Monday, Oct. 15 was the first day of the highly-publicized trial, Students for Fair Admissions Inc. (SFFA) v. President and Fellows of Harvard College. The lawsuit first began when SFFA a conservative non-profit organization, filed a lawsuit against Harvard in 2014, alleging that the school had discriminated against Asian-American applicants in its admissions process.
As an Asian American who has gone through the college admissions process, I have very mixed feelings about this case. Despite having the highest standardized test scores, grades and extracurricular scores among any ethnic group, Asian-American students’ personal ratings lowered their chance of admission at Harvard. I am irate after hearing that Harvard consistently gave Asian-American applicants lower personality scores than their peers. Described as uninteresting and indistinguishable from other Asian Americans, these applicants were also given lower ratings on components such as “likeability,” “kindness,” and “integrity.” As the case continues to drag on in federal court, it is clear that the discriminatory policies and attitudes that reduced Jewish applicants’ acceptance rates at Harvard in the 1920s are now strategically and systemically targeting another minority group today.
It is clear that no admissions officer can reasonably judge a student’s personality through a hasty glance at an application. Yet, admissions officers at Harvard systematically evaluated students of an entire minority group as “less likeable” and “less kind,” thus resulting in a lower personality score and a lower chance of acceptance. The perpetuation of the quiet, boring Asian stereotype to disadvantage Asian-American applicants is just as repugnant as it sounds. Asian Americans have had to grapple with the oppressive identity as the “model minority” for decades and have faced rebuke for their willingness to “fit in.” The fact that an influential institution like Harvard is taking advantage of such a broad, tired trope and using it to hurt Asian-American applicants is indefensible.
The issue becomes complicated because as an Asian American, I realize that my particular identity does not expose me to the political, cultural and economic obstacles that other people of color face on a daily basis. As a student from Hawaii, a state where Asians constitute the majority of the population, I admit that there are few obstacles related to my race that prevent me from attaining academic success.
Furthermore, affirmative action is critical for many underrepresented racial groups because it allows them seats at the table of higher education. It goes without saying that the goal of increased campus diversity is possible because of policies like affirmative action. It provides academic opportunities for minority groups and improves education for everyone.
Where I draw the line is when an elite institution, like Harvard, achieves its renowned diversity by attacking the characters of Asian-American applicants, while simultaneously providing a boost to legacy and rich white applicants. College admissions is ultimately a zero-sum game. When Harvard decides to accept 5.6 percent of its stellar applicants, it is also deciding to reject 94.4 percent of its other applicants. The same logic can be applied to affirmative action. When Harvard and its peer institutions decide to assign a “plus factor” to certain underrepresented minorities, they also simultaneously assign a “negative factor” to Asian-American applicants as well. Writers like Nate Raymond at Reuters have demonstrated this in their reporting.
In this zero-sum game, I am shocked that wealthy and legacy white applicants have not been targeted by SSFA. What concerns me is the case’s attack on underrepresented minority applicants and its utter apathy towards the unusually high number of white, legacy applicant admissions at Harvard. The SFFA makes it seems as though the sole obstacle to Asian-American applicants is other minority applicants.
This is not a new phenomenon in American history. For too long, Asians have been forced to fight against other minority groups while privileged white Americans have stood on the sidelines. As far back as the Reconstruction era after the Civil War, Chinese workers were brought in to replace former black slaves in the South. While privileged white industrialists raked in profits, Asians and blacks viciously fought each other for hazardous jobs with low pay. It is clear that while Asians don’t face the systemic disadvantages as other minority groups do today, we are still far from enjoying the societal advantages that come with white privilege. It is this Asian status of secondary whiteness that has held us back for generations. The Harvard case, which draws little attention to the exceedingly-high number of white legacy admits to Harvard, is not an exception.
White privilege has designed a system that makes the success of minorities, much like the college admissions system, is a zero-sum game. The Harvard case is a prime example of this phenomenon in multiple ways. Asian Americans have begun to blame and target other minority groups for racial discrimination in the college admissions process. This highly vocal minority of Asian Americans believe that other minorities have begun to “steal” their place in America’s top colleges and universities. Stoked by SFFA founder and activist Edward Blum, these discontent, rejected Asian-American applicants have become the racial mascots of his anti-affirmative action agenda. In a video circulating online, Blum even insisted at one point that he “needed Asian plaintiffs” to win his case, signifying that these angry, passionate Asian-American applicants are vital to fulfilling his conservative agenda. Blum’s goal is clear: to remove all aspects of race from college admissions. To him, these angry Asians applicants are little more than pawns in a complicated legal chess game.
The SFFA v. Harvard case is a lose-lose situation for Asian Americans. If the SFFA were to win, Asian-American applicants would have an easier time entering college while other minority applicants would suffer. Asian Americans would benefit off of the losses of other minority groups, while disproportionately wealthy, legacy applicants would still easily gain acceptance into Harvard. If Harvard were to win, Asian-American applicants would continue to face racial discrimination in college admissions on criteria as subjective as personality. No matter the outcome, minority groups are hurt while white privilege remains intact. It is this paradox that has prevented minorities like Asian Americans from attaining true, unmeasured success. It is this paradox that will continue to create obstacles for minorities for decades, perhaps centuries, to come.
However, hope cannot be lost. With a considerable amount of effort, Asian Americans can defy the status quo. Asians Americans can work together to destroy the cultural, economic and even educational institutions that keep us from succeeding. We can see the dominance of white privilege in our society for what it is and fight it. We can reject institutions designed to keep us down and stand up for both our community and others as well. We can come to terms with our “model minority” status while also fighting against the oppressive systems that gave us that designation in the first place. The Harvard case, while only one legal suit, may very well become the megaphone that Asian Americans use to break the cycle of oppression. The only question lies in whether or not we use it.