BOSTON—About 100 people, half of the original crowd, remained in Copley Square on Sunday as a rally against Harvard reached its fourth hour.
The protesters, mostly Asian Americans, sat in a dozen rows of white folding chairs listening to speakers on the massive stage that the Asian American Coalition for Education, an advocacy group based in New Jersey, had rented for the event. The master of ceremonies, AACE Co-Founder Swan Lee, declared, “We have gathered here to demand the equal protection promised in our country’s constitution, and legal protection from discrimination based on our race!” Her voice boomed from the excessive number of loudspeakers placed throughout the square, overpowering the beat of drums from a nearby union strike at the Westin hotel.
It was the day before a much-discussed lawsuit alleging anti-Asian bias in the university’s admissions policies went to trial, and the square was festooned with American flags and posters with slogans like, “Harvard Stop Asian Quota.” Local political candidates had set up stands to hand out stickers on the perimeter. Elementary school children, no doubt restless from the drawn-out proceedings, zigzagged aimlessly through the crowd holding signs supporting the plaintiff.
“Asian people are so stubborn,” the protester next to me murmured. “They’ll sit out in the cold for three hours.” Though temperatures were dropping into the low 50s, the rally would last for another hour and a half.
If not for some measure of stubbornness, the coalition of Asian-American groups attending the rally would not likely have found themselves in Boston last weekend. The Students for Fair Admissions’ lawsuit against Harvard, filed in 2014, gained steam over the past year as it moved closer to trial, but the contingent of the Asian-American community actively supporting the plaintiffs has been mobilizing around the issue of race in education since earlier this decade. Janelle Wong, a professor at the University of Maryland who studies Asian-American politics, said that the movement had in many ways originated in California in response to a state constitutional amendment proposed in 2012 that would have re-introduced race into admissions for local public universities.
“What is surprising is that you see that [this mobilization] is grassroots,” Wong said. “There’s a lot of passion, and it’s visible, but you don’t see it in the public opinion data because it’s still a minority of the Asian-American population that have these really strong feelings about this particular issue.”
Indeed, while polls have consistently found that most Asian Americans believe that affirmative action policies are good and necessary, academics have observed that the faction of largely Chinese American (and some South Asian) activists who are supporting SFFA’s lawsuit have outsize visibility on the national stage. Many of the same groups are fighting New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio’s proposal to increase the number of black and Hispanic students at prestigious high schools in the city, a debate that has also captured national attention.
“In some ways, quite frankly, I’m kind of in awe of how organized and politically engaged they are,” said OiYan Poon, the director of the Center for Racial Justice in Education at Colorado State University, who has studied and advocated for affirmative action for more than a decade. “That’s just very unique from most immigrant communities.”
SFFA founder Edward Blum has made it his mission to eradicate explicit considerations of race from all facets of American life. Blum, who is white, is a noted conservative activist with ties to an extensive GOP donor network. In fact, he ran in 1992 as a Republican congressional candidate in Houston. He lost and filed his first major lawsuit as a result, alleging that the district’s distorted shape was the product of racial gerrymandering. Blum took the case all the way to the Supreme Court and won there in 1996. Since then, he’s mounted more than two dozen lawsuits attempting to kneecap various voting rights and affirmative action policies throughout the U.S.
Blum more recently engineered a 2013 Supreme Court case that devastated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which was meant to ensure that black citizens were not deprived of their right to vote. He and SFFA were also behind the 2016 Supreme Court case Fisher v. University of Texas, which involved a white applicant named Abigail Fisher accusing the university of committing racial discrimination through its affirmative action policies. The court ruled in the school’s favor.
In 2014, SFFA filed its lawsuit against Harvard alleging anti-Asian discrimination, the case that is currently before a federal court in Boston. The plaintiffs, Asian-American students who were rejected from Harvard, are unnamed. However, a groundswell of Asian-American groups have openly supported Blum, drawing the ire of liberal critics who argue that they’re being used for a campaign that will ultimately hurt all people of color.
There are clear generational and class divides between the Asian-American supporters and critics of the lawsuit, according to Poon. The most active supporters of the lawsuit tend to be recent immigrants from mainland China who are highly educated—the type of skilled professionals who benefited from H1B and EB1 visas in the 1990s and early 2000s.
“Their immigration patterns are very different than for earlier waves of Chinese immigrants who came when immigration policies in the U.S. allowed for more family reunification [in the 1960s and 1970s],” Poon says. And perhaps because the groups on this side of the debate have more recent ties to China, they typically discuss affirmative action and rally their adherents on the Chinese social media platform WeChat, where people who do not understand English can find Chinese-language summaries of documents from the lawsuit. A few of the protesters I spoke to at the rally said that I needed to download the app to properly cover the movement.
The coalition of Asian Americans opposing the lawsuit tends to be more ethnically diverse, Poon says, encapsulating a wider array of East, South, and Southeast Asians. The pre-eminent groups in this space, such as the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) and Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ), were largely founded in the civil rights movement era.* There are also a wide range of student culture groups at Harvard, such as the South Asian Association and the Asian American Women’s Association, that have recently formed a coalition called Defend Diversity to endorse Harvard’s use of race in admissions.
In fact, these student activists held a counterprotest on Sunday only a few miles away at Harvard Square. A slightly smaller group, about 150 students and locals, congregated for speeches, musical acts, and call-and-response chants like “No Justice, No Peace.” The crowd was younger than the one at Copley Square, which was largely middle-aged parents. Students turned the raised platform next to a nearby Boston Metro entrance into a makeshift stage to sermonize about the value of learning alongside a diverse set of peers and the benefits that affirmative action affords to students of all ethnicities. Thang Diep, a Vietnamese Harvard student, talked about how he likely benefited from the admissions officers considering his race as an Asian American. “The Asian-American–Pacific Islander community is often represented as a monolith. Supporting affirmative action means actively challenging that stereotype,” he told the crowd.
Despite the turnout there on Sunday, the issue generally has a large enthusiasm gap. Wong, the University of Maryland professor, has seen more protests among the Asian Americans on the other side of the debate. “This is the issue that we see Asian Americans coming out in large numbers for,” says Wong, who noted that she has not seen nearly as many Asian Americans come out for DACA or voting rights rallies. “People who are pro–affirmative action care deeply, but it’s not triggering the same level of in-person mobilization.”
The protest at Copley Square featured an eclectic, and at times outlandish, lineup of speakers. It was a grab bag of leaders from Asian-American organizations, politicians, writers, and a couple of Harvard students. Vijay Jojo Chokal-Ingam, actress Mindy Kaling’s brother, recounted his much-publicized tale of disguising himself as a black man while applying to medical school. A dozen children from the ages of 5 to 12 described their dream professions. Shiva Ayyadurai, an Independent Massachusetts Senate candidate who claims to be the “inventor of email,” called on Harvard to be investigated for racketeering. Blum, the conservative activist who orchestrated SFFA’s challenge to Harvard, brought up the history of Jewish exclusion at the university in a speech that received a standing ovation and shouts of “Thank you, Ed!”
The prevailing motif was the pursuit of a colorblind America, along with repeated invocations of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream.” Conservatives have long appropriated King’s dictums during his campaign to end segregation for their own attacks on affirmative action. Yet, Asian Americans who oppose affirmative action have also taken to interpreting their own traumatic history in the U.S. to vouch for colorblindness. “Asian Americans have suffered from race-based policies before,” Yukong Zhao, president of the Asian American Coalition for Education, told me. “[Affirmative action] is institutionalized discrimination in modern America. We cannot allow it to continue.”
As Poon and other researchers have noted, these activists often take painful memories of the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment, racially segregated schooling, and other injustices in Asian-American history as proof that considerations of race tend to be perilous. An amicus brief submitted by the Asian American Legal Foundation and the AACE for a previous affirmative action case read, in part, “[O]ur country’s history has always, in the end, demonstrated that classification and discrimination by race was a mistake.” (Scholars tend to attribute these policies instead to white supremacy.)
There is a more directly analogous event in Asian-American history that has sown mistrust toward university admissions. In the 1980s, the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights launched an investigation into Harvard, the University of California at Los Angeles, and the University of California at Berkeley in light of allegations that they were placing unconstitutional quotas on Asian Americans in favor of white applicants. While the department cleared Harvard after finding that the discrepancy between Asian and white admittances was due to preferences for legacies and athletes, rather than illegal quotas, both UC schools ended up apologizing for discriminating against Asians.
The impetus behind this discrimination, however, was what scholars now refer to as “negative action,” the preferential treatment of white over Asian-American applicants, rather than affirmative action, the consideration of race in admissions to boost underrepresented minorities and foster diversity. As Poon wrote in the book Contemporary Asian America, “The experience with negative action in the 1980s contributed to a collective memory for Asian Americans and wariness of possible anti-Asian quotas.”
Critics contend that these groups have been duped by white conservatives’ specious claims of anti-Asian discrimination and are now consigned to serve as racial mascots in a pernicious effort to dismantle all race-conscious policies for the ultimate benefit of white people. Academics and affirmative action advocates have often accused conservatives of using these Asian Americans as a “wedge” that prevents people of color from banding together. “Affirmative action opponents are strategically using the argument of discrimination against Asian Americans to condemn the policy, seeking to split interracial coalitions that support the policy,” writes Poon. “This time they are capitalizing on a unique and recent rise of Chinese American immigrant opposition to affirmative action.”
Indeed, conservatives and the GOP had a marked presence at the rally. Tyrell Brown, the youngest black Republican ever elected in Connecticut, gave a speech about the faults of judging people based on race. Some people handed out fliers printed in Chinese promoting the re-election campaign for Massachusetts’ Republican Gov. Charlie Baker. Ayyadurai, the Independent Massachusetts Senate candidate who gave a speech, has expressed pro-Trump sympathies, and his supporters handed out pamphlets at the rally attacking Elizabeth Warren with the slogan, “Only a real Indian can beat a fake Indian.”
However, most of the Asian Americans associated with SFFA seemed skittish at the prospect of bringing explicit partisanship into the debate. For instance, a scuffle ensued early in the rally as a group of activists from Chinese Americans for Trump (CAFT) brought out two 10-foot-by-50-foot banners reading, “Thank You President Trump 4 Meritocracy” and “Chinese Americans © Trump” printed in MAGA-hat red. The Justice Department, under Trump, has written a brief in support of the lawsuit and is currently investigating Yale’s admissions for proof of anti-Asian discrimination.
Protesters with SFFA ran to block the banners from view with their own signs and argued bitterly with the Trump supporters in Mandarin. They even asked nearby police officers to remove the CAFT representatives—but to no avail, because the square is public property. “They’re really hurting our cause,” said Yingchao Liu, a member of the Asian American Rights Association. “Trump has a 40 percent approval rating. More Americans support our cause.”
There seems to be disagreement among the Chinese supporters of SFFA’s case over what, exactly, they are fighting for: the elimination of race-conscious admissions or an adjustment to the policy. Asian Americans are not, after all, a monolith.
Blum has stated that his goal with the SFFA lawsuit is to eradicate all considerations of race from Harvard’s admissions, yet “affirmative action” was never explicitly mentioned on the signs or literature at the rally. I asked a half-dozen people in the crowd whether they opposed the idea of using race in admissions, and all but one told me they weren’t. Xiaodong Lu, one of the audience members, said, “I am not 100 percent against affirmative action. For Asian Americans there is discrimination.” S.B. Woo, founder of 80 20, an organization that has donated $35,000 to the lawsuit and the rally, said in his speech, “We are not opposed to [affirmative action]. We are only opposed to Harvard’s upside-down way of applying affirmative action to discriminate against us.” On the other hand, Liu, the Asian American Rights Association member, told me that simply reforming the use of race factors in admissions instead of erasing it would be akin to “making it to the Super Bowl, but not winning.”
At the end of the trial’s first day on Monday, I caught up with Zhao, the AACE president, who had come along with a couple dozen other protesters in a show of support for SFFA. I brought up the case’s scope: At this stage in the litigation, the issue before the court is whether Harvard improperly applies its affirmative action policies to disadvantage Asian Americans, primarily in relation to white students. The judge has already ruled that Harvard may continue to use race in its admissions process, so that issue is off the table until a potential appeal. As the plaintiff’s lawyer Adam Mortara said in his opening argument, “The future of affirmative action is not on trial over the next three weeks.”
I asked Zhao whether he would be satisfied with a limited ruling that keeps affirmative action in place for underrepresented minorities but alters the policies just enough so that white applicants wouldn’t get an advantage over Asian Americans.
He scoffed. “We want take race out the equation absolutely,” he told me. “Even Dr. Martin Luther King would say the children in our nation should be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin. … We’ll continue to have lawsuits. This battle, like the Civil Rights movement, will take many years.”
Correction, Oct. 23, 2018: This post originally misidentified the acronym for Asian Americans Advancing Justice as “AAAJC.” It is in fact “AAAJ.”