Asian-American backlash against race-conscious admissions threatens future of all minorities

As the nerve-wracking period of college decisions begins at Dougherty Valley and schools around the nation, many seniors rejected from their dream schools will feel bewilderment, wondering what more they could have done to gain that prized acceptance letter. While these emotions are understandable, recent actions by Asian-Americans seeking recourse for rejections they believe are motivated by discrimination will only hurt minorities in higher education, perpetuating the privileged status of white Americans.

Affirmative action and the impact of race in college admissions are in the national spotlight due to a lawsuit by Students For Fair Admissions against Harvard University, with SFFA representing a number of anonymous Asian-Americans rejected by the school.

The lawsuit, argued in October 2018 and expected to be ruled on in the coming months, alleges that during admissions, Harvard scored Asian-Americans lower on personality metrics like leadership and likeability. It also contends that Harvard capped the number of Asians accepted in order to increase acceptance of other racial groups, effectively rejecting applicants that were “higher-performing” in metrics such as GPA and standardized testing scores.

SFFA’s proposed solution is eliminating race entirely from consideration in college admissions. The lawsuit does not explicitly refer to affirmative action, but whichever side loses will likely appeal to the Supreme Court, and the issues discussed in the case could have broader implications for the use of affirmative action.

This is where the SFFA case becomes exceedingly dangerous. While it is true that Harvard and other elite universities are exhibiting problematic behavior regarding Asian-American applicants, the right approach should be to strengthen protections for minorities in the higher education system, not weaken them.

First and foremost, statistics show that Asian-Americans are actually relatively well represented at elite universities. For example, recent data shows that 17.1 percent of Harvard students were Asian-American, while the demographic only makes up 5 percent of the nation’s population at large.

That’s not to say that Harvard is not in the wrong. A 2013 internal investigation by the university found that Asian-Americans tended to be rated lower in personality scores by admissions officers than applicants of other races. It also found that admissions officers received training on how to consider race for applicants of other demographics, but not for Asian-Americans.

However, despite the shortcomings Harvard may have, it’s hard to make the case that there is explicit, systematic discrimination against Asian-Americans, as SFFA claims.

Additionally, SFFA seems to be less about helping Asian-Americans and more about using them as a mascot to ensure that the playing field remains tilted in favor of white students. This can most easily be seen through SFFA president Edward Blum, a white legal strategist who has spent his career on a crusade against laws involving race or ethnicity.

Blum has previously been behind cases like Shelby v. Holder, which gutted key protections for minorities in the Voting Rights Act. More recently, he was the face of the Fisher v. University of Texas Supreme Court case. The case involved Abigail Fisher, a white student who claimed she was rejected from the University of Texas at Austin because of race-conscious policies. The court ruled against Fisher, and recognizing the difficulty of defeating affirmative action with a white plaintiff, Blum explicitly said that he “needed Asian plaintiffs.”

Blum is not advocating for more transparent admissions, diversity training and other measures that would actually ensure equity. Instead, he wants to eliminate protections for minorities entirely, which would disproportionately benefit white students by removing any correction for the inherent economic and educational privileges their race affords them in comparison to minorities. His legal history shows that he is not remotely interested in justice for Asian students. He is using them as a vehicle for his own agenda and pitting minorities against each other, when in reality, they should be standing together against racism.

The case also problematically reinforces the “model minority” myth that all Asian-Americans are highly successful, erasing the demographic’s diversity. SFFA’s narrative of spurned Asian students portrays them as a high-achieving monolith, but in reality, Asian-Americans have the largest economic and educational disparities of any racial group in the U.S.

For example, within the broad umbrella of “Asian-American,” Indian-Americans had one of the lowest rates of poverty, at 7.5 percent in 2015, while at the other end of the spectrum, Burmese, Bhutanese and Hmong residents had poverty rates of about 30 percent each. 51 percent of Asians over the age of 25 have at least a bachelor’s degree. While this is higher than the percentage of the general population with this level of educational attainment (30 percent), Hmong, Laotian and Bhutanese Americans have bachelor’s degree rates of only 17, 16 and 9 percent, respectively.

The discourse generated by the SFFA glosses over these inequalities simply to win a court case. Oversimplifying the Asian-American experience undermines any effort by specific subsets of the community to improve their economic and educational status, which are dismissed under the assumption that, because they are Asian, they already have enough opportunities.

At the end of the day, the college admissions process undoubtedly needs reform to be fairer to Asian-Americans. If we want to solve this problem, we should try other approaches, like diversity training, ending preference for legacy applicants and making the admissions process more transparent. It’s not a binary; being pro-affirmative action doesn’t mean you’re anti-Asian-American, and we shouldn’t let the SFFA constrain us into believing so.

Ending race-conscious admissions will not help Asian-Americans. Instead, it will take away any adjustment for the systematic inequalities that deny minorities a fair chance at educational attainment. Blum and the SFFA are using Asian-Americans to perpetuate a dangerous “model minority” myth, foster conflict between different racial groups and reinforce the advantages of white students. We can’t let these efforts succeed.