Why Affirmative Action Is Complicated for Asian-Americans

“The question of how Asian-Americans are positioned relative to black people is a very serious and important question that Asian-Americans have not grappled with,” Professor Kim said. “Asians in general are getting certain types of advantages by not being black.”

That is not to discount the ugly history of violence, racism and exclusion that Asian-Americans have and continue to endure. Studies have found that Asian-Americans are the least likely of any race to be promoted to management roles in the professional world. They have the highest poverty rates in some communities. And some Asian-Americans say their causes usually get little mainstream political support.

That might be changing with a budding movement led by some Chinese-American activists against affirmative action. That movement took off in 2014, with a campaign that defeated a California bill that would have allowed affirmative action in the state’s public colleges and universities. The activists generally immigrated to the United States over the past 20 years from mainland China. They are mostly well-educated and often communicate through WeChat, a Chinese messaging app.

“On some affirmative action debates they are used as a wedge,” said Karthick Ramakrishnan, associate dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside. “But what you’re seeing more and more, Asian-American activists, specifically Chinese activists, are more than happy to play that role of wedge. They use the language of discrimination and victimhood.”

Tony Xu, a 48-year-old Chinese immigrant, sees affirmative action as a form of racism, calling it “a tool to discriminate against Asian-Americans.”

Mr. Xu, who lives in Fremont, Calif., came to the United States two decades ago as a software engineer and now owns a real estate company. He said his daughter was a rising junior in high school and planned to apply to several elite universities including Stanford and Ivy League schools. He became politically active during the fight over the California bill, he said, and belongs to the Silicon Valley Chinese Association, which opposes affirmative action.

Mr. Xu said he did not see the benefit of racial diversity in schools. In China and Japan, for instance, schools are basically monoracial, but those students turn out just fine, he said.

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