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The Real Winners of the Harvard Lawsuit

Opinion | October 29, 2018

On October 16, Harvard University went to trial in a Boston Federal District Court in defense of its race-conscious admissions policy. The lawsuit is led by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a non-profit group of more than 20,000 students and parents, including a group of Asian Americans rejected from Harvard, who, according to their website “believe that racial classifications and preferences in college admissions are unfair, unnecessary, and unconstitutional.” They accuse Harvard of setting a quota on their acceptance of Asian Americans and judging them by higher standards than other applicants. The case has sparked national debate because of its potential threat to all colleges that consider race when weighing admissions decisions.

Rather than explicitly arguing that Harvard admissions is unfair to White applicants, SFFA claims that affirmative action, which is designed to benefit marginalized groups, including Asian Americans, is actually disadvantageous for them—for people like me. The plaintiff, SFFA, is unabashedly pitting Asian Americans against other communities of color in order to abolish affirmative action. This shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, considering the lawsuit is being led by Edward Blum, SFFA’s founder and a White supremacist, who has organized several anti-affirmative action lawsuits in the past. If the court rules in favor of SFFA, the ramifications of this case could set a dangerous precedent for abolishing affirmative action at the federal level.

Abolishing affirmative action would lower diversity, exacerbate social inequity, and quite literally, dull our environment. In fact, affirmative action as it stands isn’t enough––Black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented in the nation’s top colleges than they were 35 years ago, and Harvard’s legacy admission rate is five times that of the non-legacy admission rate. Removing race from the consideration of applications is an egregious derailment of decades-long work of anti-racist organizing, and Blum’s actions are a part of a larger ongoing backlash to repeal civil rights policies such as affirmative action, which were once more robust than today.

In a Huffington Post article published on January 22, 2013, Gary Orfield, Professor of Education, Law, Politics, and Urban Planning and co-director of the Civil Rights Project at the University of California, Los Angeles, details how desegregated schools of Black students have gradually re-segregated since the Supreme Court ended segregation efforts 22 years ago. According to Orfield, as affirmative action has been both cut back and eliminated in some states, Black students are continually “segregated by both race and poverty and have weaker graduation rates, less qualified teachers and weaker educational offerings,” with no significant federal efforts to prevent this deepening inequality.

Although history and memory will tell us that the continued siege on civil rights policies is unsurprising, it still feels uncomfortable to talk about my own experience with college admissions within the ongoing discourse. I am adamant about my support for Harvard’s affirmative action policies in this lawsuit, but there needs to be more nuance in how we are positioned within these discussions of race-conscious admissions. Among Asian Americans, including myself, there exists a pernicious fear of dismissing discrimination out of fear of threatening affirmative action entirely. But to blindly approve of Harvard’s admissions follows a dangerous narrative of denying the need to interrogate claims of institutional bias, which we know exist within any higher education institutions of power such as Harvard.

Harvard argues that while race is a factor in making admission decisions, it is never intended to hurt an applicant, nor is it a definitive deciding factor. Its current defense obscures the very reality that Asian Americans are discriminated against, and by arguing that discrimination against Asian Americans is not an issue, it alleviates culpability from Harvard’s admissions itself. The many Asian American writers who have voiced their support in defense of Harvard have also argued that Blum’s lawsuit is actually about affirmative action and not anti-Asian bias. However, I feel simultaneously emotional and frustrated because these analyses sometimes neglect the overwhelming stress and, at times, life-threatening challenges that accompany the college process as an Asian American, particularly for first-generation, low-income Asian American students. Additionally, within the Asian American community, those between the ages 20 to 24 have the highest suicide rate.

In high school, despite my family declaring bankruptcy twice, I spent most after-school hours in SAT prep centers and private one-on-one tutoring sessions. Time ceased to exist in these fluorescent-lit classrooms, jammed in a desk too small for my lanky legs, all the while committing to memory the dullness of arbitrary formulas and words too pompous for any adolescent to learn. My freshman year of high school, I suffered the first of many panic attacks, followed by early-onset depression after my Asian American classmate’s drug overdose. My education means everything to my immigrant family, no matter the price tag, and because I’m Asian American, they believed that colleges would hold me to higher standards.

My story is not the only narrative that exists for Asian Americans, but it follows a mythical and all too familiar trajectory of exceptionalism: if we adhere to meritocracy, we can be closer to Whiteness and reap its benefits while justifying racism against other people of color. And while there are infinite levels of racism Asian Americans endure in admissions, we all experience it for the same reason: we aren’t the kind of people institutions like Harvard see as valuable, whether it be our connections, donations, or for our ability to be tokenized in diversity and inclusion initiatives like affirmative action.

Whatever the court rules will not champion justice, and White people are the only group that will benefit from the lawsuit. The court will either abolish affirmative action and increase White enrollment, or maintain affirmative action and keep Black and Hispanic enrollment at low rates. Keeping affirmative action in place is a definitive way of ensuring diversity in higher education, but it isn’t sufficient to address myopic standards of meritocracy, economic redistributive justice, or the dismantling of White supremacy. The question of considering race in admissions shouldn’t be the bastion of diversity, but it must consider the humanity of Asian Americans and other students of color, and the multifaceted manifestations of racism in our experiences.