Race remains a factor for mobility in the present-day United States. Willful ignorance of that reality harms members of the Asian-American community, in addition to other communities of color.
The current anti-affirmative action debate paints the dynamic and diverse Asian-American community as a monolithic entity, thereby using a narrow image of Asian America to perpetuate a racist political agenda and the model minority myth. As such, the Asian-Pacific Islander Leadership Forum denounces the U.S. Department of Justice’s attack on affirmative action.
Students for Fair Admissions, a group suing Harvard University over what it claims are discriminatory policies against Asian-American applicants, obtained the Justice Department’s support last week. The DOJ filed a brief criticizing Harvard’s admissions practices as biased against Asian-Americans. They asserted that evidence suggests Harvard engages in “racial balancing,” a potential violation of set Supreme Court boundaries on the use of racial quotas in college admissions decisions.
Harvard strongly denies this claim, arguing that its consideration of race and ethnicity is just one factor in a holistic review process of each individual’s application. Civil rights groups and many selective colleges and universities have filed briefs supporting Harvard and arguing for the merits of holistic admissions.
As mentioned in the SFA v. Harvard amicus brief, submitted by experts on education issues related to race in postsecondary institutions and society, large disparities exist between Asian-American groups in college attendance rates.
Affirmative action benefits certain Asian-American groups, namely those of Southeast Asian origin and/or from low-income backgrounds. Eliminating affirmative action would not only directly harm members of our own community, but it would also create no significant increase in Asian-American admits. Underrepresented minority students cannot “take” seats from Asian-American students because the former already comprise such a small percentage of the applicant pool. A 2016 study found that upon elimination of black and Latinx applicants from the Harvard admissions pool, the admission chances of the remaining Asian-American and white students only saw a 1 percent increase.
Moreover, the plaintiff of this case, Edward Blum, is a white man who serves as the director and only member of the Project on Fair Representation. Blum has worked for years to dismantle affirmative action by framing student rejections as the result of affirmative action policies. Among his more famous litigation includes Fisher v. University of Texas, in which the Supreme Court denied Blum’s argument and upheld the University of Texas’ use of race as a consideration in the admissions process.
The Asian-American Coalition for Education, a collection of groups that filed an amicus curiae brief in support of the Students for Fair Admissions complaint, represent a homogeneous, wealthy minority of Asian-Americans, mainly first-generation mainland Chinese immigrants. But Blum and his supporters attempt to “divide and conquer” Asian-Americans in an effort to create conflict between diverse Asian groups and to pit communities of color against one another. In suggesting that race-conscious policies hurt Asian-Americans by favoring other minority groups, his arguments perpetuate the model minority myth. The myth argues that Asian-Americans are exceptional in their ability to succeed in the U.S. meritocracy, and are thus worthy of imitation. By centering his argument on Asian-Americans, Blum exploits our community to skirt a conversation on white admissions in elite universities. Whiteness is still predominant at private universities across the country, forcing minority students to vie for remaining seats.
Regardless, a large proportion of Asian-Americans — 47 percent — attend community college. Affirmative action in elite high schools and private universities should not be the center of Asian American organizing. It detracts from discussing larger-scale efforts to protect the interests of Asian America. We need to advocate for Asian students who are undocumented, immigrant, low-income, first-generation, transgender or gender-non-conforming, disabled, working, and of other marginalized identities and backgrounds. Regressive conversations on affirmative action distract from the broader educational needs of the Asian-American community.
The community of Asian-Americans is large and dynamic. APILF firmly rejects rhetoric that removes the marginal status of Asian-Americans. We recognize that the higher education admissions process is largely arcane and that Harvard University’s methods are not perfect. However, we re-emphasize that as Asian-Americans, our identities are interracially defined. Asian-Americans will only achieve true equity when it is shared with all communities of color.
Dismantling affirmative action would be antithetical to our goals. We encourage our community to look beyond the deceptive motives of this Supreme Court case to stand by the Asian-American community as a whole and thus stand by affirmative action.
Heejin Hahn is a junior in the College. Jennifer Sugijanto is a junior in the College. Nataliyah Tahir is a junior in the School of Foreign Service.