By Nivedita Nambrath ’23
In a highly contested court ruling last month, the Federal District Court cleared Harvard University of charges of discrimination against Asian Americans. This decision drew upon themes such as the strange mechanisms of elite universities’ admissions, racial and socioeconomic dynamics, and the Asian American experience. Because of the context surrounding this decision, opinions among the students at Wellesley College about the ruling were diverse and nuanced.
Many students took issue with the fact that the leader of the plaintiff, Edward Blum, is a conservative activist who has fought affirmative action in the past. In the words of one student, “While I don’t fully agree with affirmative action…this case was created by a white man trying to homogenize schools.” (SS, Class of 2022) They also felt that the case came as a threat to diversity on college campuses. One student states that “this case was an attempt to protect white supremacy by using Asian Americans and the model minority myth as a weapon against other people of color” and that “we as Asian Americans can’t keep letting ourselves be used like this. We have to show solidarity with our fellow people of color in their attempt to get a fair shot at higher education.” (EL, Class of 2023)
Some students described how the issues raised against Harvard came from positions of higher privilege. One student points out that Michael Wang, one of the plaintiffs of the case, was admitted into UPenn, and felt that his potential spot at Harvard was stolen by another minority student. “Many times I have heard [privileged Asian Americans say] ‘if I were Black or Mexican I would get into Stanford/etc’… and I always think, okay, without any context, if you had the same stats, you could probably get in. But context is important. You’re not another ethnicity. You don’t have that financial circumstance. You go home to your quiet little neighborhood, to a house your parents (who both graduated from college and have jobs) own, to tutoring classes, to SAT workbooks.” (XF, Class of 2023)
Another student felt that discrimination against Asian Americans in the admission process was justified. “Even if Harvard did discriminate against Asians it was so that they could admit a more diverse class, which is much more important than admitting a class with a high GPA average.” They expressed their belief that “white and Asian kids have greater access to better institutions to support and education”, and that along with white students, Asian Americans have “just a general culture of elitist education” expressing their belief that this is why “they [Asian Americans] are likely to have better grades or SAT scores.” The student continued, asking: “Should a black, brown or hispanic child living in a neighborhood where access to better education is limited suffer while applying to Harvard because Harvard is only admitting kids with 4.0 GPAs?”
Another student felt that the measures that universities employ to ensure diversity, such as affirmative action, were still not strong enough. This student states: “Each race needs to have its own “share”…of accepted students. It seems strange then Asian American students make up 20% of [Harvard University] but only 6% of the country…In the end, diversity is important but diversity does not mean a new majority, it means that everyone is included and their voices are listened to and accepted.”
On the other hand, some students are against the ruling. As one student stated, “I think it’s an open secret that Harvard does in fact discriminate against Asian Americans . . . As an Asian American who comes from a poverty-ridden family and also suffers from anti-Muslim hate, I think it is sad that to think I would be discriminated against in admissions because I know that I am not the ‘typical Asian-American’.”
Many also criticized how the admission committee overlooked socioeconomic status. One student stated: “You can’t talk about using affirmative action for diversity and then have no students from low socioeconomic status.” The same student also noted that as President Obama said in a speech, “a poor Asian student should be admitted over a wealthy African student, given that their statistics are the same”.
Another student described how students with appealing classifications – typically minorities or students with very low or high incomes – were intentionally positioned by high school administrations to become successful applicants. Meanwhile, as the student says, “kids with unappealing classifications (which wind up being Asians and middle class students) are unsupported or even discriminated against”. The student also noted that although they support the intentions of affirmative action, they have also noticed that “many minority students who are admitted [into elite colleges] still possess advantages over others within their ethnic group/”
Many students noted how the ruling was founded on stereotypes and assumptions about Asian Americans. One student who felt personally affected by this responded as follows: ”I think in multiple portions of the [New York Times] article, stereotypical extremities are presented in arguing for their cause (e.g “Harvard admissions officers pointed out that they could fill the freshman class with students with perfect test scores if they wanted to,”), which makes me really uncomfortable because Asian or Asian American students are more than statistics. . . Additionally racial differences rarely represent diversity in thoughts and actions, it is one of the more shallow (and easy) ways to determine surface-level differences. This decision impacts my community because I am an international student of Asian descent, and the fact that many of my qualified peers who have lived through a multitude of cultural experiences are downplayed by an obsolete stereotype seems deeply unjust.”
In my own opinion, I think it can be agreed upon that the ethnic boxes we checked off on the Common Application do not tell admission committees nearly enough about who we are and where we come from. Other than just racial identity, indicators like socioeconomic status and family background need to be looked at in order to make a more accurate judgement on a student’s privilege.
Looking at the situation from Harvard’s perspective, I believe they have three main priorities: maintaining their image (hence the need to meet certain racial quotas), making money (hence the need to admit rich students who will bring money into the university) and maintaining their standards of academic excellence (hence the need to admit a decent number of academically and otherwise accomplished people). The ramifications that this has on the Asian American community may be for better or for worse – that is debatable.
I am disturbed by the role played by stereotypes and assumptions in this ruling- specifically the assumption that academic success is more easily achieved by Asians. While Asians and Caucasians are the most wealthy groups in the country, there is still immense socioeconomic variety within the Asian community that is unrecognized by admission committees. So many Asian American students are not rich and are far from privileged, and yet they are likely to be stereotyped as having easier access to good grades. Although education is highly prioritized in many Asian cultures, this does not make Asians privileged. If Harvard is aware of rich Asians with access to private schools and college preparation programs, they should also be aware of Asian children raised under “tiger-moms” who end up having severe mental health issues because of the torment they have gone through for their extraordinary achievements. These people are far from privileged, and yet they are seen as so.
Nevertheless, the majority of Asian applicants aren’t the children of tiger parents or dazzlingly wealthy people. Quite often, the reason these children have been successful academically is because they were raised with very strong values of knowledge and education, and also because of the sacrifices parents make. That said, many Asian people are raised by parents who take a more relaxed and hands-off approach to education. There is an immense amount of variety in the Asian and Asian American experience, which is why stereotypes that assume Asians to be wealthy and exceptionally privileged are detrimental.
I can also understand why many Asians who have worked very hard for their academic success find it offensive when their effort is devalued by these sort of racial generalizations. Especially in the United States, where hard work and merit are supposed to be valued above everything else, the idea that someone’s hard work could be dismissed because of their race is certainly very disempowering.
I’m still unsure as to whether I support the decision that the Court made. I don’t think Harvard necessarily discriminated against Asian Americans in terms of the number admitted, but in other ways, such as ranking Asian applicants as lower in personality traits, I think it is certainly possible that they did. I am sure, however, that the way we go about establishing diversity in our colleges could be much better. Exposure to diversity is one of the most important aspects of the college educational experience, and more priority needs to be placed on ensuring that the diversity that we establish is not just skin-deep.