‘We Will Tell Our Stories’: Students of Color Build Coalitions In Face of Threat to Affirmative Action
A day before a high-stakes and high-profile lawsuit challenging Harvard’s admissions practices went to trial in mid-October, students took to the streets of Harvard Square chanting and holding signs to defend affirmative action at the College.
Students marched from the Harvard Square T stop to Cambridge Common in bright, blue shirts with the slogan “Defend Diversity” and carried signs reading “The Spot I Have, I Earned,” “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power,” and “Diverse Campuses = Better Campuses.”
“We will not be silenced — we will tell our stories,” another sign at the rally read.
The rally marked the end of “#DefendDiversity Week” — a series of events organized by campus groups to garner support for race-conscious admissions and educate students about the impending trial.
Though student organizing ramped up in the weeks leading up to the trial, the lawsuit had been looming over the University for years. Anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard in 2014 over allegations that it discriminates against Asian-American applicants — a charge the University has repeatedly denied.
Outside of the courtroom, students from different affinity groups united to protest publicly and host teach-ins to show their support for affirmative action and diversity at large. Former Asian American Association co-President Jonathan T. Paek ’20 said the lawsuit provided a coalition-building opportunity for students of color.
“Obviously there's differences racially between our student groups, and there’s different histories,” Paek said. “But at the same time, we were able to get together and act in solidarity with these other minority groups and communities of color.”
Student activists aimed to demonstrate how affirmative action can affect all students on campus, regardless of ethnicity or racial background, Cecilia A. J. Nuñez ’20 — a student who testified in the trial — said.
Nuñez, who is also the president of Phillips Brooks House Association and former vice president of Fuerza Latina, said she believed the case attempted to pit different minority groups against each other.
Black Students Association President Aba Sam ’20 said she thought the divisive premise of the case threatened to exclude underrepresented groups from the discussion.
“I believe SFFA set out to frame this as white admissions officers are discriminating against Asian Americans,” Sam said. “That's sort of pushing black, Latinx, Native students and other minority groups on campus out of the conversation.”
Administrators appeared to be aware of the potential for division. Days before the trial, University President Lawrence S. Bacow sent an email to Harvard affiliates defending the College’s practices, but also warning them to not let the lawsuit create rifts between them.
At the Oct. 14 rally, students sported buttons reading “#DefendDiversity” and others reading “#notyourwedge” adorned with images of cheese. The latter button symbolized what many said they saw as an attempt to use Asian Americans to divide minority communities for the benefit of white students.
“Something we were trying to do is make sure students come together and realize that we all have a stake in diversity on campus, ” Nuñez said.
Each group had different motivations for backing Harvard’s side of the lawsuit and defending race-conscious admissions more broadly. Nuñez said underrepresented minority groups have the “most to lose” if Harvard were to transition to a race-blind admissions process.
Native Americans at Harvard College Treasurer Kennard G. Dillon II ’20 said he believed if Harvard were to adopt a race-blind policy, admissions for minority students would drop by 50 percent — a projection that administrators referenced in their testimony at trial.
Dillon said Native American students represent just 1.9 percent of the class of 2022. “It's already small to begin with, so for it to go down by half, which was projected, then that's already a drastic change,” he said.
For Asian and Asian American students who backed Harvard, activism efforts focused on providing accurate representations of their experiences, said Daniel Lu ’20 — a former board member of the Task Force on Asian and Pacific American Studies.
“In some ways, it's like this was our fight to fight in the sense that we wanted to show everyone, including other students on this campus, that this lawsuit did not represent most Asian American viewpoints,” Lu said.
Madison A. Trice ’21 — a former board member of the Association of Black Harvard Women who testified in court — said it was important to put Asian American voices at the “forefront” of organizing.
”I feel like the only people who could really speak to that, to the fact that they felt that they weren't being discriminated against as Asian Americans, were Asian Americans,” Trice said.
Though student organizing reached its peak directly before and during the trial, affinity groups on campus had been holding discussions and events both individually and together for years.
In October 2017, AAA, BSA, and Fuerza Latina co-hosted a conversation on the lawsuit in its earlier stages. Paek said this was one of the first events that involved more than just one cultural group and allowed him to hear other perspectives.
“This event was really interesting because you just hear these first hand accounts of black students or Latinx students of people just straight up going up to their faces and being like, ‘oh, the only reason you got in is because you're black, right?’” Paek said.
A few months later, in April 2018, students began to take a more tactical approach against SFFA. Nine student organizations co-sponsored a panel featuring a lawyer from the NAACP Legal Defense Fund.
By then, the NAACP LDF had already begun speaking to various affinity group leaders about filing an amicus brief in support of Harvard, according to Sam and Catherine H. Ho ’21, the former co-president of the Asian American Women’s Association who testified in the trial.
Sam and Ho said affinity groups worked on the brief and discussed signing it with their boards over the summer. Filed in August, the brief ultimately featured 25 student and alumni organizations, including many affinity groups, PBHA, and TAPAS.
“We didn't know if we should sign on in the first place,” Ho said. “But we had to make the decision as a board that Asian American is a political identity. And if we're going to be this political identity, we need to be in solidarity with other marginalized communities as well.”
During #DefendDiversity Week, several groups hosted a series of educational events. AAWA organized a teach-in on race-conscious admissions and the Harvard College Democrats held a panel on race, diversity, and affirmative action featuring speakers from the NAACP LDF.
“These events had speakers from many different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds, who were able to touch on a variety of experiences to make sure that it wasn't just Asian voices being heard, it wasn't just black voices being heard,” Paek said.
Aside from interorganizational collaboration, groups also held inward-facing events. ABHW dedicated their first general meeting in October to a discussion about what the lawsuit could mean for black women, according to Trice.
During the trial, Ho and Trice said they were able to voice their own perspectives on the stand, adding another dimension to activist efforts.
“I mentioned the importance of having the opportunity to discuss my racial identity in my application, not just because it was important to shaping me but also because there are certain obstacles that I faced because of my race,” Trice said.
Ho said she described her background as a Vietnamese American and posed the question: “What are you defining as Asian American?”
“Asia is more than East Asia,” she said. “Economic backgrounds, immigration histories, and ethnic histories really matter. For me, it was a really important platform to say you can’t think of us as a monolith because that's literally erasing my lived identity and lived experiences.”
Many affinity group members said they felt organizing against SFFA’s anti-affirmative action stance formed a lasting coalition of students of color on campus.
Trice noted that she formed long-term friendships with fellow organizers and met a variety of people who were invested in the outcome of the case.
Sam said she thought the process of coalition-building was “successful” because she learned about different perspectives on admissions beyond that of black students.
Yet despite the overall success, some said there were challenges in unifying several different groups. AAA co-President Sami G. Um ’21 said, within the Asian American student population, there are varying viewpoints on the College’s admissions process.
“Part of the struggle was that a lot of the personal opinions within the Asian community on campus were very divided,” Um said. “It was difficult to try to encompass all of those.”
Former TAPAS co-director Sally Chen ’19 said she wonders if students were not making “deep enough” efforts to completely execute inter-organizational, cross-racial work.
“There were maybe some gaps in how deeply we were engaging with each other as different student groups — besides getting co-sponsorships and the minimum number of our board members to show up to events,” Chen said.
She also said she was aware that a “burden of organizing” existed for many underrepresented groups who are “under attack on so many fronts” during the trial.
“Tapping on that same limited number of students on campus with the same labor every single time is also something that I was thinking about in this case,” Chen said. “This is something that we could get Asian Americans to show up for and care about.”
Even with these complications, Trice lauded the work of Asian American students.
“For testifying, most of the students in the room who showed up to support Harvard were Asian American,” she said. “Most of the students who went to protest were Asian American.”
Though internal challenges were a constant presence, some students also reflected on external pressures from media outlets covering the trial. Several black and Latinx students said they were frustrated with the media’s approach, which they said solely focused on Asian American narratives.
“I wish that they highlighted more of the student experience and spoke to students,” Sam said. “From a lot of what I was reading, a lot of the conversations about merit and who deserves to be on campus is always numbers based, which is, first and foremost, not a complete picture.”
Trice said outside media coverage on the lawsuit was “disappointing,” referencing an October New York Times article that profiled five Harvard freshmen.
“The New York Times article that didn't talk to a single black, Latinx, Native American student kind of framed it as, ‘Harvard is discriminating against Asian Americans,’ or just took maybe a more nuanced view than that, but really didn't seem to capture it,” Trice added.
The New York Times did not respond to a request for comment.
Judge Allison D. Burroughs is expected to deliver a verdict in the coming months. Experts and Bacow agree that the lawsuit is likely to be appealed regardless of how Burroughs rules, and the case has the potential to reach the Supreme Court.
Going forward, numerous students and cultural organizations said they plan to remain involved with activism surrounding the case. Um said AAA will change its structure this summer to focus more on activism. Dillon said he believes it is important for NAHC to “maintain [its] commitment to upholding affirmative action” both locally and nationwide.
But student activists also emphasized using the energy and cross-racial coalitions that formed over the last few years to advocate for other issues.
In April, Bacow met with students who testified to discuss diversity on campus at large, according to Trice. She said the group talked about the importance of creating an ethnic studies department, a multi-cultural center, and providing long term mental health services with more diverse counselors.
Bacow declined to comment further on the meeting via a spokesperson.
Chen, Ho, and Thang Q. Diep ’19 — another student who testified — penned a February op-ed in The Crimson about the need to support students of color on campus beyond admissions through initiatives like ethnic studies.
“We don't just want diversity in student composition,” Chen said. “We also want to think about student experiences on this campus.”
Others focused on moving beyond Harvard. Some students said they want to work with other colleges and universities facing similar challenges to their race-conscious admissions policies.
Students for Fair Admissions has an ongoing anti-affirmative action lawsuit against the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a second lawsuit at the University of Texas at Austin. The Department of Justice is also investigating a number of higher education institutions — including Harvard and Yale — for potentially discriminatory race-conscious admissions policies.
“What's happening at Harvard isn't particularly unique,” Sam said. “We need to also look at inter-school conversation and collaboration, and then turn to activism and see, concretely, what can we do?”