The long-awaited Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) lawsuit against Harvard University went to trial in Boston’s federal court on Oct. 15. This is a case filed by a group of Asian students and parents alleging Harvard’s undergraduate admissions process intentionally discriminates against Asian-Americans, by limiting the number of Asian-American students who are admitted in order to increase admission of less-qualified students of other races.
Back in June, both sides filed their findings and motions to the federal court in Boston. SFFA hired Duke University economist Peter Arcidiacono to perform an analysis based on data extracted from the records of more than 160,000 students who applied for admission over six cycles from 2000 to 2015.
Arcidiacono found that, despite Asian American students scoring higher than students of any other racial or ethnic group on academics, extracurriculars, and even alumni interviews, Harvard admission office always “rated Asian-American applicants lower than others on traits like ‘positive personality,’” likability, courage, kindness and being “widely respected … often without even meeting them.”
Consequently, only about one in five Asian-Americans in the top 10 percent of academic performers received a “2” personal rating (scores range 1-6, with 1 being the best). Yet students of other non-white races with much lower grades and SAT scores received high personal ratings. Arcidiacono’s analysis shows these low personal ratings dragged down many Asian-American applicants’ chances of being admitted since, in the eyes of Harvard, they are less than a “whole person.”
Thus, despite increasing numbers of Asian-American applicants over the years, the Asian-American students admitted as Harvard’s freshman class has constantly hovered around 20 percent since 1993, even though the U.S. Asian-American population has more than doubled since then. This prompted the U.S. Justice Department to write in support of SFFA’s lawsuit in a legal filing that says Harvard’s admissions process “significantly disadvantages Asian-American applicants compared to applicants of other racial groups.”
Harvard denies any discrimination and says race is one of many factors it uses when considering applicants. Harvard, as well as many other universities, consider the lawsuit “an attack on their ability to build a diverse campus, and they vowed to defend the consideration of race for schools across the U.S.”
This lawsuit not only dropped a bombshell in higher education, but also divided the Asian community. Leading up to the first court date, scores of liberal Asian Americans came out against SFFA’s suit. Sadly, they have relied on racially charged arguments to support their positions.
In an Atlantic article titled “The ‘Whitening’ of Asian Americans,” Iris Kuo called SFFA “a certain subset of Asian Americans aligning them with white people.” The basis of her argument? She points Edward Blum, who spearheaded SSA. He’s a white man who has sued other schools on similar grounds on behalf of white students (Perhaps most famously, Blum represented Abigail Fisher, who sued the University of Texas at Austin, alleging UT had discriminated against her on the basis of her race).
Kuo also mentioned a lawsuit brought by former YouTube employee Arne Wilburg, a white man. Wilburg alleges that YouTube and its parent company Google’s hiring practices systematically discriminated not only against white men, but against Asian men as well.
To Kuo, the Harvard and Google lawsuits are not about fighting for “race-blind equal opportunity.” In her eyes, economically successful Asian Americans have vanished “into whiteness, as some assimilate culturally into white norms and culture, and become treated and seen by whites as fellow whites.” Therefore, “When privileged Asian-Americans argue alongside whites that reverse discrimination is taking place, they allow themselves to be used as a wedge group, to divide people of color and position them against each other and, indeed, against less privileged Asian-Americans.”
Lisa Ko, another liberal Asian American, seems to agree. In an article for The New York Times titled “Harvard and the Myth of the Interchangeable Asian,” she also characterizes the Harvard lawsuit as Asian Americans being “used as a strategic tool by white conservatives who are opposed to” affirmative action in college admissions.
Both articles, just like Kuo and Ko’s lives and beliefs, are full of ironies and contradictions. Ko questioned why some Asian-American parents in New York city criticized Mayor Bill de Blasio as anti-Asian when he proposed eliminating the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) and replacing it with a new admissions process based on race, so that the student bodies of New York City’s elite public high schools will not be dominated by Asians. Yet she also admits that in NYC, “Asians have consistently ranked as the minority group with the highest poverty rate.”
Why it is so difficult for her to understand that for many poor Asian kids, excelling academically is the only way to get out of poverty and achieve their American dreams? These Asian kids from disadvantaged backgrounds get into elite high schools through sacrifice and hard work, not handouts. SHSAT is the only impartial way we have so far to ensure everyone has a fair shot, and those enrolled in these high schools are academically prepared, not set up for failure.
Ko also shared her college application experience and complained that Asian students, including herself, “were seen as lacking individuality, and by extension, humanity,” or in another word, “interchangeable.” Yet she seems to fail to realize that is exactly the kind of bias Harvard University uses to keep Asian student enrollment at a certain level, by giving Asian applicants low “personality” scores. That’s the kind of bias the SFFA lawsuit seeks to overturn.
Both Kuo and Ko acknowledge, and I agree wholeheartedly, that Asian Americans are a very diverse group. According to Pew Research, 20 million Asian Americans trace their roots to more than 20 countries in East and Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent, each with unique histories, cultures, languages, and other characteristics. Yet American liberals have consistently rejected the diversity that Asian Americans bring to the table. Kuo shared this experience:
When I studied at Columbia Business School from 2015 to 2016, the admissions office co-hosted with student groups a recruiting event called Diversity Matters that aimed to ‘celebrate diversity and inclusion’ at the school. It was staffed by student associations representing black, LGBTQ, female, Hispanic, and veteran students. Asian student groups were conspicuously excluded. The message was both subtle and damaging: Asians do not contribute to the diversity of the campus.
This liberal bias of “Asians do not contribute to the diversity of the campus” is exactly the kind of thinking that explains why Harvard and other schools insist on using race as an important factor for college admissions. Administrators of these schools assume that if college admission is purely merit-based, they won’t have “diverse” campuses because Asian students will become the majority of their student body. If Kuo and Ko both believe Asian Americans are a diverse group, why do they accept the false assumption that a student body with Asians as the majority is not diverse?
Both clearly loathe the “model minority” label for Asian Americans. They hate to be associated with values such as “hardworking.” Yet their lives fit neatly into the textbook version of successful Asian American stories: They are both children of immigrants who came to the United States with next to nothing. They are both well educated and went to Ivy League-caliber schools — Kuo went to Columbia University and Ko is a Wesleyan graduate.
They both have successful careers as measured by reputation and income: Kuo is a journalist and the chief executive of LedBetter, and Ko is a novelist and a finalist for the 2017 National Book Award for Fiction. By rejecting the SFFA lawsuit, it seems neither wants other Asians to follow their path to success — a path that often proves to be the only way of upward mobility for poor Asians.
Both Kuo and Ko live in NYC, one of the most liberal cities in the United States. They are part of the subset of Asians, the elites, the privileged ones, who made it in a white- and liberal-dominated world — the very group they claimed to dislike and say doesn’t represent the majority of Asian Americans in their own articles.
To quote their own words with some modification, when privileged Asian-Americans like them argue alongside progressives that race-based discrimination in college admissions is acceptable, they allow themselves to be used as a wedge group. They allow themselves to be used as a strategic tool to divide people of color and position them against each other, and against less privileged Asian-Americans.