In 2014, Students for Fair Admissions filed suit against Harvard for alleged discrimination against Asian Americans stemming from the University’s affirmative action policies. The following year, a coalition of 64 Asian-American organizations filed a similar complaint that was soon dismissed. Both complaints reveal deep anxieties among Asian Americans about how universities perceive them and have important implications for how universities consider diversity.
Asian Americans are not a monolith. They are extremely diverse, both ethnically and socioeconomically, and came to the United States at different times, for different reasons, and under differing conditions. Their educational attainment is similarly diverse. While 40 percent of Indian Americans have post-graduate education, only 9 percent of Filipino Americans do.
One might therefore expect Filipino Americans to be more supportive of affirmative action than Indian Americans. However, nearly all sub-groups of Asian Americans favor affirmative action that is designed to help black, female, and other minorities access higher education. Chinese Americans are distinct for being the only group who opposes such policies: Only 41 percent support such policies, compared with about 75 percent of other Asian Americans.
Views towards affirmative action may vary because the term is vague, and because reasonable people can hold conflicting views about it. President Lyndon B. Johnson used the phrase during the signing of a 1965 executive order requiring that the U.S. government hire without regard to race, religion and national origin. But he also said, “You do not take a man who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe you have been completely fair.”
Therein lies the core problem for affirmative action. Governments, recruiters, and universities recognize that disadvantaged populations merit consideration for injustices that their community has historically faced. This is a perfectly reasonable belief. But the common implementation of such well-intentioned policies is wanting. It can entrench the same discrimination that its proponents oppose, divide society, and create further problems for the beneficiaries of such policies.
Consider the 2013 suit brought against the University of Texas, where the school justified affirmative action because a diverse campus offers benefits to all students enrolled. Indeed, academia, government, law enforcement, and medical professionals (among others) could all benefit from greater diversity in their ranks. But the school’s solution was to use skin colour as proxy for diversity, thus suggesting that all black students think the same way and all Latinos share a similar worldview.
Schools should seek talented students from disadvantaged backgrounds. But using race as a proxy for disadvantage is spectacularly uncreative, inefficient, and problematic. Asian Americans on whole may be a successful group, but they include several subgroups that are disadvantaged but overlooked due to their classification as “Asian.” Even President Barack Obama, a supporter of affirmative action, was uncomfortable that his daughters would receive “more favorable treatment than a poor white kid who has struggled more.”
Furthermore, it is questionable whether these policies help the populations that they are intended to serve. The 2012 book “Mismatch” argues that affirmative action that pushes black students into law school leaves them ill-prepared to compete with their peers, thus causing many of them to drop out. The authors strikingly conclude that affirmative action results in fewer black students becoming lawyers.
Harvard argues that it admits Asian Americans at a lower rate because it adjusts for other metrics, including school quality. A good-faith effort to seek talent from “less good” schools while being blind to race is commendable and likely legally sound. But this is plainly not what Harvard is doing: It factors race into decision-making, thus exposing it to the aforementioned issues, including the ire of “privileged” racial groups.
What constitutes acceptable use of race may differ between the court of law and the court of public opinion. Consider Harvard’s preference for legacy applicants, who enjoy five times greater acceptance rates than non-legacy applicants. The plaintiff argues that nearly 40 percent of Harvard’s white students are either legacy admits or recruited athletes. This suggests preference for wealthy, white students – which raises profound moral questions, regardless of what courts decide.
Axing legacy admissions would be a quick win for Harvard in the court of public opinion. Plenty of other top schools do just fine without it. An MIT admissions officer once wrote, “I personally would not work for a college which had legacy admission because I am not interested in simply reproducing a multi generational lineage of educated elite.”
Harvard should eliminate the use of race in admissions — while doing more to specifically target underrepresented communities. While Harvard already considers school quality for its admission decisions, it could increase the weight attributed to this factor and do away with race entirely, since the two metrics correlate so strongly. This would be less problematic than the existing methodology because it would specifically target disadvantaged students rather than making assumptions about an entire racial group. It would also be a face-saving move for Harvard, which could maintain its diverse recruitment statistics while eliminating the need to consider race in admissions.
Finally, Harvard should be more transparent about how admissions decisions are made. Plaintiffs are at times motivated into seeking legal action when they see less qualified peers with darker skin get admitted into schools at which they were rejected. With Harvard openly stating that it uses race in admissions decisions and using subjective and racially-loaded words like “character” and “personality” in its admissions literature (a measure in which Asian Americans consistently score worse), it is unsurprising why these students feel discriminated against. It is this lack of transparency and deliberately vague vocabulary that has exposed Harvard to lawsuits alleging discrimination. Whether these allegations have merit will soon be decided by the courts.
Sasha Ramani graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School in 2018 with a master’s in public policy.