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Why have Chinese immigrants become the face of WA's affirmative-action wars?

For many Asian Americans, that's a frustrating development.

Anti-affirmative action activists

Opponents of an affirmative action initiative march and chant "Shame on you!" outside the Senate chambers Sunday, April 28, 2019, in Olympia, Wash. The initiative is back on the ballot this November. (Rachel La Corte/AP)

When Ben Henry arrived in Olympia for a legislative hearing on affirmative action last April, he was prepared for a unique experience.   

He just didn’t know how unique.

A longtime advocate for Asian Americans, especially on progressive causes, Henry and his allies were aware that something different seemed to be gathering on the horizon. A group of recent Chinese immigrants had been a sustained presence throughout the 2019 Washington legislative session. Before that, the group had mostly agitated for educational issues in the Bellevue area.

When Henry arrived to testify at a hearing for Initiative 1000, the so-called “affirmative-action initiative,” he realized he was walking into a buzz saw. The group of people he encountered that day in Olympia, all clad in white T-shirts, is known more widely as Washington Asians for Equality. The group is largely responsible for putting affirmative action back on the ballot this November.

“It makes me sad,” Henry said recently over coffee on Beacon Hill, “that the opposition to affirmative action has an Asian face.”

To the area’s historically Asian American left, this is a startling, almost “out-of-nowhere” development, as Henry put it. But neither he nor his colleagues should feel especially caught off guard. This phenomenon has been poking its head up around the country, surprising Asian American activists elsewhere, too. It has even led some conservative media to declare a new force in American politics: “The Rise of the Chinese American Right” is how one National Review headline put it.

The emergence of Chinese immigrants as willing combatants in the race wars, the left’s argument goes, allows the usual conservative suspects to employ them as proxies. This, in turn, allows the opposition that views affirmative action as racist “line cutting” to be seen as more than just a white thing.

Henry has made similar arguments. When he was interim executive director of Asian Pacific Islander Americans for Civic Empowerment, he pushed the notion that conservatives were using Asian Americans to divide the progressive movement. “We are not your wedge,” went the APACE slogan.

These characterizations by progressives are grossly misleading, said Kan Qiu, member of Washington Asian Americans for Equality and the primary sponsor of the effort to undo the affirmative-action initiative, which the state Legislature passed last April.

Qiu immigrated from China in 1992, then moved to this area, lured by Microsoft, in 1995. His only dalliance with political protest in China was big-time: Tiananmen Square in 1989. He came to the U.S. for the promise of more freedom of expression. Outside of local affairs in Bellevue, where he lives, Qiu found his larger lightning rod issue in an earlier attempt to repeal I-200, the so-called “anti-affirmative-action initiative” that I-1000 eventually amended.

“The reason I came here is because people in America are treated equally,” Qiu said in a telephone interview. “If we are seeing people segregated or discriminated against, based on race and skin color, that’s not right. We are not against affirmative action — we are against preferential treatment based on race.”

What I gathered from my conversation with Qiu, bolstered by a review of mostly scholarly writing on Asian American social and political dynamics, is that he and other recent Chinese immigrants do not grasp the nuance of racial history in this country. It’s not their fault. It simply isn’t their lived experience.

As sociologists Jennifer Lee of Columbia University and Van Tran of the City University of New York recently wrote: “As nonwhites, Asians have endured immigration restrictions, legal exclusion from U.S. citizenship, anti-Asian hostility, violence, prejudice and even internment. But as non-Blacks, Asians have escaped centuries of slavery, the legal codification of racial inferiority, the cumulative and intergenerational disadvantages that blacks have endured as a result.”

While Japanese Americans like myself were rounded up and imprisoned during World War II, their path back to mainstream U.S. society was paved by assimilation. The incarceration experience reinforced conformity in a culture that already stresses certain social notions like “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down.” Compliance is in our DNA.

Similar experiences led many Japanese Americans, and members of other Asian American communities, to sympathize with remedies the government enacted to counter acts of evil committed by previous generations. Those ranged from redress for Japanese incarceration to the Civil Rights Act in response to Jim Crow. We also, over time, developed a tacit understanding of America’s racial hierarchy. So when people like Qiu ask, “How long does affirmative action have to last?,” we might concede that time is up for, say, Japanese Americans. But some 40 years ago it still seemed appropriate to seek racially conscious admission as an Asian American to an Ivy League school, as I did at Columbia. We recognize that the race-equity game is played on a continuum.

Still, it must be overwhelmingly intoxicating to come from a repressive regime in China to a place where everyone in theory is treated the same. Qiu says he opposes any government-sanctioned preferences, which are practiced both in communist China, based on class and history, and in the democratic United States, based on race. “When government is enforcing preferences, that’s going to be dividing people,” he said.

That view misses a key point. Firing a starter’s pistol when several contestants are held yards behind the starting line does not make for a fair race. People conflate equity with equality all the time. It also doesn’t help that American progressives generally are too cowardly to own up that real equity requires tools such as quotas and preferential treatment to level the racial playing field.

In their research, sociologists Lee and Tran found that the main split in Asian American support for affirmative action was generational. In other words, more recent Asian immigrants were least likely to support affirmative action. Asian Americans born in the U.S., with both parents also born here, were three times more likely to support affirmative action. Another study found that, of the five largest Asian American ethnic groups (Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese and Korean), Chinese Americans were the least likely to support affirmative action.

Seen through the conservative framing of “line cutting,” affirmative action can rankle the streak of meritocracy that runs through most Asian cultures. This streak runs especially strong in people whose social mobility was greatly influenced by performance in centralized testing, as it was in China. You could hear it in some of the I-1000 testimony by Qiu’s ranks, including references to “institutionalized bigotry” and “Africans” stealing their children’s’ well-earned places in schools.

As Lee and Tran point out, some Asian immigrants can “feel like they are both victims of discrimination and victims of affirmative action who are penalized for their race while Blacks and other (people of color) are rewarded for theirs.”

From the point of view of “regular people,” as Qiu calls his movement’s followers, much of the protective attitudes expressed in the testimonies can be seen as derivatives of Tiger parenting. As a son and son-in-law of immigrants, I also detect sure signs of literalism in the use of a second language. So Black becomes “African American” becomes “African.” Or hearing the word “equal,” as it’s thrown around in reference to our national ideals, carries no sense of relativity; it means exact equality.

The heavily immigrant bent of Asian Americans, in general, promises to lend some hardening of the attitudes reflected by the “new” Chinese Americans. In addition to being the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the U.S., a Pew Research Center study entitled “The Rise of Asian Americans” found that most Asian Americans (74% of adults) were born outside the U.S. and are strongly wedded to their country of origin (62%), identifying themselves by where they’re from, rather than as American or Asian American.

Activists like Henry can understand and accept all of this. What throws him and his colleagues is the vehemence with which this emerging political force can attack or defend a position. The Washington Asian Americans for Equality account tweeted a photo of an APACE employee “cutting in line” during the I-1000 testimonies. It even derided Henry, who is from Hawaii and is half Korean, calling him “a white man” who claims “to know Asians better than Asians themselves.” The group also falsely claimed on its website that the Chinatown-International District Coalition opposed I-1000, a post it eventually took down after public disavowals by the coalition.

Opponents have called Qiu’s group “shady” and “aggressive,” which Qiu in turn calls “insulting.” His movement, he stresses, is motivated and “not afraid to speak up.” Henry marvels at the group’s ability to consistently turn out numbers. Qiu chalks this up to “an issue striking the hearts of everybody. It’s not like we’re very skillful.”

“There’s part of me that watches them and kind of admires what they do,” Henry said, with a touch of genuine humility. “They are new to this country and could never do stuff like this in China. The fact that they can practice democracy is good to see. I just wish their message was more productive. We can’t tell them how to think. We have to show them another way forward.”

There is growing dread that the progressives will lose the referendum battle this November. And this could mean the coalescing of an operation emboldened by victory and already wrapped in the tentacles of a more national movement. Qiu says that his organization is receiving meaningful support from other parts of the country; he also says that this fight will endure well past November. What we’re seeing here in Washington state could be just the beginning of a political storm that huffs and puffs into 2020.

Back in the dark recesses of the Asian American progressive memory banks is a late and unwelcomed surprise appearance: a considerable “Chinese for Trump” movement that materialized in Los Angeles, just in time for the 2016 elections.

“This is bigger than one campaign,” Henry said of the cultural and political clash between Asian Americans over affirmative action in Washington state. “We’re on this. We’re well aware this is happening.”

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Why have Chinese immigrants become the face of WA's affirmative-action wars?

About the Authors & Contributors

Glenn Nelson

Glenn Nelson is a Japanese American columnist covering race and equity in the Pacific Northwest.