The Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty is helping Wisconsin taxpayers, including a biracial couple, sue the state over its “Minority Grant Program” because it turns out the college scholarship only applies to certain minorities in violation of the state Constitution.
The lawsuit, filed in Jefferson County Circuit Court on Thursday afternoon, contends that the Higher Educational Aids Board, the state agency that administers the Minority Undergraduate Retention Program, discriminates on the basis of race and national origin in how it distributes the scholarship and is thus unconstitutional.
“The state of Wisconsin is engaged in race discrimination, pure and simple,” said Dan Lennington, deputy counsel for the Wisconsin Institute for Law and Liberty. “Many students are denied scholarships based on their race or where their family comes from. This program violates the state Constitution and basic notions of equality and fairness.”
Two of the plaintiffs are a biracial couple, whose teenage son will soon be exploring college prospects. His mother, Konkanok “Kiki” Rabiebna, is a native of Thailand, and his father, Richard Freihoefer, is white. Although as Madison residents they are Wisconsin taxpayers and despite the fact that their son belongs to a minority racial group, he will not be eligible to apply for the Minority Grant Program.
Under state law, in order to qualify for the taxpayer-funded scholarship, minority undergraduates must be black Americans, Hispanic, American Indian, or “a person who is admitted to the United States after December 31, 1975, and who either is a former citizen of Laos, Vietnam or Cambodia or whose ancestor was or is a citizen of Laos, Vietnam or Cambodia.”
These criteria exclude other minority students — including Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Indian, North African, Middle Eastern, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and resident aliens from Africa — from receiving a scholarship created explicitly for minority students.
“America is a land of opportunity,” said Rabiebna. “Government programs must be available to everybody, not just certain racial groups.”
This program, which notably discriminates against Asian students, coincides with widespread anti-Asian bias in college admissions. A 2018 study from the Center for Equal Opportunity found that elite universities and colleges in the United States routinely discriminate against Asian Americans due to affirmative action quotas. It noted specifically Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology appeared to have a “ceiling” on the acceptance rates of Asian students. The Department of Justice found in August that Yale University discriminated against Asians and whites in its undergraduate admissions in violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Yale was using information about race or national origin to craft a multi-step, non-meritorious admissions process.
“For the great majority of applicants, Asian Americans and whites have only one-tenth to one-fourth of the likelihood of admission as African American applicants with comparable academic credentials. Yale rejects scores of Asian American and white applicants each year based on their race, whom it otherwise would admit,” the DOJ noted of Yale, but anti-Asian discrimination in college admissions is widespread.
Wisconsin’s Minority Grant Program is funded by taxpayer dollars and doles out scholarships based on financial need, awarding between $250 and $2,500 to selected eligible students. During the 2019-2020 school year, 729 students received money from the Minority Grant Program, totaling $796,225 in taxpayer dollars.
The complaint alleges that the parameters of this program are unconstitutional. The Wisconsin state Constitution guarantees, “All people are born equally free and independent, and have certain inherent rights; among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” which the lawsuit says the state Supreme Court has interpreted as consistent with the equal protection under the law guaranteed in the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
The suit also cites U.S. Supreme Court cases that established “strict scrutiny” as the legal standard for government-created classifications based on race and national origin. This means such laws or rules must serve a compelling state interest, that the rule must be narrowly tailored to achieve that compelling interest, and that it uses the least restrictive means to achieve it.
“The Minority Grant Program is not narrowly tailored to further a compelling government interest and is therefore unconstitutional,” the complaint alleges.
Through the lawsuit, the plaintiffs are seeking the court’s declaration that this program is a violation of the state Constitution
as well as an injunction preventing the scholarship program’s race-based qualifications.
“When government discriminates by race, it pits different groups against each other,” said Freihoefer, a taxpayer and the father of the minority teen who is currently barred from the program. “That isn’t progress. That just fans the flames of our divisions.”
This article has been updated since publication.