Harvard students of color: Removing affirmative action would be a loss for everyone

“Every applicant has a different story to tell, and race can be a part of that story. Students deserve the opportunity to be recognized for it,” a graduating Asian American Harvard student told NBC News.
Image: Harvard students gather to make signs for a march in support of affirmative action in Cambridge, Mass., in 2018.
Harvard students gather to make signs for a march in support of affirmative action in Cambridge, Mass., in 2018.Michael Swensen / for The Boston Globe via Getty Images file

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By Kimmy Yam

A group of Harvard University students and alumni of color are standing with the university as it remains at the center of an affirmative action suit.

The students submitted an amicus brief in support of Harvard last week after anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions, Inc. appealed a court’s decision in favor of the school last year. The judge had ruled that the institution does not explicitly discriminate against Asian Americans in its race-conscious admissions program.

The coalition, which includes individuals from Asian American, African American, Latinx, Native American and Pacific Islander communities, argued that their own experiences with the school is proof the consideration of race in the admissions process not only allowed for a more diverse, enriched student body, but also without it, the establishment would likely overlook impressive students, such as themselves, whose racial identities were focal points in their applications.

While the SFFA -- led by conservative strategist Edward Blum, who is white -- argues that the university’s admissions policy puts Asian Americans at a disadvantage, many students in the coalition, including those of Asian descent, say that the selection process has benefited those across communities of color.

“Asian Americans, including Chinese Americans like myself, benefit from affirmative action,” Sally Chen, a graduating Asian American Harvard student who participated in the brief, told NBC Asian America. “Every applicant has a different story to tell, and race can be a part of that story. Students deserve the opportunity to be recognized for it.”

In the amicus brief, the current and the former students called on the appellate court to affirm District Court Judge Allison Burroughs’ decision that the school’s admissions policy is lawful and congruent with Supreme Court precedents on affirmative action cases. Though Blum’s organization, which filed the appeal in October to the United States Court of Appeals for the First Circuit, claims that Harvard treated Asian American applicants worse than white applicants, admittedly intentionally seeking out those of Asian descent whose experiences appeared to fit his case, those in the coalition disagree.

“Put simply, Harvard openly considers race in admissions for the purpose of promoting diversity, but it categorically denies using race to advantage White applicants vis-à-vis Asian American applicants, and there was no evidence presented at trial suggesting it does so,” the brief reads.

Though Blum placed Asian Americans at the center of his suit, Niyati Shah, the director of litigation at the civil rights nonprofit Asian Americans Advancing Justice – AAJC who worked on the brief, pointed out that the racial group largely supports affirmative action. Data from 2016 shows that roughly two-thirds of Asian Americans supported the policy. When white student Abigail Fisher sued the University of Texas in 2016, arguing the school shouldn’t use admissions policies that favor black and Hispanic applicants over whites and Asian Americans, more than 160 Asian American and Pacific Islander groups filed amicus briefs to support affirmative action.

“We know that this lawsuit is not intended to help Asian Americans because it was the brainchild of Ed Blum, a right-wing strategist who tried and failed to kill affirmative action in the Supreme Court on behalf of a white student before setting up SFFA,” Shah said. “Blum’s mission is to slash protections for minorities in America, including Asian Americans – not to help them out.”

Moreover, affirmative action programs have historically helped Asian Americans get their foot in the door. As journalist Jeff Yang points out that Asian Americans, deemed an underrepresented minority at the time, made up roughly 2 percent of the higher education student body when the Supreme Court affirmed in that diversity was a “compelling interest” in University of California vs. Bakke. By a decade later, the racial group’s population in universities nearly doubled.

While a 2009 study, often cited by anti-affirmative action activists, on standardized test scores showed that Asian Americans had to score higher than other students on SAT exams to be considered equally in private university admissions, a co-author on the study said that the research failed to take into account other factors including recommendations, essays and extracurricular activities.

Removal of affirmative action would overwhelmingly benefit white applicants, rather than give Asian Americans a bump, a 2016 study revealed. Furthermore, when researchers eliminated Black and Latinx applicants from the applicant pool, they found that Asian American students’ chances of admission increased by one percent. Shah noted that 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.

“As the testimony of our student amici explained to the court, if they could not write about their racial identity in their personal essays, they don’t know what they would have written about,” Shah said. “Some Asian American students said they wouldn’t even consider applying to a school that didn’t take race into account: That’s how important race can be to a college applicant’s story.”

If Blum wins the appeal, Shah said that society would “sink back into segregation.” The infamous 2019 college admissions scandal is a reminder that the acceptance system is heavily skewed toward wealthy and white students, She said.

“Without the racial diversity that affirmative action can provide and that Blum seeks to eliminate, we would lose the crucial parts of education that happen when you learn with and from other people,” Chen added.

The student said that with the possibility that race-conscious admissions could be eliminated, she feels it’s crucial for those across communities of color to stand together to address inequity and equal opportunity for all backgrounds.

“An attack on affirmative action is an attack on racial justice, educational equity, black and brown communities, and immigrants and refugees,” Chen explained. “Cross-community solidarity in support of affirmative action is crucial to advancing the civil rights of all communities of color.”