Affirmative Action Isn’t a Binary Choice for Harvard’s Asian Americans

James Kirkikis/Shutterstock

The Harvard Cooperative Bookstore in Cambridge, Massachusetts

On Wednesday in Boston, U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs heard closing arguments in the controversial affirmative action lawsuit, Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard. The case has been widely reported as dividing the Asian American community, but some of Harvard’s Asian American students have a perspective that hasn’t been widely documented: They believe that Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) is in the wrong; Harvard needs to do better; and, above all, affirmative action must be saved.

Her decision, likely to be announced months from now, could shake up the world of higher education. But one group of Asian American students is even more concerned that the lawsuit is turning college diversity into a binary issue, one where they must choose between condemning anti-Asian discrimination or protecting affirmative action. Ultimately, they have sided with Harvard for the sole purpose of defending affirmative action practices, but they aren’t exactly thrilled with the university either.

SFFA, a national group dedicated to ending the use of race as a factor in college admissions claims that Harvard uses racial quotas that disadvantage Asian Americans. Harvard officials deny the allegations, arguing that the university employs race-conscious admissions, that is, race is just one of many factors used to decide whether to admit a student.

The proceedings have forced the university to release details of its famously secretive admissions process, much to the delight of the media and Ivy League hopefuls. Court documents revealed that Harvard knew its process might harm Asian American applicants’ chances for admission. In 2013, the university launched an internal investigation into how their current practices impacted the applicant pool. 

The preliminary report concluded that Asian Americans tended to be negatively affected by Harvard’s so-called “personality scores.” These scores, which largely depend on interviews and letters of recommendation, prompted admissions officers to consider an applicant’s “sensitivity,” “grit,” and “leadership,” or ask questions like “What kind of roommate would this student be?”

Admissions officers received training on navigating race when evaluating applicants from other racial and ethnic groups but, according to the same collection of court documents, the training did not address how Asian Americans should be evaluated.

As for SFFA, the organization believes the personality scores support an informal quota and therefore Harvard should not consider race in its admissions.When word got out about the SFFA lawsuit, Harvard students naturally wanted to investigate why low personality scores disproportionately affected Asian American applicants and why racial sensitivity training did not happen. Even so, dismantling affirmative action didn’t make sense to Asian American students; if anything, they needed more protections against discrimination.

Last summer, Harvard undergraduates Julie Chung and Alexander Zhang, co-chairs of Harvard’s Pan-Asian Council, outlined this dilemma in a Harvard Crimsonop-ed titled “Students for Fair Admissions and Harvard Both Got It Wrong.” “Our firm support of affirmative action does not negate our disappointment with the College’s admissions office for failing to address potential systematic prejudices,” Chung and Zhang wrote. They questioned SFFA’s motivations; criticized Harvard’s inaction on effective diversity initiatives; urged administration officials to work on solutions within the university community; and called for solidarity among students of color.

But pushing against both Harvard and SFFA at the same time is tricky; students want to protect affirmative action, but they also can’t let Harvard off the hook. When I asked Chung and Zhang if either of them felt that SFFA or Harvard cared about these issues, I was met with awkward silence before Zhang responded, “It’s complicated.”

A diverse group of Harvard students filed an amicus brief supporting Harvard and took a similar stance. Despite putting their weight behind Harvard, the brief stresses that the students’ views “depart from both parties” in some significant respects. Brenda Shum, one of the attorneys representing the students who filed the brief, explained to The American Prospect: “The students would assert that Harvard needs to do more, not less, to promote a racially diverse campus.”

For Harvard undergraduate Sonya Kalara, a member of the school’s South Asian Association student group, it’s not difficult to support affirmative action “completely, wholly, and totally.” Kalara has seen her own admissions file and spoke highly of the work that the admissions officers put into selecting students.

Your admissions officers know you, read your application multiple times, and fought for you in committees,” Kalara told theProspect. “It’s an extremely holistic process.” Yet Kalara still believes that Harvard hasn’t fully addressed how Asian Americans might be unintentionally perceived during the admissions process.

Chung agrees. “We support affirmative action policies under Harvard’s current admissions program,” she told me, “but that doesn’t stop us from holding Harvard accountable to its students of color.” 

This isn’t the first time Asian Americans have organized around affirmative action at Harvard University. In 1976, two Chinese Americans were barred from Harvard’s orientation banquet for minority students. The reason, they were told, was that the university did not recognize Asians as minorities.

Over the course of that school year, Asian students fought to be recognized as people of color. Along the way, they discovered that the university had shied away from its affirmative action commitments toward Asians by excluding them from diversity and admissions outreach programs. The existence of affirmative action, specifically that it entitled Asians to social and psychological support as nonwhite students, became a key component in winning the campaign. After months of sit-ins and demonstrations of solidarity from other students of color, Asians were finally “granted” minority status at Harvard and included in affirmative action protections.

The Supreme Court later ruled that racial quotas were unconstitutional. But the high court also concluded that race could be used as one among a number of factors in university admissions. Race-conscious admissions allow universities to consider how an applicant’s race may have affected their access to resources and opportunities during their pre-college education. 

However, the universities that employ these policies must first show that existing race-neutral admissions (or an admissions process with no official consideration of race whatsoever) prevents them from enrolling a sufficiently diverse class of students to achieve a key goal: an educational experience that benefits from diversity.

Now, decades later, with SFFA arguing that Harvard uses racial quotas to discriminate against Asian Americans, a decision that finds that Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policies amount to quotas couldset off a rush to dismantle similar practices across the country. Universities that consider race as one factor in their admissions could be compelled to rely exclusivelyon color-blind policies, which is exactly what SFFA wants.

“There is a growing body of [media] coverage that is focusing on how this is a case of discrimination against Asians because that is the narrative SFFA is trying to push right now,” Zhang told the Prospect, “but the fact remains that they are trying to eliminate race-consciousness as a whole.”

It’s no secret that SFFA is synonymous with conservative activist Edward Blum, who has made a career of targeting affirmative action practices. Blum has filed similar lawsuits, including the high-profile Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin. Abigail Fisher, the white plaintiff, was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin and took legal action against the school, claiming that the use of race-conscious policies left her without a seat in the incoming freshman class. In 2016, the court ruled in favor of the university.

SFFA’s representation of Asian plaintiffs is complex, magnifying the uncertain status that Asians have held in American society. After all, as Zhang pointed out, “the reality is that SFFA does represent actual Asian students who have been impacted and feel hurt.” But there is also a question of how the experience of Asian American marginalization is addressed in the lawsuit, especially marginalization specific to different Asian American ethnic groups.

“When we talk about representing the interest of Asian students, which Asian students are we talking about?” asks Chung. “I hesitate to lump all our interests together; I think [SFFA] represents a specific cohort, maybe, of the Asian American population.”

Asian Americans comprise more than 18 ethnic groups, with their own unique histories and experiences of discrimination in this country, from the Chinese Exclusion Act of the late 1800s and Japanese internment camps during World War II, to deportation threats and violence faced by some Southeast Asian refugees today. The diversity within the Asian community too often goes unrecognized by non-Asians, even in those rare moments when Asian Americans are in the public spotlight. As Kalara points out, “the ways in which the admissions process affects Southeast Asians or South Asians like myself is very different. That’s something that deserves a little more recognition.”

Asians are the fastest-growing racial group in the United States and feature some of the largest disparities in wealth and education, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center report. In 2015, Asians with the highest incomes were making nearly 11 times more than the poorest Asians. Japanese, Filipino, and Indian Americans had the lowest rates of poverty among Asians at 8.4 percent, 7.5 percent, and 7.5 percent, respectively, while Burmese immigrants had a poverty rate of 35 percent, followed by Bhutanese (33.3 percent) and Hmong (28.3 percent).

Overall, 51 percent of Asians who are 25 and older have a bachelor’s degree or higher compared with 30 percent of all Americans in this age cohort. Sixty percent of Malaysians have a bachelor’s degree or higher at age 25 or older, followed by Sri Lankans at 57 percent and Mongolians at 59 percent. But for Hmong immigrants, the share of adults holding bachelor’s degrees or higher drops to 17 percent; Laotians, 16 percent; and Bhutanese, 9 percent. Compounding these incongruities, a 2018 study on college financial aid found that Asian Americans had the highest unmet need when it came to tuition costs, no matter where they attended school.

Most Asian Americans are aware that affirmative action does benefit them. Sixty-four percent of Asian American voters are in favor of affirmative action, when groups like blacks, women, and other minorities are named as the beneficiaries. But when polling questions indicate that there is a set number of racially designated seats, and words like “quota” are used, Asian American support for affirmative action plummets.

It is not surprising that quotas carry such negative connotations: Asian immigrants have been subjected to xenophobic government policies such as the Chinese Exclusion Act, which limited and later prohibited Chinese and other Asian ethnic groups from immigrating to the U.S. Some older Asian Americans are so uncomfortable with any allusions to quotas that younger Asian activists seeking to expand census data to include new ethnic categories have encountered opposition within their own communities.

But the fact that affirmative action can help Asian American applicants undermines SFFA’s legal argument. Rather than addressing the nuances of how Asian Americans are overlooked by American society, SFFA wove a narrative around meritocracy—effectively tapping into the “model minority” myth, which idealizes Asian American immigrants compared to blacks and Latinos. The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund and 34 other Asian American groups and individualscondemned the lawsuit: “SFFA actually perpetuates the ‘model minority’ myth and fails to disclose that its requested remedy—the elimination of race-conscious admissions—would mostly benefit white applicants.”

“SFFA essentially conflates high school grades and test scores with merit and presumes that these criteria alone should drive admissions decisions,” Shum, the attorney, told the Prospect. “They imply that ‘underqualified’ black and Latino students are displacing ‘overqualified’ Asian American applicants.” Shum dismisses the argument as “both offensive and inaccurate.”

It’s important to note that Harvard doesn’t admit students purely on academic merit, as a recent Prospect article points out. Instead, admissions officers consider the “whole person” behind the applicationThat distinction allows children of alumni, athletes, and artists to effectively compete with academic superstars. However, wealthy and legacy applicants are much more likely to be accepted in higher numbers, and when Harvard tested race-neutral options for their admissions process they found that those options would have the most negative impacts on students who identified as African American, Latin American, or “other.”

If anything, the Harvard case only underscores that some Asian American students need affirmative action policies to ensure that they are able to compete against their privileged peers. Yet, by focusing much of its case on the ways in which affirmative action may influence admission rates, SFFA is essentially claiming that race alone is a determining factor for students who get accepted to Harvard.

But what exactly would these Asian American students have Harvard do? A few ideas being discussed include hiring more admissions officers of color; promoting a more transparent admissions process by explaining how the personality scores are used; promoting racial sensitivity training for students, faculty, and staff; and the establishment of a multicultural student center.

For Kalara, the Harvard undergraduate, diversity will always be integral to her student experience. She is convinced that the academic contributions and political activism of black, Latinx, and Asian American students help make Harvard a force for social change. “To lose that would be such a travesty,” Kalara says. “I don’t want to see a Harvard like that—that is not my Harvard.”

You may also like