By Segan Helle
A look into the perspectives of Asian-American activists in defense of Harvard
By SEGAN HELLE
Jang Lee sits in the basement of the Phillips Brooks House. A senior in Dunster House concentrating in Psychology, Lee spends a lot of time grappling with issues of racial and social justice as an officer for PBHA. Lee, like many of the students directly involved in Harvard’s current court case, began talking to attorneys roughly a year ago, connected by another peer involved in both PBHA and the trial. Since then, he has become heavily involved in activism surrounding protecting affirmative action policies and garnering support for Harvard’s legal defense team.
I was born in Korea. I moved to Texas when I was like, five. The town I grew up in was very white. I grew up without much diversity. We had a handful of Asian students, but even then the Asian students at the school grew up in the same environment, so I think coming here to such a diverse place— it’s been an incredible experience for me. I think that’s why Harvard has been this really big growth experience,” Lee said. “I think there’s a lot of misconceptions going around about the personal score that a lot of Asian-Americans are buying into. I just really want to stand up and show that what Edward Blum is doing is really messed up. It’s not right that he’s trying to use us as a racial wedge.”
On Monday, October 15, trial began over the 2014 lawsuit alleging that Harvard’s admission process is discriminatory against Asian-American applicants. The lawsuit was filed by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a group created by Edward Blum, a right-wing activist known for challenging several Civil Rights laws over the years, including race-conscious admissions policies.
At the center of the legal debate lies a stark divide within the Asian-American community. The lawsuit centers around a series of 2013 reports made public in June of last year alleging that the College’s admissions policies produce “negative effects” for Asian-American applicants, who tend to be ranked lower in “personal ratings” assigned by admissions officers and require higher test score averages than peers of other racial backgrounds to be admitted. Allegations of discrimination against Asian-American applicants have resultantly produced mixed feelings within the community when put within the context of a court case that works to challenge policies generally thought to help minority groups.
These divides came to a head on the Sunday prior to the beginning of the trial, when two opposing rallies were hosted within the Boston area. One was in Copley Square, where hundreds of demonstrators, many of whom came from Asian-American backgrounds, protested against Harvard’s admissions practices in support of SFFA. The other was in Harvard Square, held in defense of affirmative action policies like Harvard’s, and was hosted by students and community organizers like Lee.
What’s at stake
Sally Chen, a senior in Winthrop House concentrating in History and Literature with a joint in Women and Gender Studies, is one of four undergraduates who has been called to testify in court for Harvard’s defense. Like Lee, Chen first got involved in the case roughly a year ago, after being contacted by lawyers working for Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAAJ).
“We went to Dumpling House and [the lawyer] treated us to brunch. That was very kind of her. The lawyer who reached out to us was a Harvard undergraduate. She was an alum, and so she was talking about what her experiences on campus were like and what was kind of different then versus now, especially in terms of the increasing diversity on Harvard’s campus. I think that first conversation was illuminating. I think it really started conversations in my mind. It really started the process of me reflecting on race-conscious admissions and affirmative action and how I should be having these types of conversations with my classmates, and my community back home, and my family,” Chen said.
After those initial conversations, Chen took it upon herself to learn more. As a co-coordinator for the Task Force on Asian and Pacific American Studies (TAPAS), officer for PBHA, and a member of the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition, Chen became heavily involved in activist efforts garnering support for Harvard’s position in the case.
Called the Solidarity Rally for Opportunity and Equality, the protest last Sunday capped off a week of action for the Defend Diversity movement—a series of events ranging from teach-ins to photography campaigns organized by a coalition formed by members of various Harvard community groups and national civil-rights organizations with the purpose of consolidating support for race-conscious policies in schools and workplaces. Within this coalition lies a group of college students who have been called upon to write declarations in support of Harvard’s defense, like Lee, and an even smaller group who have been called upon to testify, like Chen.
The case is admittedly high-stakes. Blum and the SFFA are attempting to challenge affirmative action policies and advocating for the adoption of race-blind admissions processes. Both sides of the case are likely to appeal, meaning there is a possibility for matters to reach the Supreme Court, which, given the predicted right-wing slant after Associate Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh’s appointment, could have serious implications for the existence of affirmative action policies as they currently stand.
“This case in the long term is going to have a much bigger impact than just on universities like Harvard. It will have impact on our community colleges and our workplaces. It will set a precedent with a much farther reach than necessarily this. To think that taking the side of SFFA here is going to benefit you in the short run is probably wrong, and even if it does, it is very short sighted,” Chen said. “I think affirmative action is important because it is a way of structuring our admissions processes or our hiring standards in a way that emphasizes seeing a person as a whole person. That includes affirmative action for thinking about different kinds of diversity as well: geographic diversity, socioeconomic diversity, gender and sexuality. I think that there is a lot of ways in which affirmative action can be a way of structuring how we can cultivate these different spaces and value someone for more than their scores.”
The fear over the outcome of this case for activists like Chen and Lee is sourced in the understanding that Harvard’s trial is more than just an issue for the Asian-American community. It is an issue that affects all racial minority groups on and off Harvard’s campus. If Harvard loses the trial this month, activists fear that affirmative action policies will be put in danger, and consequently, so will levels of diversity on campuses like Harvard.
Understanding Harvard’s activists
Daniel Lu, a junior in Lowell House and a director of TAPAS, is one of the students who was called upon to write a declaration for Harvard’s defense. In a bright blue shirt emblazoned with Harvard’s crest and the words “Defend Diversity,” Lu stands parallel to the nearby T station hub at the top of the steps by the Harvard Square pit, as the group 21 Colorful Crimson delivers a performance to the crowd at Sunday’s rally. Lu initially became involved with Harvard’s case last spring, after senior Thang Diep, who alongside Chen is another of the four undergraduates being called to testify in court, reached out to him through TAPAS.
“I decided to get involved since affirmative action has always felt like a really personal issue. It matters to me how Asian-Americans are represented and how all people of color are being treated in the admissions process and in college life. I wanted to make sure that all our voices were being heard and that Asian-Americans were not being misrepresented as all opposing affirmative action, since the majority of Asian-Americans do support affirmative action. I wanted to guarantee our voice was heard,” Lu said.
Student advocates like Lu, Chen, and Lee seem to diverge from the attitudes of those within the Asian-American community who support the SFFA in two major ways. First, they disagree with the idea that discrimination against Asian-American applicants has been definitively proven. Second, and more importantly, they disagree with the idea that Edward Blum’s court case is the solution to any potential racial discrimination the Asian-American community has faced in the hands of Harvard admissions officers. Instead, they fear that Blum’s court case is using Asian-Americans as a “wedge” against other minorities—weaponizing the stories of how the Asian-American community engages with the higher educational system in order to take down affirmative action policies that ultimately work in the favor of communities of color.
“I don’t think Harvard’s internal report or subsequent analyses have definitively proven discrimination, and even if there are discrepancies between Asian-Americans and other groups, I think we have to be really careful about what we attribute as the cause of that potential, alleged discrimination. It seems much more likely based on the data that ALDC programs (athletic recruitment, legacy, dean’s list, children of faculty) actually bias admissions against Asian-Americans in favor of white applicants if anything, while affirmative action only has a very small effect if anything and definitely helps increase representation of other students of color,” Lu said. “I don’t think there’s any definitive proof yet, and if there is, it’s not what the plaintiffs say it is. If discrimination exists it’s certainly not primarily caused by affirmative action.”
At first glance, it is difficult for some to see why members of the Asian-American community who are alleged victims of racial discrimination from the University may be on Harvard’s side of the court case. However, for students like Lee, whose declarations and testimonies are being used to bring student perspective into the courtroom, it is apparent that activists on Harvard’s side often view the question of potential discrimination against Asian-American applicants as fundamentally different from the question Blum has put at the center of the court case: are race-conscious admissions policies justified?
“There was an internal review that came out that showed that Asian-Americans were receiving lower personal scores, and so what Edward Blum is proposing is that because of this discrimination, what we should be doing is implementing a race blind admission process. But, if you really think about it and you think about the purpose of affirmative action, its part of a holistic admissions process. It’s about saying, ‘yes, race is still a thing in America that affects how we live,’” Lee said. “Dismantling affirmative action is not a solution for the problem, if there is a problem. I think first, if we really are trying to establish if Asian-Americans are being discriminated against, there needs to be a more thorough investigation conducted, and if it does happen, there are other solutions. For example, [Harvard could be] making sure admissions officers are going through more rigorous training on identifying explicit or implicit biases.”
Consequently, activists on Harvard’s side often view their project as one of working to protect diversity in institutions like Harvard—a goal they feel is especially important in a nation contextualized by a historic lack of opportunity for communities of color.
“Affirmative action is important to me because it’s one of the few things that works to rectify the pervasive racial injustice in the U.S. We need affirmative action to allow communities of color to work against the many historical and current challenges and affirmative action & diversity also increase tolerance and acceptance for people like us. When I think about what a good life for Asian-Americans means in this country, I know that we need affirmative action so that we can work against the racism that hurts so many of us,” Lu said.
However, those in favor of Harvard’s side in the court case have also made it clear that their support does not mean they are entirely uncritical of university admission processes.
“We are on Harvard’s side, but we are not saying that Harvard’s perfect and that its admissions process is perfect,” Lee said. “There are so many other shitty admissions processes going on that benefit white students that aren’t being challenged, like the Z-list. Predominantly wealthy, white students, and obviously legacy students, and student athletes who have an admissions rate of like 80%, and if you look at their demographic, [they are] mostly wealthy, mostly white. There’s definitely this question of ‘why aren’t these admissions policies being challenged?’ Why is it that Asian-Americans are being used as a racial wedge? Why are communities of color being pitted against each other, when really, I think it’s like a zero sum game in which no one community loses and the other one wins.”
Moreover, Chen, Lu and Lee all urge others within the Asian-American community to evaluate where they stand and who they stand with in regards to Harvard’s trial.
“For any Asian-Americans that support Students for Fair Admissions, I would ask them what they really care about. Do they care about fairness for Asian-Americans? Do they care about the disproportionate rates at which Asian-American students consider and attempt suicide? Do they care about the deportations facing the Southeast-Asian-American community? Do they care about the fact that Asian-Americans are still the least likely race to be promoted to management across a huge range of professions?,” Lu said. “If they care about giving Asian-Americans like ourselves a good life in this country, they have to care about all those things, and if they do, then we need to work together against the racism that treats Asian-Americans as inferior and hurts us in all these other spheres. Affirmative action fights that exact racism by promoting diversity and acceptance for people of all races. I would also question whether they truly believe that Edward Blum, a white conservative activist and founder & president of SFFA, is on their side and actually cares about Asian-Americans beyond using us as a tool for his political ends.”
What comes next
“I think the belief that my story and students’ stories matters has really come as a part of this process of seeing students’ left out of the conversation. Both sides, SFFA and Harvard, are debating about a topic that ultimately will affect students. It is so important that students are being allowed to and have the power to speak about why race cannot be redacted or isolated from the rest of our experiences and how we value diversity on our campuses.”
Chen will be called to testify in the courtroom for Harvard’s defense later this month. Chen’s ability to testify in the trial comes from a pretrial hearing that happened on Oct. 3 of this year, when U.S. District Court Judge Allison D. Burroughs ruled against SFFA objections, allowing a small number of Harvard students and alums to be heard by the court.
Surrounding the upcoming court dates and trial sessions, Chen, Lu and Lee urge those in support of affirmative action, and especially students at Harvard and other institutions of higher education to get involved in whatever level that they can.
“Show up to the courtroom. We have a lot of Coalition for a Diverse Harvard t-shirts from the rally if you can wear if you choose to. That’s one way that we can keep everyone in the room accountable to what is being said on behalf of students or about students,” Chen said. “Another thing is just to keep having these conversations with people. The more we engage with this, the more we see how this has a broader impact and how this case has fairly high stakes on the shape of our schools, our workplaces. Read up. Share on social media. Make some noise. And don’t let big institutions speak for you.”
Segan Helle (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an Asian-American student at Harvard College who will provide updates as the court case unfolds.