In the city of Boston, home to the elite Harvard University, a group of largely Asian-American protesters line the streets, the sound of their chants striking against the frigid autumn air. In their hands, they hold small American flags that slowly move with the wind and signs adorned in red, white and blue lettering that read “Support race neutral admissions.” Anger and frustration is etched deep into their faces as their signs pierce through the air.
Controversial since its very beginning in 1961, affirmative action was signed into practice by John F. Kennedy, disallowing employers to discriminate against employees or prospective employees for race, creed, and national origin. Since then, it is a policy that has been taken up not just by companies, but by universities in admitting students.
As a result, various cases have appeared over the years where a student’s claims affirmative action prevented them from being accepted into a college. For example, in Fisher v. University of Texas, a white student named Abigail Fisher filed a lawsuit against the University of Texas for rejecting her as she claimed it violated the Equal Protection Clause, even though her transcript was below average for many applicants. Other cases against affirmative action follow the same pattern. Another over privileged white student complains about being rejected and cowers behind phrases like ‘reverse racism’ so they don’t have to confront themselves.
This time it’s different.
In the newest case, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) v. Harvard University, the SFFA claims Harvard University violated the Civil Rights Act and should no longer consider race in the admissions process. However, instead of the expected group of white students claiming discrimination, the voices of outrage belong to Asian-Americans. These students claim that, even though they have the credentials, their rejection letter still comes because of laws like affirmative action and implicit bias that hurts the admissions process.
What they choose to ignore
Until now, the most outspoken voices against affirmative action have been white conservatives. They cry that reverse racism and affirmative action discriminates against white people. The tune never changes. In constant denial of systematic inequalities that have plagued America for centuries, the necessity of affirmative action has never clicked with them.
Apparently, it hasn’t clicked with these Asian-American students either. They fail to realize what a race neutral admission process would look like. The SFFA is putting economically disadvantaged students at risk. Those who didn’t have access to beneficial resources growing up like tutoring or private lessons will be put in a position where higher education will become increasingly difficult to pursue. Gradually, these students will fall behind the rest in some way or another and obviously won’t perform as well as other students who had the previously mentioned opportunities.
The benefit in comparing them to people of similar background, though, is that it recognizes these factors and affirmative action allows schools to take into account how a student’s environment affects their performance. A solution to this might be to only look at a family’s economic background. However, according to the Federal Reserve, the average net worth of a white family is ten times as much as that of black family’s, meaning race is strongly related to wealth and economic stability. Because of socioeconomic factors, considering race in the admissions process indirectly looks at a family’s financial status, as well. It would be incredibly dangerous to ignore how the loss of affirmative action will have an arguably negative effect on minorities.
Affirmative action makes up or at least attempts to make up for years upon years of abuse by the system on minorities. Of course, there was slavery, labor exploitation, family separation, and hate crimes, but what people fail to understand is that America’s crimes against minorities lives on to this day.
Oppression is systemic. It follows like plumes of smoke behind the affected party, reminding them of things that will simply just be harder for them to achieve. The reason certain minority groups aren’t making enough money or have such low graduation rates isn’t because they don’t work hard enough. It’s because they’ve put in a system that undermined them from the beginning. The extent to which a person succeeds in environments like school are not just a measure of personal achievement, but of the support they had in their environment.
Asian-Americans and implicit bias
Asian-Americans fighting against affirmative action may not realize it now, but they’re only hurting themselves. Without affirmative action, white students will be the inadvertently preferred demographic to universities. After all, many are legacy students who have the money to attend these elite colleges.
More than that, this group of students don’t realize just how much affirmative action doesn’t affect them. Race is never a deciding factor in the college admissions process and is just one part of a holistic review. Colleges can also see, compared to race, how one’s economic background affected their performance, as well. Not all Asians are the same and many colleges are working to recognize that.
But I do understand why some Asian-Americans are angry. Ask any Asian student and they probably have an experience of teachers and classmates who couldn’t tell them apart from the other Asian kid in class. The debilitating moment someone mixes you up with another is when you know that while other students are characterized by being funny or outspoken, your personality trait is being Asian.
They’re tired of being used as a token and of having to separate themselves from other Asian applicants who many admission officers have trouble telling the difference between. They’re tired of people assuming their high GPAs and standardized test scores are the product of natural abilities and not hours on end of studying. They’re tired of constantly having to prove to admission officers that they’re not only incredibly intelligent, but also incredibly charismatic.
Of course, the standards are higher for Asians who have been forced into the unbelievably offensive “model minority myth”, but that’s only because Asian American students, on average, do better in school and on standardized tests (most likely because of a culture with a heavy stress on education). Many Asian-Americans perform in accordance to the average for their demographic.
One of the more intriguing arguments in the case, though, is the claim that Asian-Americans are consistently rated lower on personal qualities like “courage”, which can most likely be credited to implicit bias. For instance, it was revealed that Princeton admission officers noted Asian-American applicants as “standard premeds” and “familiar profiles”, according to Buzzfeed News. This is no doubt this is the side of the admissions process that discriminates against Asian Americans and calls to the surface the stereotype of Asian-Americans being interchangeable.
Students shouldn’t have to prove themselves as being different from other Asians and not being the stereotypical nerdy Asian kid. Implicit bias undoubtedly affects Asian-American students in the admissions process, but completely getting rid of affirmative action is not the solution to this problem. What may be more helpful, is explaining what prompted the sudden outrage of some Asian-American students now.
Pulling back the curtain on the SFFA
Like previously mentioned, affirmative action cases pop up often enough, the notification for the latest case brightens up one’s phone screen, alongside a picture of a white teenager and an elderly white man standing side-by-side, repeating the phrase “reverse racism” over and over again, as if it’s something that’s real. The man at their side is most likely Edward Blum, of Students for Fair Admissions, a conservative who compares his work to what civil rights activists do.
I suppose civil rights activists would agree with him that voting rights for minorities and immigrants should be rolled back by going against a section of the Voting Rights Act, as well. Or maybe they would like it better that he claims white people are being discriminated against right now just as minorities are. By any means, his support of race-blind admissions just bolsters the evidence of how ignorant this man is.
Blum is just another public figure to use Asian-Americans for as a racial mascot. He props them up and claims that they have experienced discrimination at the hand of a problem that most Asians barely have a problem with. In this way, he pits minorities against each other just so he isn’t explicit about his own ignorance. He shies behind Asian-Americans who felt they have been cheated and uses them so he does not have to confront his own privilege, so he does not have to confront the ugly mess he has made between different minority groups.
If students were only able to be admitted on a race-blind processes like Blum suggests they should be, then diversity would be obsolete. Minorities would be shut out of the process of college admissions once again, leaving many irretrievably lost from the call of opportunity. By a university refusing to enforce affirmative action, they refuse to acknowledge why students from different backgrounds are different from each other.
They refuse to accept history and the way the past affects people now.
Ashita Wagh is a columnist for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine The Howl.