A Conversation We Tried to Have

Erica Choi
J.D. Candidate 2014, UCI Law

Richard Sander was in the news last month due to reports about racial animus and the hostile campus climate experienced by black students at UCLA Law. Thinking about the events going on nearby burdens my heart with sadness and anger, and it reminds me of a conversation that we had at UCI Law. More accurately, it reminds me of a conversation we tried to have.

About a year and a half ago, the Supreme Court in Fisher v. UT Austin heard oral arguments for a challenge to the University of Texas Austin’s affirmative action admissions policies. Groups like the Asian American Legal Foundation and the Black Student Alliance at the University of Texas filed amicus briefs in support of University of Texas’s race conscious admissions policies.

APALSA at UCI was invited by one such group (not one of the aforementioned) to sign an amicus brief in support of UT Austin. The invitation sparked an interesting dialogue among then-APALSA members. As one of the APALSA co-chairs at the time, I was privy to the private questions and the desire for more information about how affirmative action affects Asian Pacific Americans. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a relative dearth of information available on this topic. I suspect this is attributable to several things, including the problematic lumping of all Asian ethnicities into one racial category when Southeast Asians have the highest high school drop rate of any racial grouping in the country, while ethnic Japanese, Chinese, and Koreans seem to achieve measurable success in professions like medicine and law. But more generally, this dearth reinforces my belief that Asian Pacific Americans are largely excluded from conversations about race.

To have a fuller discussion on this narrow topic, APALSA invited four speakers to UCI to address this issue head-on. We read all of the amicus briefs filed in the Fisher case, searching for advocates and experts and scholars who could speak to how APAs are affected by affirmative action. We managed to find two litigators and two academics on each side, who had each submitted briefs in Fisher and who had researched and written about APAs and affirmative action.

Our goal was to have a discussion about race and education, focusing on the APA perspective. Despite our very best efforts to contain arguments about racial superiority, the conversation quickly turned into a discussion about black and Latino students in higher education. I will not reiterate Richard Sander’s highly criticized conclusions about black and Latino students, but suffice it to say we did not invite him to present those comments and our invitation was not a symptom of hostility towards other students of color.

When the conversation took that turn, the impact of APAs, the entire purpose for and vision of our panel, vanished. Once again, APAs were excluded from our own discussion about race. That is a deep and lasting hurt.

I am proud that the APALSA board responded to a really difficult issue head-on. Despite my personal disagreement with Sanders’ scholarship, I think it’s dangerous to only hear one side of an argument, and to reinforce that side with more of the same does not allow the dialogue to progress.

APAs have historically worked with, not against, other minority groups in the fight for civil rights. As I reflect on the last three years and leave UCI, I sincerely hope that tradition continues here. I want to recognize that racial climates cut people in ways both subtle and obvious.

I echo Professor Glater’s sentiment in his Voice article last year, that talking about race is tricky and difficult. And still, as he said, it is a conversation we should have. Let’s proceed in this conversation, being mindful of the myriad ways that students of color are racialized, targeted, and rejected. Let’s not allow other voices to dominate our conversation anymore. It’s a conversation we tried to have, and still need to have. Let’s talk.