An Ahistorical Argument About Asian-American Bias

A critique of affirmative action fails to account for the flawed data used to "prove" bias.

January 2, 2023

Historian of education Jonathan Zimmerman’s superficial commentary on “affirmative action and anti-Asian bias” (Dec. 12) demands a response. Without checking any evidence, Zimmerman parrots opinion essays in The New York Times and elsewhere that repeat the undocumented, ideologically fueled court filings—not initiated by either Asian-Americans or other American—by a well-funded right-wing campaign of assault on the proven (if never 100 percent perfect) record of affirmative action for almost one half-century.  

Its leader, Ed Blum, first made a name for himself as litigant in Shelby County v. Holder, the 2013 case that gutted the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He almost succeeded in ending affirmative action with Fisher v. University of Texas in 2016, stopped by Justice Scalia’s death. 

It is no secret that the purposefully misleadingly titled Students for Fair Admissions—that is, fair for middle- to upper-middle-class white students—leads with its own bias, misrepresentations and distortions. Among them is the repetition of false, ahistorical and non-contextual comparisons with Jewish quotas while ignoring the parallel Catholic, Black, Brown, and Asian limitations. (See among many reports, Evan Mandery, “The Supreme Court is Set to Kill Affirmative Action. Just Not for Rich White Kids,” Mother Jones, Oct. 31, 2022.) 

Both scholars and journalists who have demanded access to the actual data on which the cases leading to the recent Supreme Court hearings are based find the Southern California researchers’ studies inadequate both quantitatively and qualitatively to sustain any arguments, respectively, in support of anti-Asian bias at Harvard in particular, or in related filings addressed at secondary and post-secondary school white bias in admissions.  

These observers also maintain that the researchers commissioned by the anti-affirmative action groups who purport to respond to Asian-American claimants but in fact solicit the Asian-Americans refuse to reveal their complete data and supposed analytical results. This is unscholarly as well as suspicious. 

I do not understand why a historian takes his stand in support of the opponents of affirmative action—policies he claims to endorse—without making an effort to review any data, other than what he reads in The New York Times. The text of his essay is an exercise in muddled, self-contradictory “what-aboutism,” much like the recent NYT “Applying to College, and Trying to Appear ‘Less Asian,’ ” by Amy Qin (Dec. 2, 2022) that ends by arguing the opposite of what it begins. Another parallel is the Manhattan Institute’s Renu Mukerjee’s “Affirmative Action Is Wrong: There’s a Better Way to Make Campuses Diverse,” NYT, Oct. 30, 2022.  

--Harvey J. Graff
Professor Emeritus of English and History
Ohio Eminent Scholar in Literacy Studies 



Related Stories

Share Article


Letters to the Editor

Back to Top