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A Washington, D.C., rally held the day before the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the Students for Fair Admissions cases featured several giants of the anti-affirmative action movement, from Ward Connerly (the businessman and activist behind a ballot measure banning the use of race in public-university admissions in California) to Edward Blum (the force behind the current cases). Having long been inspired by Connerly and Blum’s activism, I applauded, along with the rest of the crowd, when each finished delivering his address. But what I remember best from that late-October day were the speeches given in between their talks by immigrant Asian-American parents and their children—members of the Asian American Coalition for Education, the group organizing the rally.
The coalition is a national alliance of more than 300 organizations devoted to outlawing racial preferences in K-12 and higher education admissions, a policy that has been shown to penalize Asian-American applicants. As the coalition notes in an amicus brief filed in support of Students for Fair Admissions, its member-organizations are not made up of “professional ‘civil rights advocates’” who “get funding from large corporations or multibillion dollar foundations,” but rather of “Asian-American community leaders, business leaders, and, most importantly, parents . . . forced to become civil rights advocates to expose, stop, and prevent the discrimination against their children that the ‘professionals’ ignore, downplay, and facilitate.”
The alliance counts among its members nonprofits such as the American Chinese Culinary Foundation, American Society of Engineers of Indian Origin, Asian Parents for Educational Excellence, Korean American Chamber of Commerce of San Diego County, and Pakistani American Volunteers. Educational organizations include Denver Chinese School, CodingKids, Palm Beach Chinese Academy, and Yuyue Chinese Tutoring LLC. And finally, a few miscellaneous entities, such as the Law Offices of Michael L. Wu LLC, Wen’s Pearls, and Tift Gymnastics, also participate.
The president and founder of the coalition is a Florida-based businessman and author named Yukong Zhao, who emigrated to the U.S. from China in 1992. Zhao told the Wall Street Journal in a 2015 interview that his father was persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong ruled China. Over the phone, he told me that the same motivation behind his decision to immigrate to the U.S. lies behind his advocacy: the promise of equal opportunity.
He’s not alone. At the rally, parents spoke about finding their way in the land of the free—struggling to learn English, scrambling to find work, facing down prejudice—so that their kids could have a better life. Commonly heard at the rally were the words “God Bless America,” and the famous lines from Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
Yet much of the mainstream media has portrayed any Asian-American who supports Students for Fair Admissions’ lawsuits against Harvard and the University of North Carolina as part of a “vocal minority” of confused immigrants, one that doesn’t understand affirmative action or how higher-education admissions work in the U.S. A recent NBC News article said as much: “As the Supreme Court weighs two high-profile cases challenging affirmative action, a vocal minority of Asian Americans continues to influence public debate. Though 69 percent of Asian Americans support affirmative action, factors like pressurized school systems in Asia, the immigrant condition and a lack of firsthand knowledge of U.S. racial history fuel the opposition, experts say.” (I dispute the statistic referenced here in a forthcoming paper for the Manhattan Institute.)
Which individuals and groups do these “experts” believe genuinely represent Asian-Americans when it comes to the issue of racial preferences in admissions? That would be the “professional civil rights advocates,” from which the coalition makes a point to distance itself: left-wing academics such as Columbia University sociology professor Jennifer Lee and organizations like Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
Zhao formed his coalition in 2014 with the help of fellow parent-activists such as Jeff Wang, whose son, Michael, filed a complaint with the Department of Education alleging Asian-American discrimination at several Ivy League schools, and Lee Cheng, a founder of the San Francisco-based Asian American Legal Foundation, who has been using the courts to further the rights of California’s Asian-American community since the 1990s. By May 2015, Zhao had grown the coalition to include 64 Asian-American organizations; one year later, he had expanded it to include 132. The coalition now boasts a membership of 368 nonprofits, small businesses, and parent associations from across the U.S. and various Asian ethnicities, united in the fight for equal education rights for all. As the daughter of Indian immigrants, I can say that this is what Asian-American representation means to me.
Photo by Boston Globe/Getty Images