Rosario: One Asian-American’s thoughts on the Harvard lawsuit

A lawsuit against Harvard University has reignited the national debate over affirmative action, with those against the policy using Asian Americans as their racial mascot.

Isabella Rosario, Opinion Columnist

After a summer of college visits before my senior year of high school, I decided I would apply to just one school: the University of Iowa. When I got to the UI application question on race, I instinctually left it blank, even though I qualified for automatic admission to the College of Liberal Arts & Sciences based on my test scores and high-school performance. As an Asian-American, affirmative action could disadvantage me when applying to college — or so I thought.

A lawsuit against Harvard University alleging racial discrimination of Asian-American students went to federal trial earlier this month. Students for Fair Admissions, led by conservative legal strategist Edward Blum, claim that Harvard’s admission process violates the Civil Rights Act by systematically rating Asian-American students lower on such traits as “positive personality,” likability, and courage.

Although this complaint is not directly connected to affirmative action, the plaintiffs argue that the only way to ensure fairness is to remove race from the admission process. The university maintains that race-conscious admissions are vital to promoting a diverse student body and denies allegations of discrimination.

In high school, I supported affirmative action as a positive measure for most students of color, but not Asian Americans. This belief stemmed from an infamous Princeton study that showed that an Asian-American student would have to score 1450 on the SATs to have an equal chance of admission as a white student and black student who scored 1310 and 1000, respectively. This study upheld an enduring conservative argument that affirmative action not only penalizes white students but Asian students as well, and it should, therefore, be eradicated.

But this oft-cited 1997 study — which only uses data from a few elite universities — has been used to prove discrimination against Asian Americans, a claim that the study’s authors deny. It cannot be applied to other U.S. schools. And it must be legally contextualized — the Supreme Court has since further limited the role that race can play in the admissions process.

In 1978, the court ruled that affirmative action could be considered to diversify campuses, not to benefit applicants of color at others’ expense. More constraints followed. Race must be considered only alongside other factors, like playing sports. Schools must also prove that considering race is the only way to accomplish diversity. In 2016, the court ruled that race can only be a “factor of a factor of a factor.” 

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Still, there’s no doubt whether the Harvard admissions process is racist. That Asian-American applicants, on average, score lower on character traits reflects common racial stereotypes — that they are uptight, weak, and cold. But racism in college admissions is not exclusive to Harvard or Asian Americans.

A 2017 federal investigation of Princeton found that admissions officers repeatedly made racist comments about applicants of color. They called Asian American applicants “standard premeds” with “very familiar profiles.” Of a Latino applicant, an officer wrote, “No cultural flavor in app.” Of a black student, another wrote, “Very few African Americans with verbal scores like this.”

And a recent study published in Sociology of Race and Ethnicity found that engaging in anti-racism activism disadvantages black college applicants. They were viewed less favorably by admissions officers than “racially apolitical” applicants who were involved in other causes, such as environmentalism or gun control.

So, there’s obviously racism in admissions processes that hurts Asian Americans and other minorities. But it’s not because of affirmative action.

As an Asian-American, I can only speak for myself when I say: I am not your racial mascot. Affirmative action is imperative for diversity of thought on college campuses. I am grateful for the role it has played in enriching my college experience. The systemic racism of admissions officers has nothing to do with it. 

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