Killing Affirmative Action Won’t Fix Harvard’s Prejudiced Admissions

Students at Harvard University walk through the campus.
Students at Harvard University walk through the campus on Feb. 21, 2006, in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Photo edited by Slate. Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images.

My 9-year-old brother is a happy, healthy, wide-eyed third-grader. He sneaks a flashlight under the covers at night to read Harry Potter and goes on and on about Minecraft and Legos. He’s also brilliant and full of creative energy, excels at math and science, and plays piano and guitar. And the other day, perhaps a bit precociously, he asked me why the news was telling him it would be harder for him and his Asian friends “to get into college someday.”

What he was referring to is, of course, the recent class-action lawsuit against Harvard, which has produced headlines like “Harvard Rated Asian-American Applicants Lower on Personality Traits” and revealed prejudiced comments made by admissions officers such as “would she relax and have any fun?” Time again, these officers described Asian applicants as indistinguishable from one another, feeding into dangerous stereotypes. It was also horrifying to learn from the lawsuit that Asians received, on average, much lower “personal ratings” from admissions officials—ratings that are supposedly calculated based on traits such as likability, courage, and kindness.

The suit is a validation of the very real, and very palpable, injustices that generations of Asian Americans have felt for years, from being denied minority status at Harvard in 1976 to somehow facing the absurd consequences of performing just too well now that this status has been granted. This is a matter of textbook racial discrimination that must be addressed. The actors orchestrating the lawsuit, however, are in the same camp as white conservatives and the Jeff Sessions–led Justice Department. These groups have only thinly concealed their ulterior motive of using the lawsuit to help replace affirmative action with a race-blind, “perfect” meritocracy, despite the fact that evidence from the lawsuit itself shows that this meritocratic vision is a total fabrication. What’s needed is not a new race-blind admission policy but one that actually attempts to redress some of the key factors that help maintain a status quo of white privilege at our nation’s universities: the abolition of the legacy and other white-racial-preference systems.

First, it’s important to recognize the history behind this suit. The architect and financier is conservative Edward Blum, who similarly sponsored the Fisher v. University of Texas case, in which a white student accused UT–Austin of prejudiced admissions policies against Caucasian applicants. The Supreme Court rejected her claim, upholding the legitimacy of affirmative action. Now, Asian Americans are being pushed to the forefront of this debate, as the nonprofit Students for Fair Admissions, backed by Blum, is exposing Harvard’s insidious discrimination against them.

It’s brilliant, really, on Blum’s end. Unable to make a substantial case with a white plaintiff, he turned to a group that has been repeatedly proven to suffer from unfavorable admissions policies at elite colleges. Despite their higher test scores, grades, and equally stellar extracurriculars, Asian American students are accepted to Harvard and other top-tier schools at much lower rates proportional to their applicant pool.

But Blum and like-minded conservatives are strategically positioning Asian Americans as pawns in a larger agenda to dismantle race-based affirmative action policies and create a “race-blind” admissions system. Instead of pitting a white student against blacks and Latinos, as they did in Fisher, they are now rechallenging affirmative action by making it about Asians versus other minorities.

A closer look at the evidence, though, shows precisely how the system of pure “meritocracy” envisioned by Blum and his conservative cohort is a fraud. In one exhibit submitted by an expert witness for the plaintiffs, Duke University economist Peter Arcidiacono, all the calculations are made specifically excluding athletes, legacies, students on the dean’s or director’s interest list, and children of Harvard faculty and staff. Arcidiacono claims that “each of these characteristics is associated with a preference by Harvard, and thus an increased chance of admission. Excluding them from the baseline allows me to more easily compare similarly-situated candidates, and thus better perceive the role that race/ethnicity is playing (both positively and negatively) in Harvard’s admissions process.”

And therein lies the crux of the anti–affirmative action camp’s masterful positioning—they are insisting that we completely disregard an entire subset of elite-college applicants who benefit from their legacy and wealth in order to create a remaining group that is “similarly situated.” This method of cherry-picking favorable data excludes favored-admission groups that are overwhelmingly white and wealthy and have almost double the admission rates of regular applicants. The exhibit shows that 21.5 percent of the admitted white population are legacies, compared to 4.8 percent of admitted blacks, 7 percent of admitted Hispanics, and 6.6 percent of admitted Asians.

To move to a race-blind, merit-based system would be to refuse to acknowledge that a racial reflection of the current wealthy, educated elite in America is largely white and that they are the ones who wield the power, legacy, and influence to send their children to the same top schools as they once did. All merit-based really means, in such a context, is perpetuating this cycle of wealth begets wealth.

So we Asian Americans find ourselves in an interesting conundrum: As the unjust bearers of a discriminatory admissions system, we are now on the same fighting front as outspoken conservatives who hold a record of defending white privilege. We are a convenient pawn in a battle that we believe to be ours, but in actuality has been carefully orchestrated by those who wish to maintain the status quo of elites in America.

That same America simultaneously lauds my demographic’s “miraculous” achievements as those of a model minority, a proven myth magnified by policymakers and pundits, and then turns around and paints us all under the same brushstroke as just “another textureless math grind.” Yet there has to be a way to reconcile the remedies needed to undo prejudices faced by Asian Americans and implement race-conscious policies that acknowledge the institutionalized and structural disadvantages that blacks and Latinos have endured for generations.

First and foremost, we must reform admissions policies so that elite groups, such as “dean’s interest list” applicants and legacies, who stand to benefit from nothing more than the good fortune of inherited privilege, are given no admissions preference whatsoever. Sheryll Cashin, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, argues correctly that because it has been proven that children whose parents have attained more years of education tend to have much higher college-attendance rates, legacies neither intrinsically need nor deserve any special admissions treatment.

Furthermore, it is paramount that Asian American applicants should not, by any means, be wrongfully punished for being high-performing minorities. The skewed and preferred admissions of white students above Asians must be remedied while maintaining race-conscious affirmative action policies that continue to give opportunities to other minority groups.

What is direly needed, particularly at this moment in time, is not a standoff between minority groups, but a reckoning of who holds the power in our country to enter higher education institutions backed by their generational wealth and legacy. It will only be when we direct our real outrage against the status quo toward those who stealthily work to maintain it that we will be able to scrutinize inequitable admissions policies for what they are and seek to reform them in a more judicious way. Maybe then, by the time my little brother is able to apply to colleges, he will be more fairly evaluated, not by the advantages and disadvantages of his race, but by his own unique identity and story.