As an activist for Asian Americans, I am skeptical of the lawsuit brought against Harvard University for the perceived unequal treatment of Asian Americans in college admissions. The case, filed by the advocacy group Students for Fair Admissions, purports to represent my interests, but it gravely misfires.
Simply put: Merit is inseparable from a diverse student body. For that reason, I hope the lawsuit fails.
During my senior year at Yale University, I learned of an orientation activity in which first-year students would stand together and a counselor would read a “never have I ever” card. Students would step forward if the prompt matched their backgrounds. Some cues were lighthearted; others asked about serious life experiences such as discrimination, hunger, or violence.
This activity was intended to help students grapple with social inequality. Peers who have faced hardships teach others when they share their experiences, but these disclosures can come at personal cost. In the classroom, a similar dynamic exists. In revealing private information, diverse students turn themselves into case studies for social phenomena otherwise discussed as abstractions. So, it is colleges that are indebted to diverse students, Asian Americans included, not the other way around.
My father, like many others in the United States, sees the American education system as equalizing. He came to this country after experiencing China’s Cultural Revolution, when Mao Zedong’s government forced schools to close and exhorted citizens to work the fields. In fact, my uncle managed to test into one of the remaining high schools in his area, but abruptly, the principal rescinded his enrollment after a local official demanded a seat for his son.
In truth, similar problems of access plague the U.S. education system. Yes, many Asian Americans excel academically — likely for a mix of socioeconomic and cultural reasons. But the playing field is far from equal.
Between 1996 and 2016, the number of segregated schools in the United States doubled. About three-fourths of African American and Latino children attend predominantly low-income schools. Examples abound of teachers harboring lower expectations for black students and disciplining them disproportionately. A student’s knowledge of the association of her race with negative traits can decrease her performance on tests, compared with a control group of the same ability level.
Affirmative action cannot correct for years of compounded social inequality, but it is a vital start. Our admissions processes remain imperfect for other reasons. Economic diversity is largely absent in elite universities. My children will have an edge in Yale’s admissions process simply because they are “legacies.” Racial labels can mislead: Southeast Asian Americans do not enjoy the same economic advantages as other Asian groups, and monolithic views of Asian Americans obscure differential backgrounds. Once admitted, students of color often find counseling and other support not tailored to their needs, contributing to higher dropout rates nationwide.
I believe, then, that Students for Fair Admissions misjudges where to make common cause. Its lawsuit likens affirmative action to the “invidious discrimination” Harvard’s president carried out against Jewish applicants in the early 20th century. Insisting that Jewish students would “ruin” Harvard, the then-president waged a campaign to limit them by quota. This policy was unequivocally anti-Semitic. It sought to keep one cultural group out to fortify the university’s dominant Protestant base. I worry a false equivalency arises in comparing modern affirmative-action projects, which seek to safeguard communities of color, to this unjust quota system.
On elite college campuses, Asian Americans currently make up roughly a fifth of student bodies, despite representing only about 6 percent of the general U.S. population. Elsewhere, though, our underrepresentation persists. We are vanishingly present in elected bodies, boardrooms, and mainstream media. It is toward these targets, rather than affirmative-action programs, that we should direct our lobbying.
Ultimately, I remain skeptical that Edward Blum, the neoconservative founder of Students for Fair Admissions, is acting from a genuine concern for Asian Americans. As a key orchestrator of the 2016 Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas, Blum’s long-standing animus toward affirmative action suggests Asian applicants to Harvard are only the latest faces of his fight to dismantle racial equity.
The lawsuit also fails to contend with what elite colleges have long admitted: They do not have enough seats for all qualified applicants. But this scarcity will not be righted with a decreased commitment to diversity. Contrary to what Students for Fair Admissions argues, diversity makes education better.
Katherine Fang is a graduate of Yale University, where she served as a peer counselor at the Asian American Cultural Center and as head of the Asian American political activists’ group.