Race to the bottom

Exposing identity politics’ inconvenient lies.

There is a thriving market for books explaining how the United States is a “White Supremacist” society. As sociologist Robin DiAngelo argues in her book White Fragility, this means that “white people in North America live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race, and white people are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality” and that “whites are disproportionately enriched and privileged via these [social] institutions.”

DiAngelo and people like her are keen on putting people in neat boxes in order to explain complex societal issues in strict black-versus-white racial terms. But how do Asian Americans fit into this? Like black Americans, they experienced grotesque racism spanning from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. However, their economic status and education levels are exceptionally high today. For example, in 2019 the median annual household income of households headed by Asians was $85,800, compared with $61,800 among all U.S. households; Asians are less likely than Americans overall to live in poverty (10 percent vs. 13 percent as of 2019); more than half of Asians ages 25 and older (54 percent) have a bachelor’s degree or more education, compared with 33 percent of the U.S. population in the same age range; and in 2018, 26 per 100,000 Asians were incarcerated in local jails compared to 187 white Americans.

Precisely because they don’t fit into their reductive paradigm, books like White Fragility or Ibram X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist say little about Asian Americans. They are, as Kenny Xu writes in his new book, An Inconvenient Minority.

Basing public policy on this false paradigm harms Asian Americans. Thomas Jefferson High School for Mathematics and Science in Arlington, Virginia, is one of the top schools in the country and, of 486 students accepted in 2020, 73 percent were Asians. “There was no real secret to it,” Xu writes: “The Asian American parents moving into the area were simply investing more in their kids’ math education from an early age. “Parents want their kids to be moving along at the pace they can handle,’Asra had enrolled her son in gifted math in elementary school. And she made sure to keep him on track — she even homeschooled him for a year so he could get the enrichment he needed.”

But a key element of the “White Supremacy” paradigm is that nobody succeeds on their own merits. DiAngelo dismisses notions of meritocracy as simply one of the “unexamined beliefs that prop up our racial responses.” So, when Thomas Jefferson High School admitted just six black students in 2020, the schoolboard replaced the entrance exam with a lottery for 380 of the 480 slots, arguing that this would “reflect the diversity, equity, and inclusiveness that is core to the mission and values of Fairfax County Public Schools.”

There was no suggestion that previous entry into Thomas Jefferson was marred by racism. “In fact,” Xu writes, “…one analysis by a George Mason University law professor showed that admissions officers accepted 90 percent of Black students who made it to the second round of the application process, while accepting less than 50 percent of white students who made it to the second round, suggesting evidence that the bias might in fact be in their favor. The issue is that the number of Black students who made it to the semifinalist round of the application process was so low…In 2008, 507 white students made it to this semifinalist round. The number of Black students? Thirty-seven.”

Rather than help black students, the school board opted to hobble Asian students. “The school board’s own analysis for this merit lottery predicted an upsurge in Black, Latino, and white admitted candidates. The Asian population, on the other hand, would drop by a projected 27 percent. A parent’s coalition analyzed the data and found
a steeper drop: 55 percent for Asian students. In contrast, the white population would shoot up to 45 percent of the total student body. And the Black and Hispanic representation would both remain in the single digits.”

Some have tried to fit Asian Americans into the paradigm of “White Supremacy” by inventing bizarre concepts like “White Adjacent” — meaning a person who is technically a minority, but has access to, utilizes and sometimes benefits from white privilege. People who rely on fueling racial animus for fame or fortune such as Al Sharpton use these terms to explain how non-black minorities, like Asian Americans, can rise through the socioeconomic ranks and become successful. This is a paradigm that cannot last.

Xu argues that “Until Asian Americans get a grip on themselves and organize into a coherent political identity, they will increasingly face the wrath of a country increasingly turning against their values.” This would be a mistake. Asian Americans have succeeded quite well without adopting racial politics. There is no reason to assume that their own Al Sharpton would be any less useless to Asian Americans than the actual Al Sharpton has been to African Americans.