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Don't use Asians to maintain white privilege, critics say after DOJ letter to Yale

“This announcement is pure politics — a signal once again that the Trump administration will take extraordinary steps to protect white privilege," a former DOJ official said.
Old Campus at Yale University in New Haven
Old Campus at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., on Nov. 28, 2012.Michelle McLoughlin / Reuters file

The Justice Department’s latest accusation that Yale University discriminated against Asian American and white students is an attempt to pit marginalized students against each other, using Asian Americans as the conduit, experts say.

Several Asian American activists and scholars criticized the DOJ’s letter sent to the Ivy League institution on Thursday, in which the feds claimed the school “rejects scores of Asian American and white applicants each year based on their race, whom it otherwise would admit.” Critics say that in lumping white students with those of Asian descent, the administration is using Asian Americans as a pawn to dismantle affirmative action.

“This announcement is pure politics — a signal once again that the Trump administration will take extraordinary steps to protect white privilege and resort to unfounded racial attacks, right on the heels of Kamala Harris, a Black and Asian American woman, joining the top of the Democratic ticket,” Anurima Bhargava, who served as chief of the Educational Opportunities Section of the Civil Rights Division at DOJ during the Obama administration.

In the letter, which followed a similar case involving fellow Ivy League institution Harvard University, Eric S. Dreiband, assistant attorney general, claimed the university is far less likely to admit Asian American and white applicants with similar academic backgrounds compared to Black and Latinx students.

“Yale grants substantial, and often determinative, preferences based on race to certain racially-favored applicants and relatively and significantly disfavors other applicants because of their race,” the letter read.

Bhargava said the DOJ’s own words prove the federal agency is reducing groups to solely their racial backgrounds.

“The Department of Justice is doing exactly what the courts have cautioned against, which is to lump together students by their racial background, not treat students as individuals and suggest that white and Asian students as a whole are somehow being harmed by Black students generally,” she said.

In addition, the Trump administration’s pairing of white and Asian American students reveals the DOJ “is using Asian Americans to protect the status quo for white applicants,” rather than out of concern for Asian Americans, said Janelle Wong, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. Wong noted this is particularly problematic against the backdrop of anti-Asian rhetoric from members of the administration during the coronavirus pandemic, with terminology like “China virus” being used, potentially harming Asian Americans.

The needs of the two demographics are drastically different as well, John C. Yang, executive director of civil rights nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC explained. The Asian American community includes many subgroups that do not have the same access to education compared to most. Nearly 30 percent of Southeast Asian Americans, for example, haven’t completed high school or passed the GED tests. In contrast, the national average stands at 13 percent.

“Asian American and Pacific Islander communities are incredibly diverse. Although we have some in our community who are successful, we have many who are struggling, who come from difficult backgrounds and do not have the same opportunities,” Yang said.

Research further shows how certain factors benefit white students at similarly elite colleges. According to a study published last year in the National Bureau of Economic Research, 43 percent of white students admitted to Harvard were recruited athletes, legacy students and children of faculty and staff. The percentage also includes those on the dean’s interest list, which is made up of applicants whose parents or relatives made donations to the university. 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," the study said.

When looking at Black, Hispanic and Asian American students, the percentage of ALDCs drops to less than 16 percent each coming from those categories. A breakdown of legacy applicants reveals that 70 percent are white, the study found.

Removing affirmative action poses issues for students of color, including Asian Americans, advocates argued. Jennifer Lee, a scholar who’s extensively researched affirmative action and author of “The Asian American Achievement Paradox,” noted that by eliminating the program, the realities of racial history in the U.S. go ignored.

“By seeking to eliminate the consideration of race and national origin in Yale’s admissions decisions, the DOJ blithely discounts the disparate legacies of race in the United States and the divergent economic, social and psychological consequences as a result,” Lee said.

Yang also noted that the disposal of race-conscious admissions would not result in meaningful change for Asian Americans. A 2016 study revealed that white applicants would overwhelmingly benefit from the elimination of such programs. When researchers removed Black and Latinx applicants from the pool, they found that Asian American students’ chances of admission increased by 1 percent.

There are also existing examples of how Asian American enrollment is harmed by the absence of such programs. When affirmative action was banned in California due to the 1996 state constitutional amendment Proposition 209, the proportion of Asian American students in public state universities declined overall.

While the Yale investigation was launched after the organization Asian American Coalition for Education filed a complaint against the university in 2016, research shows the group does not reflect the views of the general Asian American population. Data from that year shows that roughly two-thirds of Asian Americans supported race-conscious admissions. Wong pointed out that though Chinese American support for affirmative action has dipped dramatically compared to other Asian American groups, most surveys suggest more Chinese Americans support such policies than oppose them.

The accusations against Yale follow similar actions from the DOJ in its attempts to scrutinize affirmative action programs. Previously, the department filed an amicus brief siding with anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions in its appeal of a judge’s decision in favor of Harvard College.

The judge had ruled that the institution does not explicitly discriminate against Asian Americans in its race-conscious admissions program. Many students and alumni of color across several communities had backed the Ivy League institution, arguing that without the consideration of race in the admissions process, the establishment would likely overlook impressive students, such as themselves, whose racial identities were focal points in their applications.

“This latest attempt by the Trump administration to dismantle strong and inclusive learning environments for children — much like we've seen with forced school reopenings — is placing politics above the safety and educational needs of our children,” Bhargava said.