It seemed like back to the future last week. Lula is back in power as president in Brazil, Netanyahu is likely back as prime minister in Israel and, once again, affirmative action is back before the U.S. Supreme Court.

But this time, Asian Americans are at the center of arguments opposing affirmative action. 

In two cases before the court, plaintiffs are arguing affirmative action discriminates against Asian and white college applicants, unfairly giving advantages to Black, Latino and Native American students.

Asian Americans are loudly invoked in these cases, but they were both brought by Edward Blum, a white conservative activist who has repeatedly tried to eliminate race from consideration in equity efforts. Under the banner “Students for Fair Admissions,” Blum borrows civil rights language while being bankrolled by conservative foundations.  

Another major difference this time around is the court itself. With a strong conservative majority, the likelihood that affirmative action will be struck down when the court finally rules is now very high.

What’s not new is seeing Asian Americans used as a wedge against African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans, an increasingly popular conservative culture-war tactic. I see this trope repeated back to me every time I write about the continued legacy of racially discriminatory policies and laws that have disproportionately harmed non-Asian people of color.


“If the playing field is not level, how do you explain the success of Asian Americans?” readers demand to know. The explanation would fill another column, but a cursory study of U.S. immigration policy as well as a brief foray into our country’s original sin of slavery and continued anti-Black racism would provide some answers — though I don’t think these are good faith questions.

In Washington state, affirmative action has been banned for over two decades, after the passage of Initiative 200 in 1998. The ban was upheld again in 2019. As I wrote in 2019, the effort to oppose bringing affirmative action back in the state was led by Chinese American activists, again, using the language of civil rights and embracing the Asian Americans vs. other people of color framing. Their moniker was even “Washington Asians for Equality.” 

Using the language of civil rights has become de rigueur for opponents of affirmative action. 

You would think when reading right-wing rhetoric around affirmative action and racial equality that they are the standard-bearers for racial justice in this country. 

The latest example came last week with mailers sent to Seattle-area Asian American households (including my sister and mom) from conservative America First Legal, which describes itself as the “long-awaited answer to the ACLU.”

Founded by former Trump aide Stephen Miller, the group’s mailers use an impressive amount of doublespeak and perversely call equity a “code word” for exclusion. They deceptively say “Joe Biden and left wing officials are engaged in widespread racial discrimination against white and Asian Americans … even though it’s against the law.” On the back side of the mailer is a faux job posting that reads, “… Must be Black or Latinx,” “Whites and Asians Need Not Apply.”


The mailers join a series of ads shown on TV and online here by Citizens for Sanity, another group led by former Trump aides, that include one titled “Why Don’t Asian Lives Matter to Joe Biden and his liberal allies?” In it, horrific acts of violence against Asian Americans are shown being perpetrated mostly by African Americans, even though one analysis found that 75% of anti-Asian hate incidents were perpetrated by white people.

It’s clear political entities with deep pockets have determined it is advantageous to try to weaponize racial divisions and anti-Blackness to get Asian Americans to see other people of color as the enemy. They play into persistent myths about a neat meritocracy and argue “unqualified” African Americans and Latinos are at fault for Asian American children not getting into their preferred college, versus challenging an inequitable educational system that provides opportunities for some but denies them to others. This despite one study showing that 43% of white Harvard admits were legacy students, children of faculty or staff, recruited athletes or dean’s list students, compared with 16% of students of color — but you don’t see campaigns about that. 

This adds up to a cynical effort to get Asian Americans to believe in a zero-sum game and blame those with the least privilege for their children’s perceived lack of opportunity. But Asian Americans can say no, not in our name. 

We can refuse to be used as foot soldiers in a transparent effort to perpetuate anti-Black racism under the guise of equality. We can say “we see you” to those who would use us as a wedge to divide and loudly reject it.

We can commit to learning more about the history of racial inequality in this country and the many ways that Black, Latino and Native Americans — as well as many Asian Americans — have been denied opportunities in our society. We can stand shoulder to shoulder to lift the tide for all boats, not fall victim to cheap divide and conquer tactics.