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Asian Americans have been on both sides of the affirmative action debate

Ling-Chi Wang stands for a portrait, in San Francisco, on June 28, 2023. The UC Berkeley professor and staunch proponent for affirmative action led campaigns against discrimination in the 1980s. | Jeremy Chen/The Standard

In the 1980s, esteemed Berkeley professor and self-described unrepentant supporter of affirmative action Ling-Chi Wang was on a mission—one that would be cited in a major Supreme Court case ruled on Thursday. 

Wang spent the latter half of the decade trying to prove that Asian American applicants were discriminated against and get the University of California Berkeley to admit it. One example of the unfairness, Wang found, was the lack of credit for Asian languages by the university’s foreign language requirement.

“The university kept denying that they singled students out for discrimination, but they did,” Wang told The Standard. 

Joining Wang’s cause was a group of students who would later become a generation of high-profile Asian American leaders—like author Jeff Chang and San Francisco’s Assemblymember Phil Ting—who rallied under the name Student Coalition for Fair Admissions. They eventually notched a victory in 1989 when university leaders apologized for the practice and vowed to end it. 

Decades later, the contours of the debate over affirmative action have changed.

On Thursday, the Supreme Court ruled that race can’t be a factor in college admissions in higher education, a blow to affirmative action advocates. The case against Harvard—specifically, Harvard College, the university’s undergraduate school—cites arguments Wang made in the 1980s and involves an organization with a name that’s uncannily similar to Student Coalition for Fair Admissions—except this time, Asian Americans are the face of the other side of the debate.

In a case that dates to 2014, Students for Fair Admissions—an anti-affirmative action group led by conservative strategist Edward Blum behind numerous legal challenges—has argued that Harvard’s consideration of race in admissions discriminates against Asian Americans and violates their civil rights. 

“The opinion issued today by the United States Supreme Court marks the beginning of the restoration of the colorblind legal covenant that binds together our multi-racial, multi-ethnic nation,” Blum told Newsweek following Thursday’s decision. “These discriminatory admission practices undermined the integrity of our country’s civil rights laws.”

Blum did not respond to requests for further comment in time for publication.

To Asian Americans involved in past battles for affirmative action, cases like Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard adds to divisions in the community over prioritizing merit and tests. Though 53% of Asian American adults agree affirmative action is a good thing, only 21% say that colleges should consider race and ethnicity for college admissions, according to a June Pew Research Center study

Student organizers from the '80s push for fair admissions reflect in a Indy Lens Storycast episode.

“We won the political battle, but we lost the narrative battle,” said Chang, a journalist and the author of books like We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation. “[Affirmative action opponents] know our history better than a lot of us do.”

Berkeley’s Five-Year Saga

From around 1984, Wang and others began looking at admissions data after hearing frustrations of quotas at top universities, leveling out gains made in Asian American enrollment. He continues to emphasize the distinction that he challenged admissions policies that admitted Asian American students at a lesser rate than white students, not affirmative action efforts that benefited other students of color. 

“It breaks my heart to see this,” Wang said of ongoing divisions. “Minorities pitted against other minorities. There’s no reason for that to happen.” 

Ling-Chi Wang at his home office in San Francisco, on June 28, 2023. | Jeremy Chen/The Standard

All the while, the Student Coalition for Fair Admissions formed to keep the pressure up with protests, press conferences and organizing the student body. After previously adopting a name specifying Asian Americans, the group changed its name to expand the fight for other historically excluded students, Chang said.

The group fostered a generation of Asian American political leaders in California, including Assemblymembers Phil Ting and Al Muratsuchi, and Cecillia Wang, the deputy legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union. Charles Huang, co-creator of the popular game Guitar Hero, is another notable name. 

Organized pressure led to the creation of an Asian American task force on admissions and a California state audit on admissions of white and Asian American students at UC Berkeley. The audit found that the university’s admission rates for Asian Americans decreased from 1981 to 1987, and that they were admitted at lesser rates than white students as the total number of applicants increased.

In 1989, Berkeley’s chancellor publicly apologized for the university’s admission process having a disproportionate impact on Asian American applicants and vowed to fix it.  

What’s Changed?

Because of the “life-changing experience” for the student organizers, Ting went from studying business to pursuing civil rights advocacy, particularly for Asian Americans. Today, Ting and his co-organizers from the 1980s have an increasingly tougher time convincing fellow Asian Americans of why they were fighting for affirmative action.

“Asian Americans were trumpeted as a reason to get rid of affirmative action,” Ting told The Standard. “You have a number of right-wing operatives who’ve really organized—in particular, Chinese Americans and recent immigrants—into really believing that affirmative action does not benefit them.” 

Doug Chan, an attorney and member of the San Francisco Civil Service Commission, is critical of Harvard, agreeing the case is simply about discrimination against Asian American students and race-based affirmative action efforts.

“If you cap Asians, you’re creating an affirmative action program for whites,” Chan said. “The consequences of these policies are that everyone gets affirmative action except for Asian American kids. You should be focused on class-based action and not the blunt tool of race.” 

In California, the Supreme Court decision will ripple out to private universities. Since state voters approved Proposition 206 in 1996, public entities already cannot consider race, ethnicity or sex for employment, contracting or education.

Students protest outside the meeting of the University of California's Board of Regents in favor of Affirmative Action at UC Berkeley, on Nov. 13, 1997. | David Butow/Corbis via Getty Images

It was followed by an immediate drop off in Black and Hispanic students in the University of California system. Despite other efforts for a holistic admissions process, they continue to be underrepresented.

But to advocates today, zooming in on selective institutions like Harvard still misses the point of needing to expand education opportunities everywhere. Wang also sees an ongoing societal battle around merit, akin to changing beauty standards and who got to define them.

“The backlash against affirmative action has been completely twisted around,” Wang said. “Backlash based on merit, as entirely defined by the elites. It’s really kind of disgusting.”