Host Jonathan Kay speaks with conservative activist, book author, and Quillette contributor Kenny Xu about the pressures that Asian-Americans now face to toe the line on progressive race orthodoxies—including acquiescing to their own unfavorable treatment in elite school admissions.
Jonathan Kay: Welcome to the Quillette podcast. I’m Jonathan Kay. Today my guest is Kenny Xu, a Quillette author whose forthcoming book is called An Inconvenient Minority: The Attack on Asian American Excellence and the Fight for Meritocracy. And by “inconvenient,” what Xu means in part is that Asian Americans don’t fit in well with the intersectional narrative of racial oppression.
On almost every imaginable socioeconomic indicator in fact, Asian-Americans actually outpace white Americans. It’s a great success story, but one that often gets buried in the media as it conflicts awkwardly with the narrative of white supremacy. Moreover, as Xu explains, many Asians feel pressured by progressives to explain their success by reference to what is sometimes called “white adjacency.”
The idea here is that their success wasn’t fully earned, but rather was a kind of gift from whites. It’s a dubious and condescending idea, and one that requires them to acquiesce to disadvantages in, for instance, college admissions. Xu joined me this week to discuss these topics. Here are excerpts from our conversation.
Two months ago, we had a piece by a woman named Asra Nomani about how students are selected at Thomas Jefferson High School in Virginia, one of the most, if not the most selective and high-performing high schools in the United States. What was interesting about that is there were Asian Americans on both sides of the issue. There were Asian Americans who were highly supportive of the traditional idea of a pure merit-based admissions system. And then you had Asian Americans who were very much aligned with what is now considered the progressive view that race should very much be considered when you admit people.
Do you find that often people try to stick Asian Americans in a political hole—in much the same way they do with whites and blacks I should add—when in fact there’s a variety of voices within the Asian American community?
Kenny Xu: Asian Americans are very divided on the issue of race in particular. There are Asian Americans who really believe that race should matter a lot. These are typically second generation or even third generation Asian Americans whose parents or grandparents are immigrants here who have gone to college, who have been through the university system, and in the university system they were told there’s still systemic racism in this country. Whites are at the top. Blacks are at the bottom. And Asian Americans are victims too, but sometimes they’re also privileged. So there was a lot of confusion around Asian Americans. There’s a lot of division around Asian Americans because there’s a group of Asian Americans who really find their own identity in race, and then there’s a group of Asian Americans who just want to be treated as Americans, who just want to be treated equally, who came to this country searching for the American dream, searching for the idea that you would be treated on the basis of your hard work and your character.
Jonathan Kay: Does this cause social or professional animosity within Asian American circles among friends or family members?
Kenny Xu: Although a lot of Asian Americans are initially for affirmative action—they’re initially for race preferences—when I explain to people about how exactly Harvard university discriminates against Asian Americans, when I bring up to people that Harvard grades people on three attributes, on academics, extracurriculars, and personalities, and that although Asian Americans have the highest academic and extracurricular scores, they have the lowest personality scores of all of the races, and that the personality score is a proxy for race, the Asian Americans that I talked to get very angry at that because it feeds into all of the stereotypes that Asian Americans were traditionally exposed to. You know, the idea that Asian Americans are test-taking robots with no personality. So the Asian Americans that I talk to, usually I can convince them because I show them exactly what Harvard does and how they do it.
Jonathan Kay: Let’s talk a little bit about that stereotype, because there’s a grain of truth to it. In South Korea, for instance, there were these stories in the media of kids who basically did nothing else except go to school and do test prep. And inevitably, when some of these people come to North America or other countries, that culture does to some extent follow them.
People don’t want to traffic and stereotypes, but at the same time, and not just among Asian Americans, there are certain subcultures where this is an obsession, no?
Kenny Xu: Well, we need to consider in terms of what especially Chinese-centered east Asian countries do is that China has this very rigorous test-taking culture because there is a centuries-old civil service examination where people were selected solely on the basis of their performance on an examination. And by the way, that’s still continues to get into elite colleges in China. It’s pretty much solely based on your performance on one examination called the Gao Kao. This has created an unhealthy obsession among some rural, poor Chinese, because they feel like they don’t have other opportunities. A lot of these poor rural people see this test is the only way out.
Now in America, we have a country where there is a lot more opportunity. That is, that is the reason why a lot of Asian Americans immigrate into this country. The fact that Asian Americans come to America and retain artifacts of studying relentlessly and preparing relentlessly for exams, and preparing relentlessly to have high academic performance should be viewed as a good thing.
If you’re going to be a doctor, if you’re going to be an engineer, like a lot of parents want their children to aspire to be and like a lot of Asian parents want their children to aspire to be, if you’re going to be one of those things you have to pass exams. So, if you want to pass an exam, like an MCAT or an LSAT, well, guess what? You should study for it. You should prepare for it.
Jonathan Kay: I read a book about Anti-semitism in American universities in the middle decades of the 20th century, the author was Jerome Karabel I think his name was, and it was called The Chosen and it focused on Harvard, Yale, and Princeton, and there were all sorts of artifices that were used to keep Jews out.
What was interesting then was the fight against Anti-Semitism in terms of university admissions was very much seen as in keeping with the fight against Anti-Semitism more generally. Whereas now it’s a more complicated situation where some of the same publications and groups that have highlighted anti-Asian hatred in reaction to the COVID pandemic, or obviously the Atlanta shootings as an example that was cited, on one hand they properly decry that, but on the other hand they’re either mute or supportive of academic measures that clearly work against Asians in terms of admissions at universities. To me, that’s a contradiction.
Kenny Xu: This is an example of political schizophrenia. It’s not an integrated political personality because if you are a person who advocates for Asians against white supremacy and those kinds of things, and you want to stop Asian hate, then you would look at what Harvard university is doing to Asian Americans, how they assign extremely well-qualified Asian-Americans extremely low personality scores based on no objective evidence, and how stereotypes of Asians function ruthlessly in Harvard’s culture. I talk about that in my book An Inconvenient Minority. And you would say, Harvard is complicit in this anti-Asian stereotyping too, but of course it’s not what they’re saying. They’re often silent on this issue. And I think it shows the tendency of prominent Asian American liberal leaders to align themselves more with prominent Democratic party tenets than it does for their own Asian American movement.
Jonathan Kay: Is there also a sense that, well look, if you don’t get into Harvard, you’re going to go to Boston college or Tufts probably, or something like that. Take one for the team you’re going to do just fine. Is there an unspoken rationale that, if you’re applying to Harvard, you’re probably—not always‚ but probably—fairly privileged and you’re going to take one for the team intersectionally?
Kenny Xu: I think that’s what a lot of liberals, a lot of white elite liberals would say about Asian Americans. They, they would say, “Hey, you know, even if you don’t get into Harvard or Yale or Princeton or MIT or Stanford or Cornell”—these are all Ivy League colleges that practice discrimination against Asian Americans—”even if you don’t get to one of those colleges, you’ll still get into a good second-tier college and your life will be fine.” The problem is the way that our universities are resourced in America is extremely skewed. It’s extremely top heavy. The top 20 universities in America have endowments that are a significant proportion of the entire endowment of all of the universities in America. And they are also the leading research universities, and not just America, but in the world. And so if you’re an Asian American and you aspire to become a person doing groundbreaking research, or making influential policy, it is a priority for you to get into one of these extremely well-resourced universities.
Jonathan Kay: Shortly before the pandemic hit, when you could still do things like go to professional trade fairs, I covered here in Toronto a showcase for leading machine-learning scholars at one of Toronto’s leading universities. They were showcasing some of the most commercially attractive machine-learning projects. I think I was one of the few white people in that room. I met some guy, I think he was from Armenia so he was kind of like an edge case, and I noticed it was around that time that in progressive circles people stopped talking about people of color more generally and it started being BIPOC, where it was black, indigenous, and people of color. Has there been this sort of implicit downgrading of Asians to this “people of color” category? You hear a lot of talk about “white adjacency” in progressive circles. What is the status more generally of Asians in this odd time we live in?
Kenny Xu: In progressive circles there is a suspicion of Asian Americans because Asian Americans tend to do well in America socioeconomically, educationally, even though they don’t come from inherited wealth. They don’t come from privileged backgrounds. They experienced racial discrimination in this country and they are a minority. So basically Asian Americans don’t conform to the progressive narrative of race in America, and the progressive narrative of race in America, as many of your listeners probably know, is that race plays a hugely significant, influential, often determinant factor in your success in this country. And Asian Americans are such a minority race in which race is supposed to play a determinative effect in their success in this country, yet they somehow are able to transcend it because of their own cultural values.
And so that is an inconvenience to their narrative. There’s a lot of suspicion around Asian Americans from progressives that they basically say, “Asian Americans, I need you to do one thing for me. I need you to denounce the role of culture, and I need you to say ‘actually it was my adjacency to the white man. The white man gave me these privileges and I didn’t earn them myself.’” And so that’s the pressure for Asian Americans right now among progressive circles.
Jonathan Kay: There was this really weird article by a woman named Jennifer Ho, a professor of Asian American studies at the University of Colorado in Boulder. The headline kind of says it all “White supremacy is the root of all race-related violence in the U S.” And the argument was that even when black people attack Asian people on the street, that’s because of white supremacy. It’s sort of like the kind of idea that you’re supposed to officially sign onto, but putting aside the performative aspect of this and what we’re supposed to believe, are there Asian Americans who actually believe that?
Kenny Xu: Asian Americans can be some of the most progressive people in America. They can be some of the most progressive people in America because even while other minorities or other people are just swimming in the water of progressivism, Asian-Americans have to really buy in 100 percent fully. They have to be zealous about it because of those pressures. Because of that suspicion against Asian Americans from the progressive community, you have to be completely locked step.
Jonathan Kay: How much hate and risk is there for Asian people in the United States right now?
Kenny Xu: There’s a couple of facts that people need to clarify about anti-Asian hate. Number one, crime went up against Asian-Americans in 2020, but it went up against all racial groups in 2020. Number two, black Americans are the plurality of perpetrators against Asian-Americans and make up 28 percent of the perpetrators. Twenty-five percent are white. The rest are other Asians, or Latinos. The narrative that there is this just massive uptick of violence against Asian Americans—that’s relatively standard, that’s perpetrated by whites—it’s terribly misleading. I think it stokes unnecessary fear into Asian Americans. I don’t want Asian Americans to be viewed as just the eternal victim. I think the purpose of this narrative is to position Asians as a victim of white supremacy. That’s why you had Jennifer Ho write that article about why white supremacy is at the root of all race-related violence.
Jonathan Kay: There was no question that animosity toward Muslims went up after 9/11. Is there any comparison between COVID, which of course originated in China, and the way Muslims felt after 9/11?
Kenny Xu: That is something that I haven’t personally experienced as an Asian American. Now I know people who say that they’ve personally experienced violence against them because of one factor or another, possibly because of them being Asian-American. What I have to say about that, and the comparison to 9/11, is that there has always been resentment against Asian Americans in this country. There’s always been, not just from the white community but from black Americans as well, an underlying resentment against Asian Americans at their success, at the poor level and at the elite level.
Before the 1992 Los Angeles riots, basically one of the sparking incidents was when a black American walked into a shop and a Korean shopkeeper shot him. And it sparked a huge pillage against Koreatown. And that was the inciting incident of long-simmering tensions between the black community in Los Angeles and the Korean community in Los Angeles, where the black community was accusing Korean Americans of basically exploiting black labor and black Americans by putting businesses in black communities, and by basically taking black business opportunities. There is resentment there. And then of course at the elite level there has been resentment against Asian-Americans too, by white progressives, and by white liberals, who see Asian Americans as a product of this competition culture that ups the competition culture for their own sons and daughters. And they don’t like that. And they want to use their political power against Asian Americans and Ivy League admissions as well.
Jonathan Kay: Do you sometimes get frustrated, and I think I’ve done it during this interview, when people ask you these general questions about Asian Americans and sometimes you just have to say “you can’t make a generalization they’re like everybody else. There’s different groups of them”?
Kenny Xu: After doing maybe three or four years of research, specifically in the Harvard discrimination case, and then many more years of research on Asian Americans, I can only come to maybe two conclusions about Asian Americans as a group, as a whole. And the first is that Asian Americans traditionally place a high value on education.
I think that there is no doubt and that comes across in pretty much every category, particularly Chinese-centered Asian Americans, also from Indian cultures as well. The second thing is that the American dream works for Asian Americans, and I don’t have to point to educated Chinese immigrants or educated Taiwanese immigrants to say this. Even the Vietnamese immigrants who came as refugees from communism, who came here basically dirt-poor and 80 percent of them did not even know English, they basically came here with nothing and within one generation their kids had a higher rate of graduation from college over even white Americans in this country.
So that academic focus and that preparation does lead to significant intergenerational mobility for Asian-Americans, and that’s not just educated-class Asian Americans, that is for every Asian America.
Jonathan Kay: In New York city public schools there is a subcategory of public schools that are highly selective, which have a long history of turning out highly accomplished graduates. And there are these waves of reform efforts to get the selection criteria to be much more race-conscious and to bring in more black and Hispanic students. I think in recent years white students have often been crowded out in favor of Asian students. And when you talk to certain conservatives who oppose affirmative action, they express hope that Asian American constituencies in the New York City area are going to raise their voice in favor of the current system, because when whites do it, it sounds racist or it’s stigmatized as racist.
Do you think that, coming from the right side of the spectrum, there is pressure from conservatives to get Asian Americans to be more politically active in the fight against progressive race-conscious policies, and is this comparable to the Thomas Jefferson High School situation in Virginia?
Kenny Xu: So what you need to know about the Thomas Jefferson admissions process is it’s basically a battle between white and Asian liberals and white and Asian conservatives. The percentage of Thomas Jefferson that is black and Hispanic is extremely marginal. It’s embarrassingly marginal.
Jonathan Kay: And apparently won’t change that much. The progressive reformers, I think in their proposed system there’d be more white people and fewer Asians without much change in the black-Hispanic ratio, right?
Kenny Xu: Right. Effectively, blacks and Hispanics are used as a token in this fight at Thomas Jefferson. The truly substantial fight at Thomas Jefferson is what percentage of white people are going to get into Thomas Jefferson compared to what percentage of Asian people are going to get into Thomas Jefferson. Currently under the admissions that are solely based in grades test scores that is supposedly race blind, Asian Americans make up about 70 percent of Thomas Jefferson. And under the new proposal Asian Americans would drop to roughly half that; white Americans would go up two thirds.
Jonathan Kay: Are the numbers similar for the New York City reform efforts for the public schools?
Kenny Xu: So the New York City reform efforts are slightly different because admissions to New York City specialized schools are solely based on a test. They’re not based on grades at all. They’re solely based on your performance on the specialized high school entrance exam. There are a lot of progressive lawmakers who are also black and Hispanic, but by the way, there are black and Hispanic lawmakers who are aligned with the Asian Americans fighting to keep the tests too.
Jonathan Kay: It’s a more grassroots, demographically representative fight, as opposed to Thomas Jefferson, where it’s more a proxy battle.
Kenny Xu: Yeah, you also need to understand the history of the specialized high schools. The specialized high schools in New York City used to be significantly black and Hispanic. Bronx Science used to be 35 percent black and Hispanic. Brooklyn Tech used to be 50 percent black and Hispanic. And they were of course, the top high schools in New York City at the time and still basically are.
But what happened in the nineties was the black and Hispanic population at the schools just dissipated over the course of a decade. They just dissipated and they never returned, and they were replaced to a large extent by Asian Americans. But this was not because of the specialized high school exam. The specialized high school exam was there when black and Hispanics got in at a rate of 50 percent. This is because the New York City public school system for blacks and Hispanics has dramatically failed its own population, its own demographic population, and I think that underlying this admissions fight is a larger fight really about reforms within the New York City public education community.
Jonathan Kay: Has it changed the face of politics for Asian American constituents? You mentioned that people are pressured to choose one side or the other, like the conservative side of the highly progressive side. Is that political sorting mechanism happening now as a result of this debate?
Kenny Xu: Well, it has made Asian Americans a lot more skeptical of the Democratic party. That’s probably the main effect in New York City, because you start to see progressive Democratic party lawmakers really aligned against Asians, aligned against meritocracy in a sense. And to these poor Chinatown Asian immigrants, the test is kind of like in China, except I would say it’s different because in America there is a lot more opportunity, but kind of like in China, they view the specialized high school test as their ticket, their generational ticket upward. These poor Chinatown immigrants who are business owners, small business owners in Flushing, Queens, are getting their kids to try to do well academically and think about this test in a more rigorous fashion. And in a sense it has made Asian Americans a lot more skeptical about what the Democratic party is trying to do to them.
Jonathan Kay: Has that been born out in polling data?
Kenny Xu: In 2020 Asian Americans voted for Trump, Donald Trump, who called the coronavirus the “China virus.” They voted for Donald Trump at a rate that was higher than any other Republican in the past 20 or 30 years. Really, since Reagan and Bush.
Jonathan Kay: The data you just shared with me about election patterns, I think something similar has happened with Hispanics. Hispanics often get lumped in with blacks in terms of progressive political typology. Is there more of a natural Alliance between Hispanics and Asians in coming years?
Kenny Xu: The reason why we have today’s notion of Hispanics as being an underprivileged minority is not because of systemic racism, it’s because there have been an influx of low educated Hispanic immigrants who come to this country and have driven down the median. But Hispanics that have integrated into this country are doing just fine. They’re doing great. They’re starting businesses. They’ve assimilated into so-called “white American culture.” They showed the American dream works. So I view Hispanics, with their generally conservative religious and social values and family stability, as the next so-called “minority” to be targeted for their success.
Jonathan Kay: It’s part of a trend, right? Jews, gay men, I guess increasingly women and now Asians, they kind of graduate out of these diversity boxes.
Let me finish by asking a little bit about you. I know you’ve been a conservative activist of some kind or another since an early age, but did you ever think that your public role would be so focused on the politics of race as it is now?
Kenny Xu: I spent a lot of time in high school defending my faith, defending evangelical Christianity. Politics is a lot easier.
Jonathan Kay: Okay, well, thanks very much. Kenny Xu, his forthcoming book is An Inconvenient Minority: The attack on Asian-American Excellence and the Fight for Meritocracy. You can read his work in Quillette and elsewhere. Thanks so much for being on the Quillette podcast.
Kenny Xu: Thank you Jon.