The decision by Federal Judge Allison Burroughs in the Harvard admissions case on Tuesday was just what we needed in this country.
It was a reminder that the process of achieving racial equity in admissions to Harvard is a step in the right direction, and that maintaining diversity is still the right thing to do in an America that is fast evolving into a minority-majority nation.
For a while, it seemed like we were going backwards in our country. Segregation in our society–from schools to housing—persists. And then there’s the hot political rhetoric from leaders on the right, mocking and condemning diversity and ignoring racial inequality.
That’s how badly we needed a win in the Harvard admissions case.
It’s a sign that racial justice is alive and well in America.
After more than 50 years of fighting for affirmative action, you’d think it was no longer necessary. But the battle is always stuck at the admissions gate. Who gets in? Who gets rejected? Every new case adds a new twist. The Bakke case at University of California at Davis in 1978 outlawed quotas. The Grutter case at Michigan Law School in 2003 upheld the consideration of race as one factor in achieving diversity. Most recently in 2016, race-conscious admissions survived a challenge by beleaguered white applicant Abigail Fisher at the University of Texas at Austin.
In each case, the Supreme Court clearly established what should by now be considered settled law. Race can be considered as one of several factors in the admissions process, as long as the approach does not include quotas and maintains a narrow focus.
If the Harvard case crossed any of those lines, then affirmative action was done.
This case focused on a battle of expert witnesses who offered up two differing statistical models. The pro-Harvard expert provided a more complete and refined model, which concluded there was no discrimination against Asian Americans. The anti-Harvard statistical model left out legacy and athletic factors–30 percent of Harvard admits–and was incomplete; it didn’t convince the judge of any discrimination. Beyond the numbers, the pro-Harvard side put real students on the stand to testify about the value of affirmative action. The anti-Harvard side didn’t present a single Asian American applicant who faced discrimination, only selective numbers from a faulty statistical model.
And then the judge just checked it all against the law. There were no quotas. And Harvard in considering the “whole student” was narrow focused.
Decision for Harvard.
Asian Americans who supported affirmative action at Harvard were overjoyed.
“As an Asian American alum who graduated in May, I am incredibly happy,” said Jang Lee, a Korean American from California on a conference call Tuesday afternoon. He said his essay about Korean identity was a key part of his admission.
But other Asian Americans, the ones aligned with a staunch anti-affirmative action group to fight Harvard, were dismayed. They were just the Asian American shields for Students for Fair Admissions, led by a white conservative lawyer who has made a career fighting against civil rights.. He was the same lawyer behind Abigail Fisher, who lost her challenge against UT-Austin in the Supreme Court.
This time, SFFA emerged to target the premier college in the land, using Asian American students dumbfounded that their perfect SAT scores and grades weren’t good enough to get into Harvard.
The Asian American model minority as model victim.
But it’s important to note that there would likely be fewer Asian Americans at Harvard without a race-conscious approach that allowed the school to consider race as one of many facets in a student’s application.
As an alum who attended Harvard when it was less than three percent Asian or Asian American, I know there are problems with affirmative action. But it’s not in the admissions process; the problem occurs after people get in and find the lack of support that can kill one’s spirit. Even to this day, students of color can find themselves alienated after being admitted.
But that’s not what this lawsuit was about. This was all about the admissions gate.
It exposed how our Asian American community is not a racial or ethnic monolith. There are real differences generationally, based on when you came to this country. Do you go back to Gold Mountain five or six generations, or are you really “fresh off the boat”? Are you pre- or post-1965?
They all value education, but for recent arrivals, Harvard is like the Louis Vuitton handbag of education. Georgetown or Cornell? Anything less than Harvard is a knockoff.
Judge Burroughs pointed out that if all the applicants with perfect scores and grades were admitted, Harvard would have to increase their freshman admits by 400 percent. It’s not going to happen.
Burroughs’ decision was fair and sensitive. She said that even though Asian Americans are 22 percent of the current freshman class and make up 6 percent of the national population, there was still a chance that discrimination could exist.
But when she reviewed the evidence, SFFA didn’t make its case.
If you’re one of those perfect Asian Americans who was rejected (or likely one of their Tiger Moms and Dads), you may still have hope that an appeal will work its way to the Supreme Court for a different result.
Let’s hope not. By affirming affirmative action at Harvard, the judge has affirmed the moral sense of the majority of Asian Americans, as well as those of us in a diverse country.
The law as it stands is still pointing us in the right direction in a diverse America. Without it, we all lose.