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Affirmative Action: Harvard v. Asian Americans

Chi Huynh November 25, 2018

Despite its official wrap-up on November 2nd, it might not be the finale for either Harvard’s controversial lawsuit or the decision on affirmative action.

It all began in 2014 when the coalition, Students For Fair Admissions, filed a complaint against Harvard’s racial quota in its undergraduate admissions process. With evidence from a Harvard internal study, they accused the institution of intentionally limiting many qualified Asian-Americans’ admittance by giving them low personality scores, despite outperforming other ethnic groups in academics and extracurriculars. These “personal ratings” are traits such as courage, likeability, or being “widely respected.” They also claim that this practice was similar to Harvard capping the admittance of highly qualified Jews in the 1970s fearing that they would become “too Jewish.” More importantly, this case again brought up the issue of affirmative action and the use of racial identity in the college admissions process.

In case you are not familiar, affirmative action in higher education aims to provide more access to historically marginalized and underrepresented students by giving preferences in the admissions process based on ethnic or cultural backgrounds. Due to Asian-Americans’ minority status and high performance, critics often use this group as an example for why race should not be a factor in college admissions. Harvard even admitted in its internal review that Asian-Americans would make up 43% of each class if admissions were based entirely on academics, significantly reducing college access to other ethnic groups.

On the other hand,  Asian discrimination in the college admissions process is not a new story, particularly at prestigious, selective institutions. A Princeton study in 2004 stated that Asians needed to score 450 more points than African-American students and 140 more points than white students in order to be considered. Asian-Americans are often advised to not disclose their cultural and racial identities in the hopes being perceived as “less Asian.” With that being said, when looking at the student body demographics, Asian-Americans still take a larger portion of the population compared to African-American and Hispanic students, and white students are still the majority.

During the trial on November 2, the SFFA focused on the personal ratings of Asian-Americans compared to other ethnic groups along with the use of race in admissions, while Harvard claimed that SFFA who wanted to “turn back the clock” to eliminate all race consideration in admissions. This claim came from the fact that while the SFFA is mostly composed of Asian-Americans, it was formed by the Jewish conservative strategist, Edward Plum. On Harvard’s side, despite receiving support from higher education leaders and its community, it still lost a large part of the public trust. They have also changed their admissions practices to not consider race in personal ratings since the lawsuit began, which may be perceived as a symbolically agreeing that the school has been discriminating against Asians before.

The final question is, what happens now? Nobody knows for sure but the lawsuit is still dragged on until February 2019 with a new hearing and filings. Regardless which stance you take, it is important to acknowledge the need for compromise and mutual understanding!