Metro

Dueling rallies ahead of Harvard affirmative action lawsuit

Supporters of admissions policies that include race as a factor marched in Harvard Square on Sunday.
Pat Greenhouse/Globe staff
Supporters of admissions policies that include race as a factor marched in Harvard Square on Sunday.

CAMBRIDGE — Hundreds gathered Sunday for two rallies, one supporting affirmative action in university admissions and another opposing such policies, as lawyers for Harvard University and a group that’s suing the institution prepared to litigate the controversial practice.

In Harvard Square, about 200 students, alumni, and employees marched in support of admissions policies that include race as a factor. In Copley Square, more than 100 Asian-Americans protested practices they said were unfair to their community.

Speakers in Harvard Square recalled the nation’s long struggle for equality, and said racially diverse environments benefit all members of a community.

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Gregory Davis, 30, a doctoral student in African-American studies, recalled his experiences at the UCLA School of Law after a California law outlawed affirmative action. Davis said he had only a few dozen black classmates.

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“What that meant was that each day you went to class not as you, not as a student, but as a representative of your people,” the Detroit native said. In any discussion of injustices against people of color, he added, “you were responsible for defending yourself and your people.”

About 3 miles away, those protesting Harvard’s policy held signs reading, “Equal rights for all,” and, “Harvard, no more racial stereotyping.”

“Face your own racism and dishonesty, Harvard, instead of continuing to slander us, polluting and cultivating a social atmosphere that is full of unfounded, destructive racial stereotypes against Asian-Americans,” said Swan Lee, a director at the Asian American Coalition for Education, which cohosted the event.

“The whole country counts on so-called elite institutions like Harvard to know better, to look up to,” Lee continued. “Yet these so-called elite colleges have failed.”

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On Monday, Harvard will face off in a Boston federal courtroom against a group called Students for Fair Admissions. That group alleges that Harvard admissions officers rate Asian-American applicants lower than those from other groups and that the Ivy League institution unlawfully limits the number of Asian-Americans it admits each year.

Harvard contends that it follows the law, which allows schools to consider race as part of a holistic admissions process.

The rally in support of affirmative action was backed by more than 30 student and alumni organizations, including the Association of Black Harvard Women, the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard, the Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance, and the Harvard Native American Law Students Association. The event grew out of conversations among members of the Harvard Ethnic Studies Coalition, according to Ivy Yan, 25, one of the organizers.

“When we saw this affirmative action fight starting, we knew that we had to do something,” said Yan, a second-year Harvard Law School student from Carmel, Ind.

She was excited, she said, to see the wide support for maintaining race-conscious policies.

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“It’s a really incredible effort by a lot of people who were all concerned about how these issues were being framed and knew that we could do something to uplift a different conversation about it,” she said.

Many at the rally said they believe the lawsuit against Harvard is intended to pit Asian-Americans against other students of color in a game where white applicants are the real winners.

Students for Fair Admissions was founded by conservative activist Edward Blum, who has long used the court system to attack race-based affirmative action. Signs at the rally held messages such as, “Ed Blum: Don’t use Asians for your hidden agenda.”

Blum attended the Copley Square rally, where he said his only agenda is to secure justice for Asian-Americans applying to Harvard.

“We argue that Harvard has a racial balancing policy where they hope to cobble together a certain percentage of African-Americans, whites, Hispanics and Asian-Americans to reach a predetermined racial percentage,” Blum said. “We also argue race is a predominant factor not just a light thumb on the scale.”

Blum said Harvard doesn’t need to use race to create diversity. He offered alternative criteria such as socioeconomic disadvantage, and said the university should also consider policies around preferences for legacy students and “applicants whose parents are involved either on the faculty or have been big donors.”

Changes in that area “will create the same amount of racial diversity that preferences do,” Blum said.

Harvard junior Kelley Babphavong, 20, said in Copley Square that the atmosphere on the storied campus feels hostile, and many people aren’t discussing the nuances of this lawsuit.

“When we look at this case, if Harvard is indeed negatively impacting Asian-Americans and they’re shown that the affirmative action policies are discriminating against them, that’s a blatant violation of what affirmative action set out to do,” said Babphavong, a first-generation student whose parents are from Laos.

“I think that race-based affirmative action is actually the worst form of trying to create diversity,” she continued. “I think it creates merely an illusion of diversity and assumes racial homogeneity.”

Rob Li, a father of five and Allston resident, said he attended the rally because he wants his children to have an equal opportunity to succeed. Li emigrated from mainland China to the United States 25 years ago for graduate school, he said.

“You cannot use racism to fight racism,” Li said. “Two wrongs do not make a right. So the lawsuit is absolutely necessary. In the court of law and, I hope, in the court of public opinion, Harvard will be compelled to speak the truth here.”

As the formal program began in Copley Square, there was a brief dispute among several groups. Many protesters objected to the presence of huge banners in support of the president brought by a group called Chinese Americans for Trump.

Organizers said the rally wasn’t intended as a partisan event. “Affirmative action has always been a partisan issue,” retorted David Tian Wang, president of the pro-Trump group. “Trump is bringing meritocracy back to America.”

Jeremy C. Fox can be reached at jeremy.fox@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeremycfox. Cristela Guerra can be reached at cristela.guerra@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.