Last month, a Massachusetts court heard opening arguments from a nonprofit group called Students for Fair Admissions, which is suing Harvard University. The trial centers around alleged racial discrimination in Harvard’s admissions policies, presenting the Asian-American community as the victim of racism in the United States. The nonprofit’s founder, Edward Blum, has a history of litigating against policy measures that protect racial diversity: he’s tried this before with white applicants in Fisher v. University of Texas, a case he lost, later saying, “I needed Asian plaintiffs.” Asian-Americans should be wary of becoming the new faces of Blum’s insidious conservative project, considering that a win against Harvard would noticeably roll back civil rights and racial progress. While it is true that Asian-Americans do face discrimination in the college admissions process, the outrage is gravely misplaced. Other non-academic factors, such as legacy, are inexcusably unfair because they disproportionately favor wealthy whites. Conversely, affirmative action plays a vital role in creating a more diverse student population and equitable society.
Affirmative action was first introduced to college admissions in the 1960s, though a series of court cases since have narrowed its scope. Today, race is only allowed to be considered in admissions when used to foster diversity; precedent following Regents of the University of California v. Bakke meant that considering race to counter structural racism was “too broad of a goal.” Furthermore, race must be considered on an equal level to extracurriculars or volunteering when diversity is a concern. Bearing in mind how narrow the scope of affirmative action really is, a different, real problem of the college admissions process comes to light: legacy admissions.
A legacy applicant is seven times more likely to be admitted to an elite college. At schools such as Yale (Conn.), Harvard (Mass.), Georgetown (D.C.) and Princeton (N.J.), over 10 percent of first year class enrollment consists of legacy students. In other schools such as Notre Dame (Ind.), that number is over 22 percent. Legacy admissions disproportionately favor students whose families have been in the United States for multiple generations, concentrating access to elite universities to only certain family lineages. Meanwhile, Asian-American applicants are more likely to be from immigrant families and therefore lack the generational clout that legacy students have. Legacy allows predominantly white families to stack the deck in their favor while the debate over affirmative action has wrongfully pitted people of color against each other. Asian-Americans have been manipulated into thinking that affirmative action gives advantages to undeserving blacks and Latinx folks. Instead, all minorities have been far more disadvantaged by the generational concentration of power in predominantly wealthy white families.
Blum’s case is a clear distraction from the real problem, and it is quite apparent that he has little interest in actually promoting Asian-American rights. He’s a legal strategist, and aside from his role in Fisher v. University of Texas, he also played a part in rolling back the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. His victory made it more difficult for communities facing discriminatory voting restrictions to file suits against said laws. Blum’s past litigations suggest that his ideals of meritocracy are a cover for his desire to overturn policies that protect minorities. If Blum genuinely cared about meritocratic college admissions, he would attack legacy admissions. His attempt to use Asian-Americans as a battering ram against affirmative action is in and of itself a form of racial antagonism. His past comments about needing Asian applicants and his career being built upon gutting civil rights make it blatantly obvious that Asian-Americans are only tokens that Blum intends to use to infringe upon minority rights.
While Blum’s views on affirmative action are egregiously misguided, he is correct in arguing that Asian-Americans have faced discrimination in the college admissions process. The evidence presented in the Harvard trial suggests that admissions interviewers consistently rated Asian-Americans low in social skills. Such stereotyping is harmful; it plays into the myth of the model minority that all Asian-Americans are good at STEM and socially awkward, homogenizing millions of diverse individuals. However, affirmative action is not the hill upon which this battle should be fought. Yes, it is disgusting that Asian-Americans are consistently perceived as deficient in soft skills, but that issue is completely separate from affirmative action. Breaking down interviewers’ perceptions of Asian-Americans is a problem with how interviewers aren’t trained in overcoming their biases — it has nothing to do with affirmative action.
Affirmative action is geared toward shaping a diverse student body. This diversity in turn breaks down biases and institutionalized stereotypes by exposing students to people with different beliefs, heritages and experiences. It can break down racial prejudices, dismantle problematic power structures and foster a more just society. Asian-Americans know too well how it feels to be stereotyped, to exist in a world where all they are is kung fu fighting Bruce Lee, curry-eating Patel or Tam from the rice fields. As a result, Asian-Americans should understand affirmative action not as an unfair disadvantage, but as a necessary mechanism for the dismantling of racial inequality across all racial groups. The question Asian-Americans must answer now is this: for whom do they seek justice, only themselves or all minorities?
Anthony Wong (21C) is from Lexington, Mass.