Anyone who follows coverage of racial politics in America will notice how often Asians are elided in opinion surveys, and how often they are portrayed in an incoherent and nakedly instrumental manner. Mother Jones, for instance, emblazoned the headline “Silicon Valley Firms Are Even Whiter and More Male Than You Thought” over a story disclosing that Google’s workforce was 60 percent white (less than the share of white people in the general population) and 34 percent Asian (nearly six times greater than the share of Asians in the general population). Asians aren’t seen as a “real” minority—nobody has them in mind when they speak of minorities, and thus the hiring of many Asians does not count for those in pursuit of “diversity.” This exclusion has been formalized into the bureaucratic euphemism “underrepresented minority,” which means “minorities who are not Asian.”
A lawsuit filed by a white recruiting manager at YouTube last week alleged that the company imposed unlawful quotas for hiring black, Hispanic, and female candidates while ceasing to hire white and Asian males. The quasi-monopolistic tech behemoth is now being sued for discriminating against women, men, conservatives, leftists, and white, and Asian males, even as it is also being sued by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission for failing to turn over data on its diversity numbers. Asian-American advocates took to social media to decry the use of Asian-Americans as a “wedge” against those seeking diversity, yet again adopting the oddly reflexive deference to all such pushes for “diversity” that explicitly intend to increase the number of “underrepresented minorities” at the expense of Asians. Gaze at this pattern of events long enough, and you can glimpse the vulnerability of the system of tense compromises that have structured the American racial compact since the 1990s.
There has always been something faintly ludicrous about the “Asian-American” identity. A survey conducted in 2012 by the Pew Research Institute of the attitudes of the six largest (Indian, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, and Korean) of the more than 30 distinct nationalities collected under the umbrella of the “Asian-American” identity found that fewer than 15 percent of respondents considered themselves to be “Asian-Americans.” All races are, to varying degrees, artificial constructs. The “Asian-American” identity is an artificial construct that scarcely anyone claims.
There is no reason to expect otherwise. The term was coined by a handful of Yale College student activists of Chinese and Japanese descent in the 1960s. As immigrants from Asia began to arrive in large numbers in the 1970s, the term came to encompass successive waves of immigrants from a growing list of countries. It became a bureaucratic designation adopted by the government in 1977. No one chose it for themselves. Others applied it to them.
Such a confected identity, imposed from above by political entrepreneurs and the government, does not mean anything coherent to the vast majority of those to whom it ostensibly applies. Most of those to whom the term applies—70 percent of them—are foreign-born. The nationalities subsumed under the Asian-American rubric do not share a common language, culture, ancestry, or nationality. They share in common only two things: origins that they trace back to the world’s largest continental landmass, and a liminal place in America’s bipolar racial schema.
The Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 ended a system of national-origins quotas that kept America white for four decades. Fewer than a million people of Asian descent lived in America in 1960. They constituted less than one half of 1 percent of the U.S. population. They arrived by means of family-reunification policies known as chain migration. Today, 20 million people of Asian descent constitute nearly 7 percent of the U.S. population and are growing faster than any other group. The Trump administration’s push to end chain migration is a measure that will above all slow the ingress of Asian immigrants into America.
Pro-business conservatives of a libertarian bent have noticed that such a move would be a self-inflicted wound dealt to a country in need of fresh energy to renew its drive for innovation and excellence. Bret Stephens, in a barely tongue-in-cheek provocation calling for the deportation of native-born Americans in favor of immigrants, noted for instance that the vast majority of STEM and engineering majors are immigrants or the children of immigrants. Eighty-three percent of Intel Science Talent Search winners are immigrants, the vast majority of whom hail from Asian countries. He went on to argue that the United States is a country “that belongs first to its newcomers,” which can stand as perhaps the most concise statement of the unstated premise held by our governing classes that summoned the Trumpist insurgency to life.
The same survey that found that 85 percent of “Asian-Americans” do not think of themselves as “Asian-Americans” found that this demographic was better educated and earned a higher income than any other “racial” group in America. They had more confidence in the future and more optimism about their own prospects than did the country as a whole. Asian-Americans were the group least likely to be incarcerated and most likely to own their homes. They had the highest median household income in America.
The survey drew indignant responses from Asian-American activists and civil-rights leaders, who objected to the portrayal of their community as prosperous, striving, and confident. This will only seem comic and perplexing to those who don’t understand the system of racial patronage premised on a narrative of victimization of which the “Asian-American” political project is a part.
This was a narrative that never sat easily with the actual experience of Asian immigrants arriving after 1965. But it was always a key premise of the Asian-American movement that Asians were a racially subordinated group whose primary affiliation should be to the civil-rights movement that fought for black integration and an end to white supremacy. In a country with a white supermajority, Asians would have to ally with the best organized non-white group in America and derive its political power from association with it. “Asian-Americans” love to cite the example of Grace Lee Boggs, who admired Malcolm X and Black Power, and Richard Aoki, who hung out with the Black Panthers (though the evidence seems to suggest he may have been an FBI informant).
The activists and academics who sought to create an Asian-American identity gravitated toward Third World anti-colonial movements and were preoccupied with the white-supremacist history that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 brought to a close. It was this history that was studied and taught in Asian-American studies programs. These activists were the Japanese-American children of those interned by the U.S. government during WWII. They were the Chinese-American remnant that persisted in the United after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, growing almost entirely through illegal immigration in urban enclaves where the gender balance was heavily disproportionate: As late as 1943, the ratio of men to women living in New York City’s Chinatown was 9 to 1. They had been born into an American state whose racially conscious laws had served as a model and inspiration for the legal architects of Nazi Germany. Their politics and scholarship reflected this experience.
The central paradox of the experience of Asian-Americans arriving after 1965 is that the main white-supremacist measure taken against Asians took the form of exclusion from the country altogether. This meant that most Asian-Americans arriving after 1965 have no direct or familial experience of an overtly racist America. Chinese-Americans already had higher incomes than their white counterparts by the 1950s. The formal end of racially discriminatory laws made it possible for many children of Asian immigrants to march directly into the Ivy Leagues and then into elite investment banks, law firms, tech, and consulting firms in a single generation—a rate of assimilation into the upper echelons of American society unlike that experienced by any other group in the history of the world.
In those places, of course, many Asian-Americans experienced the racially-inflected status politics of everyday life placing a limit on their aspirations. All throughout corporate America, Asians who were often the most common employees at the junior level, were the least likely to ascend to upper management. One Asian-American female at a major consulting firm likened the role of Asian-Americans in these corporate settings to “coolies in a white-collar sweatshop.” In the New York Times Magazine, the writer Jay Caspian Kang described Asians as “the loneliest Americans,” going on to evoke a “quiet, unaddressed isolation that comes with knowing that you can be born in this country, excel in its schools and find a comfortable place in its economy and still feel no stake in the national conversation.”
Asian-American activists recently underscored the incoherence of the identity for which they claim to speak by supporting initiatives in state governments across the country calling for the disaggregation of data collection on Asian-Americans. The goal is to highlight the diversity of the nationalities constituting the Asian-American identity. The purpose is to ensure that those subgroups who lag behind the others in their educational attainment and income, such as the Cambodian, Laotians, and the Hmong (many of whom came here as refugees), do not disappear into aggregate figures that show that Asian-Americans are the best-educated, highest-income, and fastest-growing of all racial groups in America. We have poor people too! the activists insist. See? We’re not a model minority after all.
In other words, the Asian-American leadership petitioned the government to cease treating them as the single group that they are not and never were. They aggregated the group into a fictitious identity in the first place (and still purport to represent the interests of 20 million Americans of Asian descent) so as to maximize the numbers they could claim to represent on paper. They then resorted to disaggregating what they had themselves aggregated, so as to have a claim to represent disadvantaged minorities who need civil-rights leaders. All racial categories begin as incoherent fictions, but some remain so forever.
The question of whether Asian-American leaders actually represent any of the people they claim to represent has been put to the test in recent years. The answer is no: at least with respect to one of the largest Asian-American constituencies, a recent cohort of newly arrived Chinese-Americans from the mainland, who seek what the multicultural politics of racial patronage that the Asian-American coalition has embraced specifically forbids.
These new Chinese-Americans want a strictly meritocratic, race-neutral admissions schema to be imposed by the Supreme Court onto the nation’s elite colleges. They want this because it is the schema that will result in higher rates of acceptance for their children. The sharp-elbowed ethnic lobby of Chinese immigrants doesn’t care about the other parts of the multicultural coalition of which the Asian-Americans feel themselves to be a part. It’s not concerned to preserve the tense compromises around affirmative action that black and Hispanic elites have made with white elites to preserve a space for the white scions of privilege to avail themselves of legacy and donor preferences, or the preferences for the country club sports of squash and fencing in exchange for minority set-asides. They don’t want to preserve this consensus because it is this consensus that has kept the Asian-American population at Ivy League colleges frozen in place, even as the Asian-American population has exploded. They want a system in which applicants are rank ordered according to transparent, quantifiable criteria with no racial gerrymandering.
All racial categories begin as incoherent fictions, but some remain so forever.
Wherever this has been done, as in California, which forbade racial preferences in 1996 by referendum, the share of Asian-American admissions leaps, and the share of black and Hispanic admissions plummets. (Interestingly, while the first entering freshman class of black and Hispanic students enrolled in the U.C. system was cut by more than half, the absolute number of these students who earned a degree actually increased.) And yet, the Asian-American population of California voted by a robust majority against the very measure that increased its admission rates into the U.C. system.
That was what Asian-Americans considered to be in their interest in 1996. The latest newcomers no longer do. They instead regard racial preferences as invidious and their own struggle to end them as a civil-rights battle for fair treatment—not on the basis of racial favoritism, but rather in defense of the principle of merit, which is construed narrowly to depend on quantitative measures of achievement such as grades and SATs. They are, in fact, the only racial constituency that embraces this principle, because they are the group that would benefit most from such a system.
This would mean the end of Asian-American deference not just to blacks and Hispanics who are the beneficiaries of affirmative action and other diversity initiatives that focus on “underrepresented minorities,” but also to whites who have their own coded forms of preference that prop up their own incumbency in a spoils systems that favors everyone else over the highest-achievement group. This defection of Chinese-Americans from the Asian-American coalition doesn’t just threaten the Asian-American political project. It also threatens the entire system of racial patronage, in which America is organized into four racial collectives—white, black, Hispanic, and Asian, with the three non-white groups allied together to defend the interests of minorities amidst white hegemony. It presents another possibility: That in pursuing their own narrow ethnic interests, Asians can break up the coalescence of the country into racial blocs and come to occupy a key fulcrum point in the racial politics of America.
Wesley Yang is the author of The Souls of Yellow Folk.