Posted on July 9, 2023

Asian American Conservatives Have Become Key Allies of White Supremacy

Promise Li, The Nation, July 6, 2023

In 2014, a California-born sophomore named Michael Wang wrote an op-ed for The Mercury News complaining about biases against Asian Americans in higher education. Despite a stellar academic record, Wang said, he was rejected from top-tier universities across the nation. “Applying to college is an anxiety-filled rite-of-passage for students and parents alike. For Asian-American families, however, the anxiety is mixed with dread,” Wang wrote. “They know that their race will be used against them in admissions, and there is nothing they can do but over-prepare.”

Wang’s perspective—though far from the dominant view among Asian Americans—was one that resonated with many students and parents. It was also one with a powerful supporter: Edward Blum, the right-wing legal activist and staunch affirmative action foe. Months after Wang’s op-ed, Blum filed a lawsuit against Harvard’s affirmative action policies. By 2015, a grassroots movement—headed by Chinese and other Asian Americans—had sprung up too. Asian American Coalition for Education, cofounded by Wang’s father, mobilized 64 Chinese American, Indian American, Korean American, Pakistani American, and other Asian American organizations to file a civil rights complaint with the departments of Education and Justice, building on Blum’s lawsuit.

Last week, Wang, Blum, and their allies got their wish at long last when the Supreme Court struck down the use of affirmative action in college admissions. The ruling represents a critical victory and consolidation of the Asian American conservative movement—one that is years in the making.

The forces that finally swept affirmative action away could soon come to discover that their victory is a hollow one. That’s because, as researchers Janelle Wong, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Nicole Gon Ochi, and OiYan Poon have pointed out, reversing affirmative action only strengthens the population of white students at the expense of Black and other minority students, including Asian Americans. But we must be clear about one thing: Asian American anti–affirmative action activists have not been simply “used” by white activists and duped into this white supremacist policy. They are active, militant co-conspirators with white conservatives. They are building a key flank for the right wing across the nation, and the left must urgently recognize that right-wing politics precisely gain power by recruiting conservative ideologies among communities of color that overlap with, but retain distinct aspects from, white supremacy.

Over twenty years ago, before he wrote The Sympathizer and became a mainstream literary success, Nguyen recognized crucial limits within the rubric of “Asian America” as it has been conceived. Scholars and activists in the community tend to treat Asian American identity as a category of resistance. But as Nguyen described, the overemphasis on movements for progressive causes obscures a more troubling reality of “the ideological heterogeneity of a diverse Asian American population, and the willingness of a considerable portion of that population to participate in and perpetuate such commodification and the social and economic practices that lead to it.”

These Asian Americans are those who feel most at ease with the paradigm that Claire Jean Kim observes in her theory of “racial triangulation,” which characterizes how Asian Americans have long been recruited into functioning as a “model minority” to reinforce the structural oppression of Black people and the privilege of white people. Despite the fact that they cannot fully assimilate into whiteness, certain Asian Americans do enjoy privileges in Kim’s framework. Indeed, as she wrote in The Nation, “It is the convergence of this nascent, conservative Chinese immigrant nationalism with an older, conservative white nationalism that is driving anti–affirmative action politics today.”

This disturbing alliance has only grown in strength in recent years, finding a common cause in the safeguarding of capitalism and anti-Blackness. The outgrowth of anti-Asian violence has driven some Asian Americans to call for more police funding, directly aligning with right-wing movements. The rise of China in the global sphere has also stoked existing anti-communist sentiment among Chinese, Vietnamese, and other diasporas.

These factors have helped to create an environment that easily lends itself to right-wing politics—and many Asian American conservatives have played an active role in the Trump-era radicalization of the right. In the Asian American–dominated ethnoburb of Arcadia near Los Angeles, Chinese immigrant activists protested a development initiative to house unhoused people, harassing and doxxing youth progressive counter-protesters. A recent New York Times article reports the growth of the Asian American Republican electorate; as longtime Asian American organizer Alex Tom says, this base is motivated “to organize against affirmative action and police reform.”


Unpacking how these prejudices serve as powerful allies to white supremacy entails refusing that white supremacy can completely explain how Asian American conservative politics emerges. Indeed, as Adrian De Leon and Jane Hong write, “Asian American conservatism is not just about claiming whiteness, even though these alignments are indelibly forged from the politics of white supremacy.” But the other strands of Asian American conservatism beyond white supremacy are seldom explored by Asian Americans, especially in relation to cultural politics in Asia.

For one, Kun Huang identifies contemporary anti-Black racism in China with a long history of “Chinese racial-nationalism” constructed from anxieties that intermixing between Chinese and Africans would disrupt the coherence of “Chineseness.” {snip}