Harvard affirmative action ruling is good but Asian American divide remains
I am an affirmative action baby. The Harvard decision last week to uphold affirmative action makes me cheer. And cry. It solves nothing. It only makes that crack in the community even larger.
I attended Harvard when it was less than 2 percent Asian American, and they thought Filipinos were more like West Coast Puerto Ricans. So I know the problems of affirmative action at Harvard. And it’s not simply about getting in.
It’s really about the support or lack of support once you do get in. The Harvard affirmative action case decided by Federal Judge Allison D. Burroughs doesn’t address that.
That’s not to take away from her decision. But after more than 50 years of affirmative action’s legal struggles, the battle is still stuck at the admissions gate. Who gets in? Who gets rejected? Every landmark case adds a new twist. The ‘60s Baake case at UCDavis outlawed quotas. The Grutter case at Michigan withstood the battle of the colorblind. Most recently, the “whole student” approach to affirmative action survived the challenge of a beleaguered white female student, Abigail Fisher, at the University of Texas.
In each case, the Supreme Court clearly established what should by now be considered settled law. Race can be used in admissions, as long as the approach does not include quotas and maintains a narrow focus.
If the Harvard case crossed any of those lines this time around, then affirmative action would be struck down at America’s top university, a crushing blow.
Judge Burroughs’ decision went over a case made complicated by the star witnesses who offered two differing statistical models. The pro-Harvard one was more complete and showed there was no discrimination. The anti-Harvard statistical model was less complete and didn’t convince the judge of any discrimination. It even left out the legacy and athletic factors, 30 percent of Harvard admits. Beyond the numbers, the pro-Harvard side had some real students testify about the value of affirmative action. The anti-Harvard side didn’t feature any victimized students, only bad numbers from that faulty statistical model.
And then the judge just checked it all against the law. There were no quotas. Harvard in its “holistic” approach considering the “whole student” was narrow focused within the Supreme Court’s guidelines. There could be no other answer but a 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 used by the white anti-affirmative action group to fight Harvard, were dismayed. They were just fronts for Students for Fair Admissions, a bunch of white conservative lawyers who’ve made a career fighting civil rights and affirmative action. They were the ones behind the aforementioned white female student who tried to end the University of Texas’ “holistic approach” and lost in the Supreme Court.
This time, they came back targeting Harvard and using a secret weapon from the minority side– a group of mostly recent Asian American immigrants dumbfounded that their perfect SAT scores and grades weren’t good enough to get into Harvard. The Model Minority as model victim.
Just as Lee was elated, Yukong Zhao was in pain.
“Today marks a dark day for millions of Asian American children nationwide,” said Zhao in a statement. He’s the president of the Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE), the group supplied the alleged Asian victims for SFFA.
Unfortunately, he’s mistaken. It would be a darker day for the majority of Asian Americans if Harvard had lost. In fact, Zhao’s kids who didn’t get in likely still wouldn’t have been admitted.
But the irrational anger of the other side almost assures a long appeal ahead. Instead of healing, there will be more division within our communities.
This is the problem with the Harvard case among Asian Americans. The majority of us realize that affirmative action has helped our communities tremendously. But the case exposes what divides us most in our community generationally.
Yes, we know Asian Americans are not a monolith. Filipinos, Chinese, Koreans, et. Al. We’re ethnically diverse. We are all over the economic spectrum. And then there’s the deeper divide that comes with when our communities got here. Of course, some have been here for generations—the native born. But our community exploded post-1965 when immigration laws were relaxed. Did you come Post-‘80s? Post-2000?
They all value education and want to go to Harvard. The Luis Vuitton bag of education. They see going to UC Irvine or Cornell as if going to a knockoff. If they have perfect scores why can’t they go to Harvard? Discrimination, they cry!
The judge pointed out in her decision if all the applicants with perfect scores and grades were admitted, Harvard would have to increase their freshman admits by 400 percent. Resources are an issue. Harvard has the right to decide who gets admitted and who doesn’t. And it’s not about race, nor about personality, though it’s clear, being an athlete would help. Just as long as Harvard stays within the law.
And the judge said Harvard did.
Burroughs’ decision seemed fair and sensitive. She said 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 saw the evidence SFFA didn’t make its case.
If you’re one of those perfect Asians who was rejected (or likely one of their Tiger Mom and Dads), you’re hoping the case works its way to the Supreme Court now stacked with white males just like the SFFA.
That’s the worst thing that could happen for Filipinos among the vast majority of Asian Americans who have supported and benefited from affirmative action.
Emil Guillermo is a journalist and commentator. He writes a column for the Inquirer’s North American Bureau. Twitter @emilamok. Listen to him on Apple Podcasts.