invisible or ignored if Asian Americans are cast as model minorities who have already achieved success.
Given this continuing experience with racial barriers in society, race-conscious admissions should act as a mechanism for the inclusion of Asian Americans who have struggled to succeed, including lower-income Asian Americans and those members of Asian American subgroups who are underrepresented in American higher education. These are some of the very applicants who should be receiving the Bakke plus factor.
Colorblind admissions, however, will not have the same inclusionary effect. Indeed, if all markers of racial identification and experiences are erased from the application process, none of the richness and diversity of the Asian American experience--or other minorities' experiences--can be taken into consideration. Instead, admissions officers and higher education faculty would be asked to pretend that race is irrelevant in deciding whom to admit.
Second, pitting Asian Americans against other minority groups is not in the interests of Asian Americans. Legal scholar Janine Kim argues that Asian Americans have played a "strange and contorted role in the affirmative action debate." Kim notes, "Those who would eliminate affirmative action use the Asian-American population to exemplify how affirmative action disadvantages non-Whites as well as Whites." Contrary to this framing, Asian American interests have been and continue to be aligned with other people of color in the civil rights struggle, and not with those who are trying to stall progress.
Legal scholar Derrick Bell developed a highly influential theory to explain the result in Brown v. Board of Education, which he called the "interest-convergence dilemma"--the idea that civil rights gains are possible only when the interests of the majority converge with the interest of the minority. SFFA's lawsuit against Harvard presents a situation in which some members of the majority are offering an alignment of their interests with those of the model minority in order to pursue an anti-civil rights agenda--couched in the name of "equality"--of eradicating race-conscious admissions in higher education. However, these interests are misaligned and mostly diverge. Education scholars Julie Park and Amy Liu contend that the interests between Asian Americans and white people only converge "[w]hen narrow conceptions of merit are prioritized." So if merit is defined solely on grades and test scores, then a limited convergence emerges. However, legal scholar Jerry Kang reminds us that merit is a relational concept that is connected to the stated goals. Indeed, Kang argues that if one goal of a college or university is to reduce racial prejudice, then racial minority status is a form of merit in relation to this goal. If this is not an explicit goal of most universities, then it should be.
Park and Liu further note the interest divergence when Asian Americans object to negative action--advantaging white applicants over Asian American applicants in a holistic race-conscious admissions process. They also note divergence when Asian American students in higher education receive resistance to their demands for "social and academic programs that would support and foster Asian American students' well-being and identity development, such as cultural resource centers and Asian American studies programs." Therefore, Asian American interests are more strongly aligned with other people of color in the fight to support race-conscious admissions and the procurement of additional resources for minority students once they arrive on campus as part of the continuing struggle against the legacy of white supremacy that is embedded in America's laws and institutions.
The overlapping interests between Asian Americans to fight alongside other people of color against white supremacy has deep historical roots. As mentioned, American law has codified whiteness as something that gives people access to certain privileges and benefits, while the absence of whiteness-- including Asian-ness--has served as a barrier to these very things.
As a telling example, in 1790, Congress passed its first naturalization law, which restricted naturalization to "white people." Thus, according to this law, whiteness was an explicit legal requirement for obtaining official membership to this society, and those who did not possess whiteness were excluded. The whiteness requirement was not explicitly removed from the law until 1952.
In a series of Supreme Court cases before 1952, Asian people in America lost their legal battle for naturalization because the Court ruled that they were not white. During this time, Asian litigants argued in court that they should be allowed to naturalize despite this law. These cases made it clear that Asian Americans continued to be perceived as perpetual foreigners, so no matter what they did or how they lived their lives, they would never be seen as genuine Americans. Even after 1952, Asians were restricted from moving to the U.S. because of stringent race-based quotas on immigration. These restrictions were not fully repealed until 1965.
The overlapping interest between Asian Americans and other people of color can also be seen in the parallel historical exclusion of Asian Americans from educational opportunities. For example, Chinese Americans in California public schools--particularly in San Francisco--were either given no public schooling options or provided with racially segregated schools for many decades. The educational segregation of Asian American school children in California had parallels in other states, such as Mississippi. Given this overlapping history of educational exclusion, Asian Americans have been the direct beneficiaries of Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned prior Supreme Court cases such as Plessy v. Ferguson and Lum v. Rice, and subsequent affirmative action policies in higher education. As an acknowledgement of this shared history of exclusion, the race-conscious admissions program at issue in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke explicitly included Asian American applicants as a disadvantaged group. In the years that Bakke applied (1973 and 1974) to UC Davis, five students out of thirty-two special admits, or 16%, were Asian American.
The benefits of race-conscious admissions for Asian American students are not limited to the past. If done properly, race-conscious admissions should significantly benefit underrepresented Asian American subgroups in the applicant pool. Furthermore, if negative action is remedied in the admissions process, all Asian Americans will directly benefit because they will no longer be subjected to an admissions goal of "preserving the traditional White character of an elite institution." Finally, as noted above, Asian Americans will benefit from increased racial diversity in the classroom in the same ways that all students benefit from it. Therefore, there is a common interest between all racial minority groups--including Asian Americans--in learning about and disrupting the vicious legacy of white supremacy and advocating for policies that do just this--policies including race-conscious admissions.
Third, lauding Asian Americans for being politically disengaged is consistent with a certain problematic response to racism that African American Studies scholar Evelyn Higginbotham has described as "the politics of respectability," which encourages minorities to present to the majority population certain positive characteristics that run counter to the negative stereotypes held by the majority. Higginbotham argues, "The politics of respectability emphasized reform of individual behavior and attitudes both as a goal in itself and as a strategy for reform of the entire structural system of American race relations." This strategy "demanded that every individual in the black community assume responsibility for behavioral self-regulation and self-improvement along moral, educational, and economic lines. The goal was to distance oneself as far as possible from images perpetuated by racist stereotypes."
Higginbotham, in providing a nuanced analysis of this concept, also points out a limitation of adopting it as a strategy to resist racism by observing, "Respectability's emphasis on individual behavior served inevitably to blame blacks for their victimization." More broadly speaking, putting the burden on people of color to prove their worthiness to the dominant society removes any obligation for white people to address their role in sustaining racial privilege or perpetuating structural inequality. People of color are not responsible for their racial subordination. However, the politics of respectability implies otherwise.
On a related point, the politics of respectability adopts the assumption that only individuals who have adopted the dominant society's values are worthy of respect and equal rights. The problem emerges when these values are counter to anti-oppression practices. Scholars Mikaela Pitcan, Alice Marwick, and Danah Boyd emphasize this point by arguing,
Respectability politics reflect neoliberal, white, bourgeois normativity, and provide a frame for understanding subordinated group behavior from a gendered, classed, and racialized perspective. Respectability politics reinforce designations of appropriate or inappropriate behavior rooted in structures of inequality .... In other words, by privileging racist, sexist, and classist values, respectability politics leads members of subordinate groups to internalize them.
According to these scholars, by internalizing the dominant society's values, racial minorities will internalize some of the very things that devalue and degrade them.
Furthermore, the politics of respectability ignores the problem of confirmation bias. Confirmation bias means a tendency to find confirming information relevant and contradictory evidence not relevant. In this way, preexisting beliefs become self-perpetuating and stubbornly resistant to change even in the face of counter evidence. Applying this concept to racial prejudice in society, evidence that racial minorities are respectable and assimilated is likely to be disregarded. Furthermore, if racial inequality is analyzed through a structural lens, then changing white people's individual beliefs and attitudes will do little to remedy the structures in place that perpetuate racial inequality.
Finally, framing Asian Americans as not engaged in the Civil Rights Movement because they were too busy studying or making money ignores a rich history of interlinked activism between Asian Americans and other minority groups. Frequently accompanying such an incomplete picture of Asian Americans in the fight for freedom and civil rights is the use of Asian Americans as a wedge between conservative white activists, such as Edward Blum, and other racial minority groups. This attempt to ignore Asian American history should be soundly rejected.
Like the externally imposed category in South African Apartheid, honorary whiteness in America is also externally imposed by the dominant society, but in some situations, the intended beneficiaries are in a position to reject this status. In 1973, African American tennis legend Arthur Ashe was given a choice to assume honorary whiteness when travelling on a sports diplomacy mission to South Africa, which was under the Apartheid system. Ashe refused this designation and insisted to be identified as a Black man who had the right to speak his mind and move freely when he traveled. He succeeded in his racial self-designation. Ashe wanted to send a message about the importance of his racial identity and his solidarity with other oppressed people in the fight against racial injustice. Asian Americans today are facing a similar choice. They should decline the offer of honorary whiteness and embrace their racial minority status as an expression of empowerment and uplift.
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SFFA is inviting Asian Americans to adopt honorary whiteness by helping this anti-civil rights organization dismantle a race-conscious admissions policy that Asian Americans have been the direct beneficiaries of and that continues to enrich higher education. It is trying to narrowly extend the educational access card to a "good" minority that white people have historically bestowed to a chosen few. It is seeking to create a stronger link between the majority and its model minority at the expense of other racial minority groups. Asian Americans should reject the invitation and advocate for race-conscious admissions as America continues to grapple with the vicious legacy of white supremacy that has been embedded in this nation since its founding.
Professor of Law, David A. Clarke School of Law, University of the District of Columbia; B.A., Duke University, 1996; J.D., Harvard Law School, 2000; Ed.M., Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2012; Ed.D., Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2013.
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