Emil Guillermo: With race-conscious college admissions at Harvard and UNC, our stories are on the line

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Photo by Michael Theis, The Chronicle

There’s a photograph in the news of a young Asian American woman holding up a sign at the Supreme Court last Monday

The sign said “My race is my story.”

It is all our stories.

It is more important than grades and test scores, really. It’s what we overcame to get where we are.

That’s what an admissions officer at an Ivy League school told me decades ago when I asked why they let me in.

My father, a colonized Filipino from the 1920s, was my Everest. In spite of my background, I found a way in.

Our Asian American stories count. To take away race as a factor is to genericize our uniqueness and discount the value of our inclusion.

And that’s why for Asian American aficionados of affirmative action like myself, Halloween was a day of dread, the eve of the Day of the Dead, and just about a week before the midterm elections–a day our democracy could take a turn for the worst.

Too dramatic?

After a very politicized Supreme Court of the United States heard two cases that could end the decades long policy of using race as a factor in college admissions, I don’t think one can be dramatic enough.

Or have a greater sense of urgency.

We’ve already seen this court throw out legal precedent when it comes to abortion, as well as take big bites out of our voting rights. Will the court do the same with our rights to equal opportunity, not just by eliminating the best tool we have to fight racial discrimination, but by eliminating race itself as an issue?

I don’t know about you, but race still matters.

No one has ever been colorblind when they see me. That is, if they see me. Because the default view is simply we are invisible.

That’s not going to get any of us to the promised land.

But who knows what the court will do? Anyone who claims to know the final decision (expected sometime in 2023) is merely reading tea leaves. Or peddling misinformation.

Let’s be optimistic.

The SCOTUS hearing was a reminder that the best action to take to save any of the issues we care about is to go out on Tuesday, Nov. 8 and vote.

Vote for the right people. Not the election deniers, who just so happen to be abortion deniers, as well as voting rights deniers, and more than likely, the DACA deniers. And of course, they are affirmative action deniers.

Vote instead for the people who won’t deny us, and will affirm our truths, ultimately by legislation.

Voting is always the fail-safe when the fear is that the high court may deny us justice.

Voting certainly helped determine the makeup of the current high court.

We used to be able to rely on the courts to be above the fray. But increasingly, justices have been handpicked by politicians who wish to see justice from a certain perspective.

Before the Halloween hearing, the lower courts had upheld affirmative action at Harvard and UNC based on more than 40 years of legal jurisprudence.

But what has changed in this latest challenge to affirmative action is the ideological makeup of the plaintiffs and the court.

And that makes all the difference.

In the Harvard case, there is one plaintiff, a group called Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA).

Don’t be misled. The group doesn’t represent the views of most Asian Americans.

National polling data of Asian American voters shows that nearly two-thirds actually support affirmative action.

What you’re witnessing is a classic “divide and conquer” strategy, where some Asian Americans are being used by a white anti-civil rights activist named Ed Blum, who has dedicated his life to upending diversity and race equity in society from voting rights to higher ed.

Then came 2012 and the Fisher v. University of Texas case, in which Blum hand-held a white female plaintiff in an attempt to eliminate the use of race in college admissions. It didn’t work, but Blum learned a lesson.

He realized he didn’t have a perfect victim. That was clear when even Justice Antonin Scalia wondered aloud what the damage was to the white plaintiff Fisher, who didn’t gain admission in a fair process that made her compete against people of color.

This time, Blum found aggrieved rejections from Harvard and UNC on the internet. Many of them were among a new generation of Asian American immigrants from the 1990s and after, or rather, their sons and daughters. They were the ones who never quite understood why their offspring with the straight A’s and perfect scores could possibly be rejected from Harvard.

They have enabled Blum’s yellowfaced attack against affirmative action.

And it’s created a civil war within the Asian American community, only the Mason-Dixon line is the year of your family’s immigration. 1980s? ‘90s? 2000’s?

These are the folks within our community who have been used by Blum in an attempt to topple this thing in society that has allowed previous generations–not just Asian Americans, but all people of color and women–to break through society’s barriers.

And now a handful of Asian Americans are claiming harm and questioning its use in college admissions.

For decades, there have been jurists who may have been conservative Republican but were not 100 percent ideological. They knew that truth and justice was somewhere in the center and they moved there for issues like affirmative action.

It was in Grutter in 2003 when conservative Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing in defense of the use of race-conscious admissions, wrote how the court expects that “25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”

She was kicking the can down the road. But she should have kicked it further.

More than anything else, O’Connor’s words hung over the Monday hearing like a shroud.

Sure, some justices attempted to poke holes in both cases. Conservatives expressed disdain, such as Justice Clarence Thomas who boasted he didn’t know what diversity means, nor had he ever attended a racially diverse school, which was a condemnation of his alma maters Holy Cross and Yale Law School.

Liberals like Justices Ketanji Brown Jackson, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan reminded us that the lower courts determined there was no race discrimination in admissions at Harvard or UNC. They kept asking SFFA’s lawyers to show the harm, and none really could. In fact, the SFFA lawyer for UNC admitted that everyone got a boost, whites too.

After all that on Monday, I don’t see this court willing to get lost in the weeds–not if they can rely on an expiration date model set by O’Connor in 2003.

Twenty-five years would still give us time. But my impression from Justices Coney Barrett, Kavanaugh, and Alito was that O’Connor’s deadline was like the North Star.

And what if the raging fires of racial inequality are not over? Do we stop squirting water on the flames and roll up our hoses?

This court just seems too political to allow the lower court’s decision to stand.

And that’s the importance of six solid unyielding conservative justices on the high court.

You saw what they did to abortion. Will they do the same thing to affirmative action?

In a heartbeat, I’m afraid.

And that means the most positive thing you can do right now boils down to one word.

Vote. Tuesday, Nov. 8.

It’s for our stories to be seen and heard. Vote.

NOTE: I will talk about this column and other matters on “Emil Amok’s Takeout,” my AAPI micro-talk show. Live @2p Pacific. Livestream on Facebook; my YouTube channel; and Twitter. Catch the recordings on

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Emil Guillermo is an independent journalist/commentator. Updates at Follow Emil on Twitter, and like his Facebook page.

The views expressed in his blog do not necessarily represent AALDEF’s views or policies.

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