On Monday, the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases challenging admissions practices at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. The plaintiff, Students for Fair Admissions, represents aggrieved Asian American parents and children who believe they have been wrongly excluded by universities using race-conscious policies to achieve greater campus diversity. In the course of questioning, the court’s six conservatives seemed, according to the best guesses of analysts including Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick and Mark Joseph Stern, ready to overturn precedent and rule in favor of the plaintiffs.
In recent years, Asian Americans have become the poster children for the takedown of affirmative action. It’s an ironic turn of events when we consider that Asian Americans were some of affirmative action’s very earliest architects. In fact, a number of Asian Americans helped launch affirmative action in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s by setting some of the bones of the policy infrastructure. Among them: Mike and Etsu Masaoka (lobbyists), Ina Sugihara (organizer), and John Yoshino (bureaucrat)—sons and daughters of Japanese immigrants who came of age during the home-front upheavals of World War II.
At the time, their contributions appeared modest and of secondary importance. But these influencers’ efforts had far-reaching implications for minority rights that would come to matter for everyone with a stake in the connections between race and opportunity in the United States.
Two key turning points in the history of racial justice emerged in the 1930s and ’40s with the rise of fascism in Europe, setting the stage for the rise of affirmative action. One was the idea of the “minority,” which took hold among liberal social scientists, government officials, and community leaders. They began to conceive of a salient divide splitting the populace into a “majority” (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants) and “minorities” (everyone else). As conflicts in Europe made clear, the existence of “minorities” (as an idea) threatened to undermine a nation’s unity and stability. “Minorities” were not only physically and culturally distinctive, they were targeted by wrongful prejudice and discrimination. To counter this, midcentury liberals championed moral persuasion and robust state intervention to eliminate discriminatory barriers. Their goal: the full assimilation and integration of “minorities.”
The Black Freedom Movement provided the second key turning point. The movement was the driving force in redefining “rights” from the mid-20th century onward, shifting expectations from equality of opportunity to equality of results. For “minorities,” this looked like integrated military units, housing, and schools.
Underlying the notion of “minorities” were implicit but crucial questions. Who counts as a bona fide minority? Which groups are sufficiently beleaguered, or subjected to severe patterns of disenfranchisement and discrimination, to warrant government intervention and compensatory justice? The answer was neither self-evident nor agreed upon. Black people were the primary focus of the federal government’s first minority rights efforts. But their calls for rights and equality were capacious enough to allow other groups to benefit.
For Asian Americans, this advent of the idea of minority rights presented an opening. But it also posed a conundrum. How might they “prove” their status as beleaguered minorities?
In the tense months leading up to the United States’ entry into World War II, Black labor organizer A. Philip Randolph called for a march on Washington to desegregate the military and defense industries. The pressure compelled President Franklin D. Roosevelt to issue Executive Order 8802 in June 1941. The decree banned discrimination on the basis of “race, creed, color, or national origin” in government agencies, companies, and unions contracted for defense work. EO 8802 also established the Committee on Fair Employment Practices, or FEPC, to oversee policy and investigate complaints.
FEPC held public hearings in Los Angeles in October of that year. The Japanese American Citizens League, a fledgling social welfare/proto-political organization, signed up to air their grievances. JACL National Secretary Mike Masaoka—a self-described “inexperienced cocky youngster”—testified on the employment discrimination faced by Japanese Americans. “We Japanese Americans ask for the right to live, to earn a living, on an equal basis with all other Americans,” he said. “We humbly request that we be given the same chance to serve our country in the defense industries.” JACL testimony led to trade unions, aircraft companies, and shipbuilders pledging to eliminate anti-Japanese bias. FEPC committed to monitoring the outcomes.