The latest high-profile challenge to affirmative action in college admissions has exposed fault lines in the Asian-American community, underscoring differences of opinion between foreign-born immigrants and American-born Asian community leaders.
More than 60 Asian-American groups — mostly led by recent Chinese immigrants — filed a federal complaint accusing Harvard University of discrimination on Friday afternoon. That same day, a separate coalition named Asian American Civil Rights posted an open letter rebuking the complaint and declaring its support for affirmative action in higher education.
“Our universities should reflect our diverse democracy and expand opportunities for those students who have overcome significant barriers,” the letter says. “Rather than letting ourselves be divided, we must come together to ensure increased opportunities and success for all students.”
Most of the groups who filed the federal complaint are newer organizations comprising foreign-born immigrants, largely from China. The groups who led the opposition to the complaint tend to be older civil rights groups with American-born leaders and long-standing relationships with black and Latino activist groups. “From a sociological standpoint, that makes sense,” C.N. Le, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, told BuzzFeed News. More recent immigrants, he said, “are coming from an idealized image of American society as a meritocracy where everybody should have an equal chance … So, from that point of view, they see affirmative action as this mechanism that discriminates against Asian-Americans.”
By contrast, Le said, civil rights groups with deeper roots have views of racial politics much more in line with those of other traditional civil rights advocacy groups, who have long advocated for affirmative action as a necessary corrective to structural inequalities.
The substance of the federal complaint, which was filed with the U.S. Education Department’s Office of Civil Rights, is a request for an investigation into Harvard’s admission practices and cites data that Harvard and other Ivy League schools discriminate against Asian applicants by holding them to a higher standard for test scores. The coalition argues that under a “race-neutral” admissions process, schools like Harvard would have a much higher proportion of Asian students. Currently Harvard’s student population is 19% Asian.
But the coalition of Asian groups that opposes the federal complaint say it pits Asian Americans against other minority groups and imperils hard-won inclusive university admissions policies.
“This is largely what we’ve seen in the past, which is a ploy by many conservative groups to use Asian-Americans as a wedge community,” Vincent Pan, executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, told BuzzFeed News. This, he said, serves to create the false appearance that Asian-Americans don’t support or benefit from “efforts to promote racial justice.”
Taylor Chow, president of Asian Americans for Political Advancement, one of the groups behind the complaint against Harvard, said that the groups defending affirmative action are failing to address the real concerns of Asian-American parents and students who are suffering from discrimination with every new round of college applicants. “Those groups, they claim they are representing the minority,” Chow told BuzzFeed News. “But they have lost their leadership on these issues.”
The complaint is a new twist on decades-long discussions of affirmative action in college admissions. While a lawsuit last December accused both Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill of discrimination against a specific Asian student, this is the first time that Asian-American groups themselves have attacked affirmative action on a national stage, said OiYan Poon, a professor at Loyola University Chicago who studies race and college admissions. In the past, Poon said, such complaints have usually been led by predominantly white, conservative groups. Or, if the complaints were raised by Asian-Americans, they were limited to discrimination against Asians without attacking affirmative action in general.
Thomas Espenshade, a sociologist at Princeton who published some of the research most frequently cited by opponents of affirmative action, told BuzzFeed News that the statistical disadvantage felt by Asian applicants is not necessarily a sign of discrimination. “We only have the hard, quantifiable variables,” like test scores, Espenshade said. “We don’t have some of the softer things like students’ personal statements or recommendations.” Still, Espenshade said his research shows that the disadvantages felt by Asian students are related to the benefits felt by other minority groups, and that removing race-based preferences would increase the proportion of Asian students admitted into elite schools. Ultimately he called the decision over what to do about affirmative action a “philosophical” one.
Betty Hung, policy director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles and the author of the open letter supporting affirmative action, disagrees with Espenshade about the implications of his research. She said the error of the Harvard complaint lies not in decrying discrimination against Asians, but in identifying affirmative action as the culprit. The complaint accuses Harvard of applying de facto racial quotas, but “affirmative action does not constitute quotas,” Hung said. Instead, “it’s simply taking account whether a candidate has overcome racial adversity and discrimination” in so-called “holistic” reviews of applicants. Hung also pointed to a recent survey by her organization that found that 69% of Asian-Americans support affirmative action in higher education. Other polls have shown similar levels of support overall, but that support varies among different Asian-American subgroups.
Both Hung and Pan, from Chinese for Affirmative Action, did not discount the possibility that Asian applicants are discriminated against by college admissions processes, but insisted that attacking affirmative action is not the solution. “The remedy they call for is the wrong one,” Hung said. “The remedy is not to end affirmative action. It’s to end discrimination.”
Yukong Zhao, a columnist and author who spearheaded the coalition that filed the complaint against Harvard, said that this was precisely the intention of the complaint. “They try to focus this conversation on affirmative action when it is more about discrimination against Asian-Americans,” Zhao told BuzzFeed News. Harvard and other Ivies, he said, are violating existing laws that allow for affirmative action policies yet prohibit discrimination against specific groups.
Nevertheless, the coalition that filed the complaint is actively calling for an end to any use of race as an admissions criterion, advocating instead for a form of affirmative action based purely on an applicant’s economic background. Moreover, the complaint itself frequently cites evidence presented in a lawsuit filed against Harvard in November by Edward Blum, a prominent conservative anti-affirmative action activist, to support its claims.
Still, the groups behind the Harvard complaint insist that they are not being properly understood, and some called for a more amicable dialogue.
Alex Chen, president of the Orange Club, lamented that none of the groups behind the letter had reached out to the groups behind the complaint. “You know, just talk to us,” he said. “We’re not here to destroy things. We are the victims, too. And we are parents who care about our children and care about the future of our home, which is America.”
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