Beyond a Monolith

This week in North Philly Notes, James Lai, author of Asian American Connective Action in the Age of Social Media writes about what the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard Lawsuit Reveals about Emerging Political Identities in the Asian American Community and the role of Social Media Networks.

On January 24, 2022, the United States Supreme Court announced that it would be hearing the appeal of the federal Harvard Admissions case (Students for Fair Admissions v. Presidents and Fellows at Harvard College) in which a federal judge ruled that Harvard University did not discriminate against Asian American applicants. Arguably, in no other community has felt the divisions of the affirmative action issue than the demographically and ideologically diverse Asian American community. Despite these divisions, a common narrative by journalists has been to portray Asian Americans as a monolithic group in their stance against affirmative action policies creating a zero-sum game that pits Asian Americans on one side and other racial minorities (African Americans and Latinx) on the other side. Such depictions are inaccurate and fail to grasp the larger picture as one recent public opinion poll and study found that a majority (nearly sixty percent) of various Asian American ethnoracial groups generally support affirmative action policies since 2016. 

Upon closer examination, the Harvard lawsuit, in addition to others like it, reveals emerging political and group identities taking shape among the over 30 ethnoracial groups that comprise of the larger, contemporary Asian American community as well as how the process of connective action is facilitating the motivations behind these lawsuits. These identities among Asian Americans are shaped by emerging political contours such as class status, educational background, immigrant status, and political ideology, and amplified through social media platforms or digital counterpublics,  which refer to spaces where racial and ethnoracial groups can share experiences and challenge larger narratives in the mainstream media. Digital counterpublics can take the shape in the form of inward social networks (i.e. WeChat, a common app used by Chinese American immigrants that seeks to build consensus on issues along ethnoracial lines) and outward networks (i.e. common social media platforms like Twitter that typically seek to build consensus beyond a specific ethnoracial group). Political motivation represents one of the critical facilitators of connective action that has served as an adaptive political strategy for Asian Americans, which has the nation’s largest foreign-born population (nearly 70 percent in 2020), to mobilize politically both online and offline for their ideologically divergent voices in the public arena and discourse around various contentious topics.  

In the Harvard case, WeChat will continue to serve as a vehicle for framing, mobilizing, and fueling the political motivations around Harvard’s policy of the highly educated and working class Chinese American immigrants who make up a key constituency of the plaintiffs known as the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), which was created by Edward Blum, a conservative activist who has previously challenged affirmative action policies as seen with the University of Texas case. In addition to online counterpublics like WeChat, on February 3, 2022, sixteen days after the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would review the Harvard case, Edward Blum and SFFA released the full version and a trailer of the same video on YouTube entitled “Admissions” to serve as an online commercial on SFFA and their concerns now that they find themselves in the nation’s spotlight.  

However, what is often lost in the discussions are the connective action efforts by progressive Asian American activists, community leaders, and national Asian American civil rights organizations, who refuse to be portrayed as “racial mascots” or a racial wedge group. On Twitter, an outward social media network, Asian American progressive hashtags such as #NotYourWedge and #DefendDiversity have become synonymous with the tweeting and subtweeting of information related to the reasons for defending higher education diversity and why this issue matters for Asian Americans even if Asian American applicants are not likely to benefit from affirmative action policies. 

In this regrouping along ideological lines as illuminated by the Harvard case, new political coalition possibilities emerge in the Asian American community on both sides of the ideological spectrum where social media platforms have become a critical vehicle for online and offline political mobilization and shaping of public opinions around affirmative action. This will likely be the case for the diverse Asian American community on other bellwether issues in the future.

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