According to the Pew Research Center, the U.S. Asian Population grew 72% from 2000 to 2015, making us the fastest growing minority ethnic group in America. By 2055 Asian Americans are projected to become the largest immigrant group in the country. We’ve become a key demographic in political elections, meaning our vote matters more than ever and both Republicans and Democrats have picked up on this fact.
Most recently, Asian Americans have decided to take on the Affirmative Action debate with a lawsuit against Harvard University, accusing them of unfairly discriminating against Asian students during the admissions process. And even within the Asian American communities, it appears we just can’t come to an agreement whether this is a positive or negative way to make our mark in history.
The grievances of both sides to this argument are understandable, but this discussion is far from groundbreaking. In fact it has come up during nearly every election period within the past several decades with an L.A. Times article dating all the way back to 1996. To fully understand the issue clouding Affirmative Action, it’s important to first understand the nature of the wedge theory and the model minority myth.
The wedge theory is the idea that Asian Americans are used as political pawns to drive a wedge between Asian communities and other people of color while maintaining white dominance in politics. When Asian Americans are portrayed as the “good” minorities, it becomes easy to victim blame Black and Hispanic Americans for their struggles whilst simultaneously silencing Asians by praising them for being self-reliant and advancing the social ladder without protesting.
The model minority myth attributes the Asian American success story with hard work without government support and complaints — a subtle way to show disapproval towards the civil rights protests still occurring today. But of course, this generalization does not show the full picture of the Asian American history. Nathaniel Hilger, an economist at Brown University, has argued that the secret to the Asian success was the shift in image from threatening and foreign to law-abiding citizens who kept their heads down — simply put, America became slightly less racist towards Asian immigrants during the 1950s, allowing us room to grow.
According to historian Ellen Wu in the 1940s, many ethnic minority groups in America tried to portray themselves as model citizens in an attempt to combat racist stereotypes, not just Asian Americans. And although African Americans made similar appeals, the political climate of the times only allowed for Asian voices to be heard. White politicians saw this as an opportunity to gain allies during the Cold War period while avoiding accusations of racial discrimination on the international stage.
The media has criticized the recent lawsuit involving Harvard as another example of this wedge theory. In this case, they believe right-wing politicians are using Asian Americans to dismantle Affirmative Action which would allow them to shut out underprivileged and underrepresented minorities from access to elite higher education. These critics have also warned about possible negative repercussions — a study from University of Miami in 2013 showed that white adults who supported the meritorious system still viewed Asian American applicants as threats and were likely to change their definition of merit to limit Asian American access along with other minorities.
So is this outpouring support of Asian Americans from Republicans and the Trump administration for the genuine concert towards racial equality in the college admissions process and respect towards Asian communities? Or have we fallen prey to becoming political pawns?
Asian Americans have always walked a very fine line between the hated minority and the useful prop. On this Election Day, let’s consider creating a new dialogue for ourselves — one that is neither a threat nor a prop but one that accurately establishes our status in U.S. societies as the fastest growing minority ethnic group in America.