One of the most closely-watched cases in higher education received judgment last week when District Judge Allison D. Burroughs ruled in favor of Harvard in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard. The decision marks a great victory for advocates of affirmative action, but it is also important to recognize the complexity behind the decision and its implications for Asian Americans in the college admissions process. And so, while we applaud Judge Burrough’s decision to uphold the basic tenets of affirmative action, her nearly unequivocal ruling in support of Harvard’s admissions process must be carefully analyzed for its tacit support of Harvard’s biased practices against Asian Americans.
The legal fight against affirmative action in college admissions did not and will not end with this case. Ever since the 1978 Supreme Court case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, in which the Court declared explicit racial quotas to be unconstitutional, activists against affirmative action have attempted to make the practice wholly illegal in America. Most significant of these activists is Edward Blum, the mastermind behind the Harvard case and countless other cases targeting affirmative action. Blum has not received favorable judgments in his previous cases, many of which put forth white students as plaintiffs. It can be argued that he chose to appropriate the Asian-American community to be poster children of his anti-affirmative action mission in the hope that it would result in a more successful ruling.
Let us be clear: affirmative action is a system that continues to benefit college and university campuses throughout our nation. Affirmative action is critical for those in underrepresented racial groups because it grants them important seats at the table of higher education and beyond. Furthermore, affirmative action serves as a corrective to decades of injustice and exclusion against black Americans. Therefore, admission into colleges and universities, regardless of their prestige, is an important tool for social mobility and the combating of many of the racial inequalities in our society. It goes without saying that affirmative action and its effects on campus diversity improves the academic experience for everyone involved, including Asian Americans.
It is disappointing that Students for Fair Admissions, led by Blum, chose to target the system of affirmative action without taking a second look at the highly unmeritocratic system of preferential admissions, which admits many students that are not people of color. A 2019 study revealed that between 2009 and 2014, 43 percent of white students at Harvard were either legacy students, recruited athletes, children of faculty/staff or the children of donors. Less than 16 percent of African American, Asian American and Hispanic admits were a part of any of these groups. There is no doubt that the system of college admissions, especially at elite institutions like Harvard, is inherently unequal. So to go after affirmative action, not preferential admissions, as the source of the inequality is misguided.
Even so, the problem with Judge Burroughs’ decision is the implication that the Harvard’s admissions process is not at all biased toward Asian Americans. No one can discredit the fact that, as shown in documents filed in the case, Asian-American applicants are disproportionately assigned low “personal ratings” and systematically described as “bland,” “quiet” and “not exciting” by Harvard’s admissions officers — playing into long-held racist stereotypes making Asian Americans out to be robots and submissive nerds. The perpetuation of the stereotype that Asian Americans are quiet and timid is inherently unjust. For decades, Asian Americans have fought against the oppressive “model minority” myth, which is used as a racial wedge between Asian Americans and other minority groups to the benefit of white Americans. The fact that an institution like Harvard is taking this trope and using it against their Asian-American applicants raises cause for concern, separate from the question of affirmative action.
While Judge Burroughs acknowledged these lower ratings and comments in her decision, she cited the testimony of Harvard admissions officers as evidence of a lack of discrimination in Harvard’s admissions process. No reasonable person is going to willfully admit to explicit discrimination and implicit bias in a court of law, even under oath — the officers themselves may not even be aware of their unconscious prejudices. But even if admissions officers were not explicitly discriminatory towards Asian-American applicants, the implicit bias that led to these lower personal ratings and comments remains. Of course, it would be difficult, perhaps impossible, to find a causal relationship between lower personal comments and an applicant’s identity as an Asian American, but the correlation continues to exist in the system. Judge Burroughs’ decision, which provided no legal solution for this implicit bias and negative correlation, ultimately does nothing to repair Harvard’s broken system.
So where does the fight go from here? It’s clear that this case is not over, with SFFA’s intention to take the fight all the way to the Supreme Court. Yet, regardless of the outcome, the systemic inequality of Harvard’s admissions process will not be solved. A reasonable solution to this issue may indeed involve the preservation of affirmative action with the dissolution of preferential treatment toward white legacy students and athletes. If Harvard is truly an institution that values and celebrates its commitment to diversity, it should do so with full force. And if Amherst College hopes to do the same to uphold its reputation as a diverse and just-minded institution, it must recognize the nuances of the case and consider its own treatment of Asian-American students and applicants. As of now, that “commitment” remains shaky at best.
Unsigned editorials represent the Editorial Board (assenting: 13; dissenting: 1; abstaining: 0)