Emory Law Journal


Philip Lee


Since the 1960s, Asian Americans have been labeled by the dominant society as the “model minority.” This status is commonly juxtaposed against so-called “problem” minorities such as African Americans and Latinx Americans. In theory, the model minority narrative serves as living proof that racial barriers to social and economic development no longer exist in America. If Asians can succeed against all odds, the reasoning goes, so can everyone else. Further, if a member of a minority group fails, it is because of their own lack of diligence and ambition, and not some supposed systemic unfairness. However, the model minority narrative serves as nothing more than a legitimizing myth that positions minority groups in opposition to one another and preserves both the benefits and disadvantages of the existing racial hierarchy. Even more, it is an implicit invitation for Asian Americans to assume an “honorary white” status—the dominant society’s conferral of social benefits to nonwhite people who pose little threat to the racial status quo. The recent Harvard affirmative action case brought by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) is an apt illustration. SFFA, led by a white conservative crusader against affirmative action, recruited Asian Americans to serve as plaintiffs in a case designed to end race-conscious admissions. However, SFFA’s proposed colorblind remedy will not benefit Asian Americans. Instead, I argue that the interests of Asian Americans converge with other racial minorities in America—a substantive and ongoing convergence of interests to preserve affirmative action in higher education to enhance the learning experience of all students. In doing so, I reveal the critical reasons why Asian Americans should reject the invitation to honorary whiteness, which only serves to hinder America’s ongoing battle against its historic legacy of white supremacy.

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