A Non-Asian Perspective On The Harvard Lawsuit

“Did this really just happen?”

That’s precisely what I thought as I read an acceptance letter from Stanford in the spring of 2006. I remember how nervous I had been on that brisk spring evening in Indiana. At the time, I had been visiting another university that I considered attending. My hands had slowly clicked through the email prompts to get to the final decision. Before I clicked on the link to reveal my fate, I took a long and deep breath to further delay the inevitable. After a few milliseconds, the first word that my eyes saw was Congratulations! A few more milliseconds went by and the synapses in my brain started to make the connection. Soon after, an exorbitant amount of adrenaline was released into my bloodstream and started rushing throughout my body. This would eventually manifest into me screaming uncontrollably, running out of the dorm room I was staying in, and taking a few laps around the dorm, jumping and screaming for joy along the way. I had worked my ass off in high school. I had worked hard to get good grades, I had studied a lot in order to do well on standardized exams, and I’d put a lot of time into my extracurriculars in order to make this day a reality. I kept on thinking: I did it!! I did it!!

In actuality, now that I’m older and possibly a bit wiser, I realize how there had to be a series of fortunate events for this reality to manifest. First, my regional admissions representative was likely having a good day when opening my file. This person must have found my personal statement comparing my love for Power Rangers as a child to my dedication to public service compelling and not too cheesy. Then, the admissions committee must have thought my application was competitive enough in my pool to offer me a spot. If there were applicants in my regional pool that had started tech companies or, God forbid, discovered a cure to cancer, there would have been a significant possibility that I would not have gotten in. Then this might have been a much different kind of article.

Regardless of the circumstances that led to that moment, I was happy and my parents were proud. Of course I was not the only person from my high school applying that year. The other two applicants, one Chinese-American male and one Indian-American female, did not get in. Understanding how much rejection can hurt, I tried to make sure I did not bring up this topic around them. Not too long after I got in, I soon heard from the grapevine of high school that my Chinese-American classmate started saying that he thought I got in over him mainly because I was Black. His claim was simply that he had better standardized test scores than I did and that because I was Black, I did not work as hard as him and still was accepted. Of course, this simple analysis did not take into consideration my higher class rank, nor did it consider that our applications were extremely different, from the extracurriculars that we did to our personal statements. To him, I simply got in because of my race.

Perhaps for my classmate, this was his way of coming to terms with his disappointment, but for me these sentiments were damaging. Although, I worked hard to earn my accomplishments, his words were piercing and found a way to instill thoughts of self doubt about why I was accepted. This story is my own, yet there is a common phenomenon amongst Asian (East and South Asians) and White Americans of attributing the acceptance of underrepresented minorities (URMs) at highly competitive colleges primarily to the color of their skin. In doing so, this discredits the hard work URMs equally do to gain acceptance despite other overt and subtle educational roadblocks that they almost exclusively face.

Students working together: ©Jisc and Matt Lincoln

A couple months ago, there was a lawsuit filed by Students for Fair Admissions against Harvard that alleges that the university systematically discriminates against Asian-Americans in violation of civil rights law, and artificially keeps their numbers lower than what it should be. Their evidence, consisting of an analysis of over 160,000 records of applicants to Harvard, concluded that Asian applicants on average scored higher on admissions criteria such as tests scores and grades. However, the admissions committee found them to score lower on average on personality trait ratings such as likability and courage. Furthermore, a 2013 internal review by Harvard demonstrated that if they only considered academic achievement (grades and test scores) and nothing else, then the number of Asian-Americans would rise to about 43%. Of course the lawsuit is more nuanced and complex than what I’ve presented, but the summary is that those supporting the lawsuit feel as if they are not being given a fair shot when being considered for admission at Harvard since, judging on scholastic merit alone, Asian American applicants do better than everyone else.

“Although, I worked hard to earn my accomplishments, his words were piercing and found a way to instill thoughts of self doubt about why I was accepted.”

The truth is that the admissions process is not only about academic merit. Harvard could easily just select all the students who score the highest on some arbitrary scholastic exam to fill its class. Instead, it has decided to consider other factors when determining someone’s likelihood to be a leader and contribute positively to the school’s learning environment and reputation; factors ranging from from personality ratings, to extracurricular activities. Also included in these factors is the legacy admissions criterion, which gives special consideration to applicants with a alum parent. Even though I consider legacy admissions unfair, since it gives privileged majority white legacy applicants up to a 40% advantage on admissions, I recognize that Harvard is a private institution, and thus gets to set its criteria for admission however it likes.

The Harvard Crimson

It is understandable for many Asian-Americans, at least the ones backing the lawsuit, to be upset for receiving lower scores on the subjective “personality” rating. However, one of the more controversial parts of this lawsuit is the claim of discrimination similar to practices used to suppress the number of Jewish applicants in the 1920s and 1930s. I understand that discrimination today does not always look like discrimination of the early 20th century. However, the definition of discrimination always involves an element of injustice or prejudicial treatment. Despite the lower personality scores, it will be difficult to argue a case of blatant discrimination when Asian Americans represent about 5–6% of the US population, but make up from 20 to upwards of 30% of the Harvard class each year. They are more over-represented than any other racial or ethnic group when comparing their representation at Harvard, and similar schools, compared to their US census demographics. But the elephant in the room here is not about Asians getting lower scores on their personality scores.

“In a time when the President of the United States is spewing extremely divisive rhetoric, such a lawsuit can easily lead to more division amongst the already fragmented minority groups within this country.”

At the basis of all of these arguments is the idea that some Asians strongly believe that they deserve to get into these prestigious schools because they score better on exams than the other applicants, especially the Black and Hispanic underrepresented minorities . However, Harvard is not just looking for those who can get perfect scores on standardized exams. They are looking for the next Yo-yo Ma or Cornel West. People who will not only become a world leader in their field of practice, but will also bring the university even more fame and glory than they already wield. By looking at more than just test scores, these universities hope to increase their odds at discovering other brilliant and talented students such as Ma and West.

Most studies that suggest that those with higher standardized test scores are more likely to be successful at the collegiate level usually compare those who score higher on the SATs to those who score significantly lower. However, everyone who is admitted to Harvard has much higher standardized test scores and grades compared to the average US college applicant. Therefore, I do not find the argument that Asian Americans deserve admission because of having higher average test scores and GPAs compelling because the average is already high for everyone who applies. I believe those who support this lawsuit probably understand why the Harvards of the world are not a true meritocracy, yet they just don’t care about the discrepancies in educational opportunities that make a pure meritocracy in the USA unfair and unrealistic.

The Pew Research Center

For numerous Asian American applicants, I fear the relative socioeconomic privilege and the lack of exposure to underrepresented minorities while growing up may be the reason why there is such a disconnect about why a true meritocracy cannot occur. For perspective, studies from the Pew Research Center found the average household income of Asian families in 2014 ($77,900) was slightly higher than that of White families ($71,300), which were both significantly more than that of Black and Hispanic households ($43,300). Also, Asian American applicants were more likely to have parents who went to college and hold a graduate degree than any other race. Even if they were not from a wealthy or educated family, different studies have presented the idea of the immigrant paradox, in which kids of immigrant parents still attend college at higher rates than the US average due to the encouragement and relative stability within their family and communities.

What started out as a few Asian students feeling upset about alleged discrimination has now turned into a monumental case that may determine the future of the educational standards in our country . Since this case involves the consideration of race and ethnicity in determining who is admitted to an institution, this will force the Supreme Court to once again decide whether affirmative action is a policy that we should still follow in our country. A Supreme Court that currently has two of Donald Trump’s appointees. A Supreme Court that currently has more conservative judges than liberal judges. A Supreme Court that has a majority of white men, and Clarence Thomas, who are more likely to think their scholastic achievement is all because of their natural intellect and their own hard work, and do not consider the immense educational privilege that they were given to start and received along the way.

At the end of the day, it is not about the Asian, Black, or Hispanic students who are applying to Harvard. The average tests scores and GPA of any of the students, regardless of race, who apply to Harvard are much higher than the national average. Likely, none of the underrepresented students of color that fall into this category will have an issue gaining admission to other institutions that are not as selective as Harvard. However, those who benefit most from affirmative action are the smart and hardworking children of color who may not have had the opportunities to attend the best schools growing up, nor had the resources to properly prepare for the SAT/ACT. For these children, the opportunity to attend even a state public university can make a huge difference in their future career opportunities and future income.

“One could argue that this lack of systemic oppression has allowed Asian Americans to capitalize on the rights afforded them through the civil rights movement, and they have been able to excel much more than any other racial group.”

Although most public universities currently practice some form of affirmative action, there are a few notable ones that do not. After proposition 209 was passed in California in 1998, making it illegal for the University of California school system to consider race in admissions, the number of Black and Hispanic applicants has steadily declined. During the campaign for this proposition, there was a significant push from the California Asian-American community to ratify this proposition for fear that ongoing race based affirmative action could affect future admissions chances for their children. In California, Black and Hispanic college-age children make up over half of the potential applicant pool to college, but only represent about 13% (down from 24% in 1998) of students at UC Berkeley. Moreover, removing the consideration of affirmative action can also hurt other Asian American communities that are not as well educated and resourced as the South and East Asian communities. For example, the Hmong and Burmese communities are historically less wealthy than the Indian or Chinese communities, and are underrepresented in higher education as well.

University of California, Berkley admissions before and after a ban on affirmative action. Illustration: Mona Chalabi

Even though these universities that do not practice affirmative action are not supposed to make exceptions based on race, one caveat to that rule that they do not advertise is that exceptions are made for student athletes. In essence, these institutions are bending the rules for student athletes from whom they can profit. Schools that engage in these practices send a message to underrepresented minorities saying “we only want you if we can use you.”

Regardless of the numerous Asian Americans who support this lawsuit, what is troubling about this case is the fact that it was initiated and funded by Edward Blum, an older white male. Why? Because his end goal is to remove race/ethnicity considerations from the admissions process completely. Thanks to the critical, albeit not always reliable, vote of Justice Kennedy, Blum lost his prior anti-affirmative action case (Fisher vs University of Texas) that had gone to the Supreme Court. This case was based on accusations by Abigail Fisher who accused the University of Texas of denying her admission because she was white. Now he is using Asian American angst as the latest platform through which to achieve his goals.

“In California, Black and Hispanic college-age children make up over half of the potential applicant pool to college, but only represent about 13% (down from 24% in 1998) of students at UC Berkeley.”

In a time when the President of the United States is spewing extremely divisive rhetoric, such a lawsuit can easily lead to more division amongst the already fragmented minority groups within this country. When some Asian Americans say that affirmative action is no longer needed because the injustices of the past are no longer present, this emphasizes the narrowed perspective of the reality they live in. Although members of that community do experience discrimination as well, they often are not subjected to the systemic oppression that other Black and Hispanic communities in the US face. One could argue that this lack of systemic oppression has allowed Asian Americans to capitalize on the rights afforded them through the civil rights movement, and they have been able to excel much more than any other racial group. Asian Americans have been the model minority for so long that I fear sometimes they don’t realize that they are still minorities and should not work to impede policies that could help other minorities that have not been so fortunate.

I believe that policies such as affirmative action will help us get closer to the point of closing certain gaps in education such that one day, we will no longer need it. If we are able to give those who have been historically oppressed opportunities to attend institutions of higher education, this can help to improve their future career opportunities. This opportunity can help decrease the glaring educational and socioeconomic discrepancies that are ingrained in the fabric of our nation. Given how heterogeneous our country is compared to many other countries, like Iceland, for example, I’m not fully certain if we’ll ever get to a point where we can fully ignore race and ethnicity when considering college admissions. However, I am certain that getting rid of affirmative action at this point in time will set us back even further.


AK Agunbiade is an emergency medicine resident and a comedian who lives in Chicago. Previous works and contact can be found at www.akagunbiade.com