Affirmative action has long been supported by minority groups for its efforts to level the playing field when it comes to college admissions. However, there’s an uptick in opposition to affirmative action by ethnic subgroups who feel that the policy unfairly discriminates.  Specifically, Chinese Americans are mobilizing around the issue in increasingly conservative ways.

It is this shift that political science graduate student Daeun Song aims to address through research. She’s the recipient of a doctoral dissertation fellowship from the Haynes Foundation, which supports social sciences research in the greater Los Angeles area. Song’s study aims to parse the complex environment of Asian American politics in the United States.

With Haynes Foundation funding, Song will study today’s complex political environment, looking specifically at affirmative action perceptions among Asian Americans. This research will focus on two main areas: the rise of Chinese immigrant politics in the United States, and the division of the Asian American community on the subject of affirmative action.

As for how she landed on this specific topic, Song cites her educational path - B.A. in sociology from the University of Denver, and M.A. in political science from Duke University - as well as her interest in minority politics in the United States. “I was always interested in the issue of race and ethnicity,” says Song. In particular, she wanted to see how and why the affirmative action shift is happening.

Young, affluent and well-educated Chinese Americans are mobilizing to oppose affirmative action, and they are employing well-funded and highly organized political groups to do so. These individuals are establishing their reluctance to support admissions criteria that, in their opinion, encourages racial inequality. They contend that for Chinese Americans, the consideration of race in college admissions has an overall negative impact, and that if race were not a factor, far more Chinese Americans would be admitted based solely on academic merit.

Song notes that some of the difficulty in studying how affirmative action and the Asian American population is the lack of research specific to this ethnic group. Most studies focus on minorities as a monolithic group, with some work looking specifically at African American and Latinx communities. As for Asian American studies, work done to date has focused on the community’s support of affirmative action. Song aims to balance published work and to “see Asian American politics with a broader lens and look at it from both sides.”

Narrowing the scope to what is researchable, Song’s next steps will include interviewing the leaders of Asian American political organizations - both those in favor and opposed to affirmative action. Song aims to identify how organizations perceive their place in the racial hierarchy and how that impacts their political involvement. Additionally, Song’s research will conduct a text analysis of the mission statements of these organizations, to better understand the language and semantics utilized to mobilize individuals to action, and how these groups can help drive election decisions. 

Song says that the public may have found it confusing to see mixed messages regarding affirmative action among the Asian American community.

“What’s the dissonance?” says Song. “My job is to clarify that.”

Davin Phoenix, UCI assistant professor of political science, serves on Song’s dissertation committee. “Her work can illuminate the ways that factors such as generation status, national origin, affluence, and community leaders shape the diverse threads of political thinking among Asian Americans, a group steadily rising in number and influence in the U.S.,” he says.

The timing of her research is pertinent, considering the subject of affirmative action is once again gaining national media attention. Specifically, the Harvard lawsuit that alleges admissions at the university unfairly discriminates against Asian Americans, citing that an academics-only admissions model would result in far greater admissions of Chinese Americans.

Song’s area of study is an understudied field, says her faculty advisor, Claire Kim, professor of political science. Her work is “really important and timely research.” Particularly, Song’s exploration will aim to provide a broader survey of Asian American politics in the US.

“Her work is going to help us understand where Asians fit into the American racial order,” says Kim.

This study will look at “a new political phenomenon that very few other scholars have looked at - the rise of Chinese American politics in the U.S.,” says Kim. “It will look at what it means not just for Asian American politics, but also more generally U.S. politics and how race plays out because they are this new, really effective political force.”

Song says the faculty at UCI have been invaluable in guiding her, helping to develop the theoretical backbone and the framework for qualitative and quantitative analysis in the study. Regarding the support her faculty team has provided, Song says she “could not have asked for a better committee - I’m very fortunate to have them as a part of my team.” Her dissertation committee consists of co-chairs Claire Kim and Louis DeSipio, professor of political science and professor and chair of Chicano/Latino studies, as well as Davin Phoenix, and Kerry Haynie, associate professor of political science at Duke University.

“What particularly impresses me is her commitment to mixed-method research in which she taps both large data sets and in-depth interviews with some of her respondents,” says DeSipio of both Song’s work and methodology. “This allows her to tell both a broad story about Asian Americans in the United States that can be generalized to the Asian American community as a whole (what she can learn from the large data sets), but also to understand the process of how Asian Americans translate identity (and intergroup relations) to different forms of political behavior.”

Song hopes that her research will not only accomplish the goals identified above, but also possibly serve as a model for studying other ethnic subgroups in the U.S. Additionally, with similar political activity happening globally, Song sees potential applications for this model in other countries.

-Kara Roberts for UCI School of Social Sciences


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