Media Inaccurately Portrays Asian American Views on Affirmative Action

This commentary originally appeared on the Daily Bruin on May 21, 2015.

By Arthur Wang, UCLA

Affirmative action is back, and Asian Americans are angry – at least, that’s what the media wants you to believe.

The vast majority of news networks and websites around the country immediately jumped on discussing the discrimination complaint filed with the federal government by 64 Asian American organizations Friday. The complaint calls for an investigation of alleged race-based discrimination at Harvard University, citing the lack of Asian enrollment growth during the last decade despite a dramatic increase in applications during the same time period.

The suit comes on the heels and largely repeats the sentiments of a pair of lawsuits filed November against Harvard and the University of North Carolina by the Project on Fair Representation, detailing similar allegations.

As a Chinese American myself, it’s too bad that the media at large has chosen to reproduce an inaccurate narrative of Asian American attitudes toward higher education and a contentious public policy, without considering the complex demographic circumstances of Asian America or surveying what the group as a whole actually thinks about affirmative action.

The media has also failed to scrutinize the status of the 64 groups comprising the “Coalition of Asian-American Associations” that jointly filed the complaint. Of all the 20-plus outlets that decided to discuss the complaint, only MSNBC and the Chronicle of Higher Education bothered to provide a link to the actual text of the complaint.

This is critical because this allows readers to see what, exactly, the complainant groups are. Newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal mention that the cosigned groups include “Chinese, Indian, Korean and Pakistani organizations.”

But taking a look at the list makes it clear that the coalition is a poor representation of Asian American interests, does not include many well-established Asian American advocacy and rights groups and does not include groups that represent southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders. A vast majority of the organizations is explicitly pertinent to Chinese or East Asian subgroups. Fewer than 10 of the groups are pertinent to non-Chinese. Even worse, a brief search for some of these groups on the Internet yields little to no information detailing their advocacy work or activities, as many appear to be created recently by immigrant groups.

Where is the presence of the biggest Asian American advocacy groups, such as the legal and civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice, the Organization of Chinese Americans and API Equality? They cosigned a letter by more than 135 Asian American groups reaffirming their support for affirmative action, with substantial representation from major East Asian, South Asian, Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander organizations.

On the whole, Asian Americans in California have been, and remain, supporters of affirmative action. According to the National Asian American Survey, a nonpartisan polling project by UC Riverside professor Karthick Ramakrishnan, 61 percent of Asian Americans in the state voted against Proposition 209, which banned the consideration of race in higher education and public employment. In addition, a 2014 field poll of voters found 69 percent of Asian Americans support affirmative action. The media at large, however, has done little to report on or explicate this sort of coverage, skewing public perception of the group’s beliefs by choosing instead to focus on the opposition, by and large comprised of immigrant Chinese.

That only BuzzFeed, of all news outlets, has discussed the broad-based coalition that supports affirmative action so far is a telling sign of how unbalanced the public discourse on the policy is with regard to Asian Americans. Furthermore, much of the coverage ignores the incredible diversity within the “Asian” umbrella category. I may not representAsian Americans by any means, but writing as a researcher and a journalist, we should exercise caution in interpreting mainstream media coverage of what “the Asians” think about any given issue.