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Why Asian Americans are divided over affirmative action

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

When the Supreme Court overturned affirmative action and struck down race-conscious admissions in June, Asian Americans had very different reactions. Some saw affirmative action as a tool to fight racism; others saw it as a racist tool. NPR's Sandhya Dirks has the story of two incoming college freshmen who represent this divide.

SANDHYA DIRKS, BYLINE: Right now, the college class of 2027, the last class to be shaped by affirmative action, is moving into dorm rooms and attending freshmen orientations.

RUTVIJ HOLAY: My name is Rutvij Holay. I am an incoming freshman at Stanford University.

DIRKS: I caught up with Holay earlier this summer. He was celebrating the end of affirmative action because for him...

HOLAY: Affirmative action is basically the use of racial stereotypes, right? Oh, Asians are all just smart, memorizing drones. We don't need them.

DIRKS: Holay points to the personality portion of the admissions process at Harvard, where prospective students were rated. Asian Americans consistently scored lower than everyone else. They were seen as quiet, maybe even boring. In other words, they were racially stereotyped, Holay says. And this gets at how he understands racism.

HOLAY: The root of all racism, arguably, is racial stereotypes, right? It's the idea that, oh, I'm superior to this entire group because this entire group is X, and we are not X. Is that a fair statement?

DIRKS: Fair, but incomplete, says Natasha Warikoo.

NATASHA WARIKOO: Racial stereotypes are one aspect of racism.

DIRKS: Warikoo is a professor of sociology at Tufts who studies race and admissions.

WARIKOO: Sociologists and psychologists would say that there are two kinds of racism, right? One is interpersonal and individual racism, right? This - kind of what he's describing of, I see you as one-dimensional. Because you are Asian, you are like this. But there's a second form that's more structural - systemic racism or structural racism, and that is about patterns in society.

DIRKS: Warikoo says racism is not just about stereotypes. She says it's been seeded into our systems - housing, health care, policing and education. All those factors are why, when affirmative action ended in California schools, Black and Latino enrollment plummeted. It's never quite recovered. And that's closer to how Andrew Kang, an incoming freshman at Harvard, understands racism.

ANDREW KANG: I think of racism as something that exists, like, within our systems, but also something that will filter - that will come down into our interpersonal relationships.

DIRKS: Kang doesn't think affirmative action was the use of racial stereotypes. He thinks it was an attempt to put a thumb on the scale for communities who have been historically marginalized to help combat the racism embedded in education. Without it, he thinks the system will do what it was set up to do - favor the white and the wealthy. And Kang fears that this is all part of something bigger - a war on diversity. Ending affirmative action, he says...

KANG: It's just one piece of this larger puzzle of trying to end race in public life, trying to not talk about race anymore.

DIRKS: Republican bans of books and courses that discuss race, laws that ban so-called critical race theory or divisive topics like race. Kang sees this as a push to silence talking about race so that no one has to do anything about racism. A push...

KANG: Trying to say that systemic racism does not exist.

DIRKS: Which is something the man behind the ban on affirmative action, Edward Blum, has said - he doesn't believe in systemic racism. He rejects the implication that racism is part of what this country is. But for Kang, that's just misinformed.

KANG: Open up a history book. Racism is so much of what America is.

DIRKS: Rutvij Holay doesn't deny racism, but he wouldn't quite say whether he believed racism was systemic.

Do you think systemic racism is an issue in America?

HOLAY: Systemic racism is one of those terms that we can't even decide what it means.

DIRKS: I mentioned that it means racism is alive inside systems. But Holay says even just racism is hard to define.

HOLAY: Depending on how you define racism, it can affect different people, you know what I mean?

DIRKS: Which is, of course, the point of this story. Holay sees racism as rooted in stereotypes. For him, removing the use of race in admissions will remove the ability to use stereotypes, removing the racism. But Kang sees racism as reproducing through systems, limited access to generational wealth and education. Affirmative action opened up that access. Now those doors have again been closed. For these two students, the answer to the question of how to combat racism differs radically, based on how they define it.

Sandhya Dirks, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF DESERTSHORE'S "INTERMEZZO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Sandhya Dirks is the race and equity reporter at KQED and the lead producer of On Our Watch, a new podcast from NPR and KQED about the shadow world of police discipline. She approaches race and equity not as a beat, but as a fundamental lens for all investigative and explanatory reporting.