fb-pixelHarvard lawsuit is about affirmative action, not Asian Americans - The Boston Globe Skip to main content
Shirley Leung

Harvard lawsuit is about affirmative action, not Asian Americans

The lawsuit over Harvard’s admission practices was not filed by Asian Americans, but by a white man, Ed Blum (center), who lost a court challenge to race-based admissions at the University of Texas involving a white student, Abigail Fisher (left).New York Times

For Asian Americans like me, it’s treated like a fact of life: Yes, it seems harder for us to get into an Ivy League school. That’s because so many Asian Americans are vying for a slot that schools are likely pitting us against each other.

Recent filings in a federal lawsuit accuse Harvard University of discriminating against Asian Americans by capping the number admitted in each class. The plaintiff’s proposed remedy: Stop using race as a factor in selecting students.

The case has divided the Asian-American community. Some of us want to preserve affirmative action to ensure diverse campuses. Others believe race-blind admissions is the only way to make sure that Asian American applicants don’t experience bias.


All of which raises some big questions: If admissions officers do limit the number of Asian Americans they accept, do we have affirmative action policies to blame for it? By seeking a mix of white, black, Latino, Asian American, and other students, do Asian Americans get penalized because we apply in such large numbers to top schools?

Complicating matters is that the suit was not filed by Asian Americans, but by a white man, Ed Blum, who lost a court challenge to race-based admissions at the University of Texas involving a white student.

Let’s not kid ourselves. This is not about Harvard and how many Asian Americans can get in. Affirmative action is really on trial here, and a victory for Blum and his nonprofit, Students for Fair Admissions, could set a precedent that unwinds race-conscious policies not only at Harvard but at other schools. Blum’s University of Texas case went all the way to the US Supreme Court in 2016, and his Harvard suit may ultimately be decided there, too.

Harvard, in its court filings, argues that it does not discriminate against Asian-American applicants and defends its use of race in creating a diverse class. Since 2010, the percentage of Asian Americans in the admitted class has grown significantly, by 27 percent. Asian Americans make up nearly 23 percent of the incoming Class of 2022.


For decades, colleges have been using affirmative action as a powerful tool to ensure minorities get a fair shot at an education. How Americans feel about that can be hard to gauge. A Gallup poll in 2016 found that about 70 percent of Americans believe colleges should admit applicants based solely on merit. But in a 2017 survey by the Pew Research Center, 71 percent of respondents said affirmative action for students was “a good thing.”

Polls of registered Asian-American voters indicate nearly two-thirds support affirmative action in higher education, but show a growing split between Chinese Americans (41 percent support) compared with Asian Americans from other backgrounds (73 percent support).

Blum’s group contends in its analysis of Harvard admissions data that affirmative action is being used against Asian Americans. We are, as the suit and others have called us, the “new Jews” in higher education, referring to a period decades ago when schools limited the number of Jewish students.

That kind of rhetoric is drawing some Asian-American groups to support Blum’s effort.

The Asian American Rights Association, a newly formed grass-roots organization in Washington state, recently raised about $78,000 from 800 donors to help pay Blum’s legal expenses. That’s likely to be a drop in the bucket; conservative and libertarian contributors have given several millions of dollars to bankroll Blum’s previous efforts, according to The New York Times.


The Asian American Rights Association caters to new immigrants to educate them about discrimination and has been translating into Chinese what the Harvard lawsuit means for them.

“The concept of affirmative action used to be very good,” said Y. Liu, a software engineer who is cofounder and president of the association. “Now it’s turned into a bad system where everyone is penalized.”

S.B. Woo, a former lieutenant governor of Delaware and Asian-American activist, is president of the 80-20 National Asian American Educational Foundation, which backs Blum’s effort against Harvard and previously at the University of Texas Austin.

The foundation even cowrote an amicus brief in support of Abigail Fisher, the Texas student who sued the university, alleging she was rejected because she is white. In 2016, the Supreme Court, in a 4-to-3 vote, decided that colleges could continue to use race as one of several factors in admissions.

Woo said his organization got engaged on the issue after hearing so many complaints from Asian-American parents saying their kids had experienced discrimination in the admissions process. So in 2012, 80-20 surveyed 50,000 Asian Americans and found overwhelming support for “race-neutral” admissions.

“Upon that, we decided to enter the battle,” Woo said.

In the Harvard court case, both sides have analyzed the same set of admissions data but have come to different conclusions on the impact of race. The Harvard expert found that race does not determine admissions outcomes any more than a number of other factors.


Woo doesn’t buy it. “Harvard’s whole-person admission policy, that is nonsense,” he said. “That is a whole-race admissions policy.”

Asian Americans Advancing Justice, a civil rights and legal services group, has been following the Harvard case closely and so far has not found evidence the university discriminated against Asian Americans. The group — which is representing prospective Harvard students, current students, and alumni — plans to file an amicus brief defending Harvard later this month.

“We support Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policy,” said Nicole Gon Ochi, an attorney with the group. “We don’t believe that there is any credible evidence of discrimination against Asian Americans, and even if there were, it wouldn’t be caused by affirmative action. Based on what we know, any negative effects are the result of policies that benefit white students or implicit bias, both of which also detrimentally affect other minority student applicants.”

Jeannie Park, president of the Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance, said her members have worked closely with the admissions office over the past three decades and have seen the university go out of its way to recruit Asian Americans from neighborhoods and schools that might not normally send kids to Harvard.

“I find it hard to believe that they are simultaneously sitting there deliberately trying to keep Asian Americans out,” said Park, who graduated in 1983. “But if there is intentional discrimination, of course we would oppose that and would fight them hard on it.”


Pore through the dueling expert analyses filed in the Harvard case, and it will make your head spin. I’ll leave it up to the court to decide whether the university discriminates against Asian Americans. We’re a group that has been called the “model minority,” but in reality we’re hardly a monolith — 20 million of us with no single country of origin dominating the US population and spanning an economic spectrum made up of the poorest and richest Americans.

I am clear-headed on one aspect of the case: America isn’t ready to be a race-blind society. If people of color didn’t face discrimination at all, I’d be the first to say we don’t need affirmative action. This country isn’t there yet.

Now more than ever, we need race-conscious policies to achieve diversity. If we’re not intentional, diversity won’t happen.

Shirley Leung is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at shirley.leung@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @leung.