Edward Blum is many things. Unfortunately, shrewd is one of them.
The highly anticipated Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard case began last Monday in a Boston courthouse by the Charles River. Harvard College’s race-conscious admissions program has become the subject of intense scrutiny, as both the plaintiffs and defendants paint Harvard’s program in black-and-white terms. As Harvard defends its program’s purity and Blum denounces its perversity, this case has quickly morphed into a symbol of a United States broken by escalating racial hostility.
This case does two things. First, it makes a compelling legal argument that Harvard engaged in discriminatory conduct against Asian-American applicants. Second, it pits Asian-Americans against themselves, blurring any sense of class-consciousness.
To the former point, the Harvard case splits our sympathies and paints affirmative action as a zero-sum game: We’re either for affirmative action, or we’re for Asian-American equality. Our belief in either disqualifies our sympathy for the other.
To the latter point, while two-thirds of Asian-Americans are pro-affirmative action, a growing portion of the community feels as though their ethnicity harms their chances at elite college acceptance, refusing to check “Asian” on their college applications. This case, then, raises crucial questions about the crossfire of identity and ambition — what does it mean to deny your ethnicity to help your college acceptance chances?
Viewing the Harvard case merely as an underhand assault on affirmative action is farsighted and ignores the impacts of Harvard’s admissions policy on Asian-American applicants. According to a study by a Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade GRD ’66, Asian-Americans have to score 146 points higher on their SAT exams than white applicants to have an equal shot at college admission. This “Asian tax,” as it’s called, doesn’t only exact its toll academically. Harvard admissions officers, for instance, consistently and systematically rated Asian-Americans lower on personality than all other races — often without meeting them.
This is eerily similar to Harvard’s practice of artificially lowering the number of Jewish students in their classes through a de facto quota in the 1920s, the beginnings of the “holistic applicant” approach — a method intentionally opaque, giving Harvard leeway to prune its classes.
These practices are wrong, pure and simple. However, that truth shouldn’t imply an attack on affirmative action as a philosophy. If Blum wins this battle, he could end affirmative action as we know it. This is cause for alarm, for more reasons than one! Blum’s sly trickery was to turn affirmative action into the enemy. Surely, justice demands our dismantling of a system that discriminates against Asian-Americans?
It’s like deciding which head of the Hydra to cut off.
Calling for Harvard to be more equitable doesn’t necessarily entail the long line of consequential dominoes that Blum says will inevitably topple affirmative action. We ought to be indignant at Harvard’s systematically lower ratings of Asian-Americans without threatening the future of affirmative action.
In thinking about all this, I reached out to a former dean of admissions at Columbia University to understand how universities meaningfully take race into account in admissions. He described the admissions process to me, saying, “There was no log on the wall that said ‘he’s Asian’ so check that off.” Instead, he mentioned that colleges need to perform a “delicate balancing act” in accepting minority groups so that minority individuals feel like they have a community within their larger class and so that the entire class can benefit from exposure to a diverse peer group.
“A compelling human aspect is really what admissions committees are looking for.”
How poignant, then, that the anti-Asian bias this case suggests has led Asian-American applicants to withhold their race on their college applications. Part of this, I’m sure, is because there’s generally a cynical realism that affects everyone who applies to college. By this logic, if Asian-Americans perceive even a slight bias against their race, it makes sense to avoid that bias, even if it means ignoring a crucial part of your identity.
Amalia Halikias ’15, whose mother is Chinese-American and whose father is a Greek immigrant, said just this: “If you know you’re going to be discriminated against, it’s absolutely justifiable to not check the Asian box.”
On the other hand, 66 percent of Asian-Americans are pro-affirmative action. While affirmative action isn’t to blame for divides in the Asian-American community, Blum’s case has created an struggle among Asian-Americans, some of whom have formed nonprofits in support of Blum’s efforts while others protest against him.
Ultimately, diversity is both an honorable and necessary goal and affirmative action its chief enforcer. But, if we only focus on Blum’s motives, we exonerate Harvard’s shoddy practices. As such, I hope we can call for Harvard to stop discriminating against Asian-Americans while simultaneously opposing Blum’s ends, all the while holding that neither is contradictory to the other.
Sammy Landino is a sophomore in Hopper College. His column runs on alternate Thursdays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .