Opinion | Harvard Lawsuit Calls Into Question Affirmative Action

Challenges Being Heard


The first trial of Students for Fair Admission (SFFA) v. Harvard (and perhaps not the last) ended in November 2018. As in many discrimination suits, this case was rooted in statistics.

The plaintiff, a nonprofit group, filed the case under Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits racial discrimination at private institutions that receive federal funds. A term first used by President Kennedy, affirmative action is the effort to improve employment and educational opportunities for minorities. SFFA believes that race-conscious admissions are unfair and unnecessary, saying affirmative action, long thought to help minority groups, hurts Asian Americans because Harvard holds them to a higher standard than other races.

The SFFA’s mission statement: A student’s race and ethnicity should not be factors that either harm or help that student to gain admission to a competitive university.

SFFA revealed that Asian-American males living in rural states need a score of 1370 on the PSAT to get a recruitment letter from Harvard, while white males only need 1310. William Fitzsimmons, the dean of admission, refuted that this tactic attracts students in rural areas who may not consider applying.

Harvard’s rating system has also come under criticism. Admission officers are given clear and strict guidelines based on SAT or ACT scores for academic ratings, but the ambiguous personal rating system are subjective. Asians routinely perform better in academic and extracurricular ratings, but have consistently lower personal scores than other ethnic groups. The SFFA asserts that Harvard officials should use race-blind admission tactics.

Harvard claims that being Asian-American does not impact an applicant’s likelihood of getting accepted in a statistically significant way. No race-neutral admission process can promote diversity as well as keep a standard of excellence. Economics professor David Card analyzed the admissions database and concluded there was no discrimination against Asian-Americans.

The college also says that taking away race-conscious admissions would result in homogeneous classes. Several minority students have supported Harvard, declaring that race shapes who they are and race-blind admission is erasure of their heritage.

Edward Blum, the president of SFFA, has taken many cases challenging affirmative action, including two Supreme Court cases: a win in Shelby County v Holder (2013) and loss in Fisher v. University of Texas (2016). In this case, Blum may be trying to pit Asian-Americans against other racial minorities, due to past criticism from taking on white plaintiffs.

Affirmative action clashes with Western values, and it is no secret that the American Dream attracts many Asians. With a merit based standard, Asian American parents are comforted by a system which will make sure that their child’s hard work will be paid off and laziness is punished: you are what you work for.

We’ve all heard the stereotype of the hard working Asian student who excels in science or math and wants to be a doctor. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but it is degrading when the whole Asian race is stripped down to this one cliché.

To admissions officers, Asian applications begin to look identical, even robotic, on paper. This can be especially seen in the lower personal ratings of Asians by admissions officers, as if Asians did no possess redeeming qualities outside of academics.

Asian Americans are often called the “model minority,” which is a well-intended, but also a backhanded compliment. Many Asians have faced this dangerous generalization but are afraid to look ungrateful for this “praise.” Being in the “model minority” means being recognized for the overall incredible achievements of your race, but also being held up to an elevated standard.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the SFFA observed that Asian Americans are “described as smart and hardworking yet uninteresting and indistinguishable from other Asian-American applicants” in admission officer’s comments on applications. Saying Asians collectively have unappealing personalities — lacking leadership, likability, and courage — is insulting.

The Harvard lawsuit complicates the discussion of affirmative action, but it also reveals prejudice against Asian Americans. It seems unlikely that this goes as far as discrimination in college applications. SFFA argues that African Americans and Hispanics are given unfair advantage, but minorities have faced historic injustices for years: slavery, the Chinese Exclusion Act, internment camps for Japanese-Americans during World War II, xenophobia after 9/11, Jim Crow, police brutality. Our political culture still needs government action to ensure equality of opportunity.

Both sides are already planning to appeal, meaning this case will likely go before the Supreme Court. The newest Justice, Brett Kavanaugh, is likely to oppose affirmative action based on his prior judicial positions. In 1999, his article in the Wall Street Journal discussed Rice v. Cayetano (2000), which challenged a statute allowing only native Hawaiians (of Polynesian descent) to vote for the trustees in the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

He wrote, “By claiming native Hawaiians deserve special privileges because their ancestors lived in Hawaii, the Justice Department is . . .  flouting the principle that all American citizens have equal rights.” However, he is known for hiring clerks of women and people of color. U.S. District Court Judge Allison Burroughs’ findings are predicted come out in early 2019, around the time that college applications are due.

For now, it is only a waiting game to see what decision the country makes and what, if any, changes come about this trial. For in depth coverage and both opinionated and unbiased reports on the status of the trial, please refer to The Harvard Crimson at thecrimson.com.