The complex roots of anti-Asian bigotry
By Scott Sumner
Gideon Rachman has an excellent essay on what goes wrong when you start treating people as members of a group, not as individuals:
An interesting example of the kinds of problems that are thrown up by group-based thinking is a current lawsuit brought against Harvard University for alleged discrimination against Asian-Americans. The complainants argue that Asian-Americans have to achieve better test scores, on average, to get into Harvard and are often marked down on vague measures of personality. This, it is argued, allows Harvard to boost student numbers from other more favoured groups, such as African-Americans, Hispanics and the children of Harvard graduates. Harvard contests the charges.
Even if discrimination is proved, it will have stemmed largely from a well-meaning motive — to increase diversity on campus. The trouble is that it seems logically impossible to discriminate in favour of one group without discriminating against another. The controversy is uncomfortably reminiscent of an earlier era, when Harvard deliberately restricted the number of Jews. That is now regarded as a disgraceful episode; but it is hard to see why it is much different from discriminating against Asian-Americans.
Anti-Semitism and anti-Asian bigotry are equally offensive, even if these two cases result from very different impulses. The pre-war anti-semitism reflected the cultural anxieties of America’s dominant WASP ethnic group. It was basically a right wing idea.
Harvard’s current bias against Asian-Americans reflects a left wing ideology. It begins with the awareness that certain ethnic groups have been cruelly discriminated against throughout history. From that correct premise it reaches the incorrect conclusion that modern income inequality must be the product of current discriminatory practices, and that ethnic groups that are doing well are benefiting from some sort of unfair “privilege”. Actually, many of the Asian students who attend Ivy League schools are the children of immigrants with very modest incomes.
It would be nice if the right had switched positions and was now opposed to this sort of identity politics. Unfortunately, they have gone back to the “America First” nationalism of the interwar years:
In a conversation that actually makes Trump sound reasonable, he tells Bannon that he’s concerned about foreign Ivy League students, highly skilled and otherwise capable of working for or starting their own tech companies, graduating and then returning to their home countries. “When someone is going to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Stanford, all the greats” and then graduate, “we throw them out of the country, and they can’t get back in,” he said. “We have to be careful of that, Steve. You know, we have to keep our talented people in this country.” To which Bannon replied: “Um.” Trump tried to get Bannon to agree with him, but to no avail. Instead, Bannon suggested there were already too many Asian tech C.E.O.s. in Silicon Valley. “When two-thirds or three-quarters of the C.E.O.s in Silicon Valley are from South Asia or from Asia, I think . . . ” Bannon said, trailing off. “A country is more than an economy. We’re a civic society.”
Steve Bannon was later made a key advisor in the Trump administration, despite Trump’s awareness of his anti-Asian bigotry. And Bannon seems to have convinced the President to change his views on the immigration of highly skilled workers (who are mostly Asians.) In addition, the red hot rhetoric surrounding Trump’s trade war with China seems to have inflamed prejudice against Chinese-Americans. (In fairness, Trump’s attacks are not directed against Chinese-Americans, but the rhetoric certainly has an effect on some of his followers.)
I’ll conclude with a tweet by Jonathan Portes: