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Yvonne Abraham

Anti-affirmative-action crusaders lifted the veil on an unjust Harvard system — just not the one they intended

Harvard University.
Harvard University.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/File 2017/Globe Staff

You’ve got to hand it to Ed Blum, the anti-affirmative-action crusader who just lost his latest battle to prevent colleges from considering race in admissions — this time against Harvard. His federal lawsuit managed to lift the veil on a deeply unjust system of college admissions, all right. Just not the kind of injustice he had in mind.

Admissions data revealed as part of the lawsuit highlighted a different kind of affirmative action at Harvard: One based not on lifting applicants of color to build a more diverse student body, but the kind that favors rich students, and white ones.

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Blum and his fellow-travelers championed the cause of aggrieved white college applicants everywhere by backing the cause of Asian-Americans who had hoped to get into Harvard. Their lawsuit claimed Asian-American students were harmed by the school’s selection criteria, which uses race as one of many factors. A judge rejected that claim on Tuesday, finding that Harvard’s process, while not perfect, was “very fine,” and used race in only a narrow way.

The case is probably headed for the US Supreme Court, where Blum will surely find more sympathetic ears on the bench. Meanwhile, we’re left with a picture of a Harvard that is unsurprising, but decidedly unpretty.

As the Globe’s Deirdre Fernandes has reported, Harvard’s most recent admitted class was 46 percent white and 25 percent Asian-American. Black students made up 14 percent of the class and Hispanic students accounted for 12 percent.

How did they get there? Well, that’s the embarrassing bit. According to a September study based on data released in response to the suit, 43 percent of white students admitted to Harvard between 2009 and 2014 were legacy admissions, athletes, or the children of faculty or donors. (Less than 16 percent of black, Latino or Asian-American admits got such preferences).

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Further, the economists who analyzed the numbers (one of whom served as a witness for the plaintiffs in the Harvard suit) found, a whopping three quarters of the white students given preferences would have been rejected had they not had those legs-up. If anybody is taking the places of deserving white students — and Asian Americans, for that matter — it’s less-deserving affluent and white students.

All of this seems small-bore, perhaps, in the wake of this year’s massive “varsity blues” bribery scandal, which exposed wealthy parents working with corrupt college officials to get their precious offspring into prestige universities. But the revelations in this Harvard lawsuit are as powerful an indictment of the college admissions system as the ongoing federal prosecution that got actress Felicity Huffman sentenced to 14 days in prison.

Harvard was not implicated in that case, and it was in fact being sued by Blum’s group for trying to correct for disadvantages experienced by students of color. Yet Harvard, too, was caught in the indecorous (but perfectly legal) act of giving preferences to white, wealthy kids who already enjoy the massive advantage of being . . . white and wealthy.

To be fair, this is the way admissions work at just about every elite college or university. Harvard just happens to have had its inner workings exposed, thanks to this lawsuit. And what ails the college admissions process starts long before school officials in Cambridge put a thumb on the scale for legacies and rich kids. The children of more affluent parents enjoy years of advantages over other kids: Better primary and secondary schools, tutors, essay coaches, SAT prep, and a sumptuous buffet of extracurricular options, to name a few.

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The varsity blues case, and now the Harvard lawsuit, exposed the brazen, and unseemly, tip of an iceberg that freezes hard the inequality into our which our kids are born. It’s an inequality we refuse to reckon with in this country — especially now that the high priest of white aggrievement occupies the White House.

But this year’s events have at least made it harder to look away.

“It could be that 2019 is the year that college admissions blew up,” said Richard Reeves, an economist at the Brookings Institution who studies social mobility. The news revolves around the same questions, he said: “Who are we letting into our most elite educational institutions, and why? The answer has always been so opaque.”

It is certainly less so now.

The question is, do we care enough to do anything about it?


Globe columnist Yvonne Abraham can be reached at yvonne.abraham@globe.com and on Twitter @GlobeAbraham