A federal appeals court’s decision Thursday to uphold Harvard University’s affirmative action program has revived a debate over Asian Americans’ role in racial justice issues within higher education.
Advocates and scholars point out that while Students for Fair Admissions, the group that filed the lawsuit, claims Asian Americans face intentional discrimination in Harvard’s admissions process, research shows the overwhelming majority of Asian Americans favor the program.
With the case now a step closer to the Supreme Court, where SFFA will likely appeal the ruling, Asian American activists say much of their work will continue to involve dispelling myths around the impact of affirmative action and how the racial group sees the issue.
“Race-conscious admissions policies are critical for our overall education system, businesses and ultimately the world our children will inherit,” John C. Yang, president and executive director of civil rights nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC, told NBC Asian America. “There needs to be less pitting against each other and more of an understanding that race-conscious admissions policies are an advantage.”
According to the national 2020 Asian American Voter Survey, which examined almost 1,570 voters, targeting the six largest national origin groups, found that 70 percent of Asian Americans supported affirmative action, while 16 percent opposed it. Chinese Americans, who were the least likely of the ethnicities to back the program, still favored it at a majority of 56 percent.
Data on Harvard’s own admissions shows that race-conscious admissions have benefitted all communities, including Asian Americans, producing a more diverse student body, Yang said.
Harvard’s admissions statistics show that the share of its admitted class that is Asian American has grown by 27 percent since 2010, according to the university's response to the lawsuit. When looking at its class of 2023, Asian Americans make up more than 25 percent, while Latinx students comprise just over 12 percent and Black students constitute more than 14 percent.
A history of being used as a wedge against other minority students
SFFA, led by white conservative activist Edward Blum, has continued to position Asian Americans in opposition to other minorities through the case, Yang said. After U.S. Circuit Judge Sandra Lynch ruled that Harvard’s use of race was not “impermissibly extensive” and was instead “meaningful” to ensure diversity did not drop among its student body, Blum said in a statement that he would call on the Supreme Court “to end these unfair and unconstitutional race-based admissions policies at Harvard and all colleges and universities.”
“Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders have been used as a wedge and certain groups have purposefully showcased Asian American dissent to affirmative action as a way of masking their anti-Black and anti-Latino agendas,” Yang explained. “Such efforts hide the fact that most opponents of affirmative action are really trying to increase the number of Caucasian students at the expense of Black, Latino and Native American applicants.”
The discussion surrounding race-conscious admissions has persisted as a hotly debated issue for years in the Asian American community, and for good reason. The yearning to attend elite schools is rooted in the belief that education is the only way for Asian American children to compete with others, particularly whites, for promising employment and a stable future, Pawan Dhingra, a sociologist and a professor of American studies at Amherst College, explained.
Asian Americans are predominantly an immigrant group, with 59 percent being foreign-born, according to the Pew Research Center. That rises to 73 percent when looking at adults. With the rapid rate of growth, Asian Americans are positioned as the nation’s fastest-growing immigrant group compared to all other major races. But Dhingra pointed out that unlike many others in the country, Asian Americans do not have social connections they may rely on to help secure jobs or internships.
The scholar also said many do not have the “cultural wherewithal” that other Americans, particularly those in the upper-middle class, can take for granted and that admissions officers often relate to.
Elite school as a buffer against discrimination
“Because many immigrant parents got ahead through education rather than sports or the arts, they rely on academics as their main avenue to help their kids outcompete others and stand out from the crowd,” Dhingra explained. “The logical outcome of such a commitment by parents is elite college admissions for their children.”
When it comes to Ivy League schools, parents are conscious that the elite name could stand as a buffer between their children and racial bias and discrimination in the job market and beyond, he said. The push from parents to children to get into these schools comes from a desire to protect their children from possible inequalities ahead.
But Dhingra was quick to point out that doesn’t mean these parents oppose affirmative action, particularly given the results seen in past surveys.
“Families who are driven to get their kids into Ivy League schools can and often do support affirmative action,” he said. “And families can be against affirmative action and have less-selective universities or no universities in mind. Opposing affirmative action isn’t connected to Ivy League interest.”
The scholar also believes such a commitment to higher education doesn’t mean parents have a reason to be angry at affirmative action programs, as what limits Asian American admissions is not a race-conscious selection process. Legacy admissions, sports preferences and other factors, however, do.
A working paper published last year in the National Bureau of Economic Research revealed that 43 percent of white students admitted to Harvard fell under the categories of recruited athletes, legacy students and children of faculty and staff. That share also includes what’s referred to as the “dean’s interest list,” which consists of applicants whose parents or relatives made donations to the university.
The research noted that roughly 75 percent of white students admitted from those categories, identified as "ALDCs," "would have been rejected if they had been treated as white non-ALDCs."
“Removing preferences for athletes and legacies would significantly alter the racial distribution of admitted students, with the share of white admits falling and all other groups rising or remaining unchanged,” researchers wrote.
Why some Asian Americans stand in the way of progress
Misconceptions persist among Asian Americans, however. Experts point out that one prevailing myth that fuels those who oppose affirmative action, as well as the group behind the lawsuit, is that there is a cap on Asian American acceptance. Thus far, no evidence of such a cap has been found.
Janelle Wong, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park, noted that another dangerous misconception is that affirmative action equates to giving Black and Latino students unearned opportunities.
“No, affirmative action is not a special preference. It is one tool to address current systemic barriers for Black and Latino students who are both qualified and deserving of higher education,” she said.
Vincent Pan, co-executive director of nonprofit Chinese for Affirmative Action, agreed, noting that while the support and leadership from the Asian American community on the issue of affirmative action is too often ignored, there does continue to be a segment of the population that is complicit in the right-wing agenda to upend race-conscious programs.
“Their positioning undermines work against anti-Asian racism that requires multiracial solidarity, making more visible the needs of less visible AAPI groups and dismantling anti-Black stereotypes," Pan said, referring to Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Moreover, Wong said, the removal of such programs has had negative effects on other communities of color, particularly the Latinx and Black communities and their access to education and earnings. A University of California, Berkeley, study revealed that after the 1998 institution of Proposition 209, which banned race-based affirmative action in California's public universities, 10,000 annual underrepresented-minority freshman applicants cascaded "into lower-quality public and private universities." It set off a decline in these applicants’ undergraduate and graduate degree attainment. By the mid-2010s, the legislation had resulted in a "cumulative decline in the number of early-career URM Californians earning over $100,000 by at least three percent."
Wong isn’t so sure the Supreme Court will take the Harvard case when appealed, particularly since the lower courts have uniformly ruled that the university doesn’t discriminate against Asian Americans and have upheld the view that its race-conscious admissions process is constitutional. With the Thursday ruling behind them, activists feel positively about the future of affirmative action. But, as Pan said, the work is not done.
“For AAPIs who support racial justice and civil rights, a bare minimum is to support affirmative action,” he said. “This includes visible leadership to all communities, as well as within our own communities, and on more equitable college admissions, but not only on that issue.”