CBC: Nil Köksal interviews Bethany Li about the Supreme Court hearings on affirmative action

Image for CBC: Nil Köksal interviews Bethany Li about the Supreme Court hearings on affirmative action
Asian American students and organizations rally outside of the U.S. Supreme Court in support of affirmative action and race conscious admissions on October 31, 2022. Credit: Stuart J. Sia/AALDEF.

As It Happens with Nil Köksal, Chris Howden: Rhetorical Questions

Interview with Bethany Li begins at 50:25

Yesterday, the U.S. Supreme Court heard two cases concerning affirmative action in post-secondary schools, now known more commonly as race-conscious admissions. In one of those cases, conservative activist Edward Blum took aim at Harvard University in particular claiming that affirmative action has meant Asian Americans are unfairly held to higher standards that Black and Latino applicants. But many Asian American university students and alumni don’t agree with that claim at all. Bethany Li is the legal director at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. We reached her in Boston.

Nil Koksal: Bethany I know you’ve been listening in on the arguments the plaintiffs are making here, but what do you believe this case is all about?

Bethany Li: I think the plaintiffs in this case have been trying to end affirmative action, race-conscious admissions, for a very long time, and I think that’s the ultimate goal here. The SFFA, Students For Fair Admission, the plaintiffs in this case, have been disingenuously saying that they’ve been defending the rights of Asian Americans in the name of fighting racism. But in reality, they’re really just advancing stereotypes of Asian Americans in trying to end race-conscious admissions.

NK: What kind of things are they saying that lead you to believe that they’re enforcing stereotypes?

BL: They represent Asian Americans as a monolithic group. They suggest that Asian Americans are a model minority, meaning that they pretend that Asian Americans are just good and successful immigrants, when in reality we know that in the U.S., Asian Americans are an incredibly diverse group with many many subgroups that the plaintiffs just aren’t really considering the variety of experiences.

NK: There are Asian American rights groups that do support the SFFA’s claim that affirmative action is harming Asian students chances of getting into schools. But you believe otherwise. Why is that?

BL: We do, and it’s actually not just us. Civil right activists have believe otherwise for decades and generations. But also, actually 69% of Asian Americans are supportive of affirmative action and race-conscious admissions. It increases the educational benefits at universities and other institutions of higher learning, that benefit not just Asian American students, but all students. When you are in a class by yourself as an Asian American student or as a Black student or as a Latinx student, many students have expressed that the way in which they can actually express their experiences and opinions are very different than when you’re surrounded by more students of color in the same classroom.

NK: You’ve written that being race conscious is a necessary and effective tool to address racism and discrimination, including for Asian Americans. You gave that example there, but I’m wondering, give me a sense, as these applications are coming in to universities, Harvard for example, how do you see the process helping students from a diverse background?

BL: In terms of race-conscious admissions, you need to be able to understand the person’s background, experiences, in order to be able to evaluate a person’s fit at the school. And race is just integrally a part of each person’s experience, particularly for students of color in the United States. The history of racism in the United States impacts students of color — Black students, Latinx students, Indigenous and Asian American students — differently. And sometimes it’s not even just about the students talking about racism in particular, but sometimes it’s just being able, for a Vietnamese student to be able to talk about all of the different activities that she’s been involved with in her high school that are integrally related to her ethnicity. We work with a student who has said that the high school activities that she listed, there would be a hole in her resume if she wasn’t able to mention her race and ethnicity.

NK: The last time that the case against affirmative action was brought to the Supreme Court was back in 2003. The court supported affirmative action programs at that time. But Sandra Day O’Connor did write, “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary.” So 25 years from that point would be 2028. What do you think about that timeline, for ending race-conscious policies at colleges and universities?

BL: This point was discussed repeatedly yesterday during oral arguments, and the thing about it is, I don’t think Sandra Day O’Connor meant for it to ever be a deadline. I think it’s a goal. We would all like to be in a place in this country and in this world where we can use race neutral alternatives. But the reality is it’s just not true. And in a world right now in which we are just a few years after George Floyd’s murder and the biggest protests in the U.S. over race with the Black Lives Matter movement as well as being in the midst of still a pandemic that has generated a lot of political and xenophobic rhetoric that has resulted in a spike in violence and deaths against the Asian American community, we’re simply not in a post-racial world. And so whether we’re talking about 25 years from the Grutter decision or 25 years later, what matters is the context of how we’re experiencing race and racism in this society.

NK: Yesterday, hundreds of people were gathered outside the Supreme Court, most of them students. They were there in support of affirmative action. So I wonder what it was like for you. How did you feel seeing that group there as you wait for the court’s decision?

BL: It was an electric feeling. I think the community of students who understand and are the beneficiary of affirmative action and race-conscious admissions policies from the past several decades, seeing them there and also hearing the stories of students who have been in this fight from the time of Bakke, to Grutter, to now, was just an incredible trajectory of the civil rights work that has been going on for generations.

NK: Bethany, thank you for your time.

BL: Thank you so much for having us.

Bethany Li is the legal director of the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund. We reached her in Boston.