Posted on October 14, 2020

Why Young Asians Are Now Woke

Rob Henderson, Unherd, October 12, 2020

When I read that the Justice Department had ruled against Yale and determined that it does indeed discriminate against Asian-American and white applicants, I shrugged my shoulders. I had the same response to the lawsuit against Harvard last year, in which a group called Students For Fair Admissions claimed that Harvard discriminated against Asian-American applicants.

This is not the reaction I would have had five years ago, when I was serving in the military. I would have believed that race-conscious policies were clearly wrong. Back then, I still held the middle-class belief that hard work and education were the most important factors for getting ahead. But since graduating from Yale, I have learned that there are subtler, rarely discussed, aspects of social class.

According to Paul Fussell, author of Class: A Guide Through the American Status System, people at the bottom think social class is defined by how much money you have. The middle class, though, believe it’s not just about money. Equally important is education. But for the upper class, money and education aren’t enough. Upper-class people assign great importance to tastes, values and opinions.


{snip} Throughout my college experience, I learned what some of these aspects were, such as which opinions were dominantly expressed on campus. {snip}

One such value was diversity. While money and education are tickets to the middle class, prizing diversity is a requirement to join the upper class. It’s part of what the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu referred to as cultural capital — tastes, vocabulary, awareness and mannerisms which give social advantages to those higher in the social hierarchy. This is why there is a divide among Asian-Americans about affirmative action.

Asian immigrants are the least likely to support it — like many older Americans, they believe obtaining a good education is the path to upward mobility and think race-conscious policies are harmful. In contrast, younger, native-born Asian-Americans are three times more likely to support affirmative action. The sociologists Jennifer Lee and Van C. Tran have found in their research that “Asian immigrants are least likely to support affirmative action. By contrast, Asians born in the US with parents who were also born here — the so-called later generation — are most likely to do so.” These younger Americans have learned that social mobility involves an additional ingredient: adopting the social mores of the upper class.

Social mobility affects political orientation, too. In 1992, more than half of Asian-Americans voted for George H.W. Bush, but in 2012, only 26% voted for Mitt Romney, a similar number as voted for Donald Trump, suggesting that this is a generational change rather than related to the personality of the current president.

One characteristic of the older generation of Asian-Americans is their outsized role in owning and operating small businesses. {snip}

Often, small business owners prefer low taxes; they tend to derive their social status from their effort and their earnings, and subsequently, they raise children who go on to college. This generation derives their social status through education and titles, and this upward social mobility of the younger generation also accounts in part for their recent political shift.

We have learned that it is not enough to have the same résumé as the group we aspire to join. We have to hold the same values as them — the same luxury beliefs, which are ideas and opinions that confer status on the upper class while often inflicting costs on the lower classes. Asian-Americans are now adopting the luxury beliefs of upper-middle class white American culture, which is an indicator of assimilation. But supporting race-conscious policies in elite universities will also create problems for future generations of working-class Asian-Americans, who would also like to ascend the American status hierarchy. Assimilation recapitulates entrenched class divisions.

Ironically, in order to ascend in America, one must pledge fealty to beliefs that undermine the efforts of those they hope to leave behind. Indeed, Reihan Salam has observed that condemning the suspicious screening process of elite universities is viewed as déclassé. It marks one as an outsider. In contrast, vigorously agreeing with the race-conscious policies of Yale and Harvard indicates that one is an insider. It shows that one “gets it”— an indicator of cultural capital and one’s place in the social hierarchy. {snip}