More Nuance in Affirmative Action

Using the Anti-Affirmative Action Lawsuit to Improve Considerations of Race

After two years of stagnation, Harvard’s hand will be forced to release six years of admissions data in response to an anti-affirmative action lawsuit. The organization Students for Fair Admissions claims that affirmative action illegally discriminates against Asian-Americans by setting a percentage quota. U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs has decided that more “comprehensive data” than the basic yearly demographics released by Harvard will be necessary for investigating these claims.

While we strongly disagree with the objective of this lawsuit, we believe that claims of discrimination against Asian-Americans do justify greater scrutiny of Harvard’s admissions process. Despite the unfortunate and unnecessary context in which it is taking place, the release of additional data is a step towards transparency and a better understanding of this highly selective—and, alas, sometimes equally mysterious—process.

Affirmative action is crucial for diversity on campus. African-Americans and Hispanic students live with many socioeconomic challenges that depress their access to education, including the chronic underfunding of schools with students of color at every poverty level, or the psychological traumas that result from fearing or experiencing discrimination. An inability to accept the importance of race in a society that is far from race-blind will feed this cycle of deprivation.

Nevertheless, the benefits of affirmative action do not justify fully ignoring claims about Asian-American admissions. Crucially, affirmative action ought not to be framed as a zero-sum game where the admission of an African-American or Hispanic student constitutes the replacement of more qualified Asian-American student. This wrongheaded narrative ignores, among other considerations, the fact that legacy students and others are also granted preference in the admissions process.

Rather than pitting minorities against each other, the greater scrutiny that Harvard is undergoing should shed light on the mechanics of admissions for the sake of transparency. For instance, one study found that Asian-Americans require 140 more SAT points than white peers to gain entry to private colleges. While statistics like this one may very well be benign, it deserves more attention to counter claims of discrimination.

This lawsuit is a chance for Harvard to reexamine its ambiguous criteria for “well-roundedness” and potentially refine the way it thinks about affirmative action. The current policy may fail to take into account significant variations within race—grouping dozens of countries and cultures into a generalized whole, or overlooking patterns of socioeconomic privilege among individuals. As Harvard further scrutinizes its admissions policies, we hope that it will find nuances to reconsider.

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