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Behind affirmative action divide, a common disdain for discrimination

Why We Wrote This

Those who are for and against using race in college admissions don't often see eye to eye, but individual stories demonstrate some agreement on core values. 

Brian Snyder/Reuters
Supporters attend the 'Rally for the American Dream – Equal Education Rights for All,' in Boston on Oct. 14, 2018. The rally was held the day before the start of the federal trial to determine if Harvard University is discriminating against Asian-American applicants.

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A federal trial in Boston is making public the way Harvard University selects students. The decision about whether or not its practices are discriminatory toward Asian-American applicants may not be known for some weeks, and could eventually land in the Supreme Court. The high stakes have prompted people to raise their voices – whether in public rallies, on social media, or over dinner conversations – about the roots of their deep commitment for or against affirmative action. The space between them is wide: To detractors, the concept of being “race blind” sounds like the ultimate ideal for America’s future. To those who support considering race in admissions, it sounds like the ultimate ignorance of America’s long-standing racial disparities. But look beyond rally slogans, and you find personal stories, ones that show overlapping ideals. Both sides, for example, say that applicants deserve to be seen as whole people, rather than being reduced to racial categories. “It is an emotional issue because it has to do with our core values about racial equality, one way or another,” says Janelle Wong, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland. 

On the blustery Sunday before the Harvard admissions trial began in the US District Court here last week, two dueling rallies formed on either side of the Charles River. In Boston, a largely Asian-American crowd lambasted the university’s race-conscious admissions policies. In Cambridge, Mass., a more racially mixed group of students and activists staunchly defended the approach – with many taking to loudspeakers to list the ways encountering diversity in college had changed their lives.

There’s no denying the cavernous ideological divide: To detractors of affirmative action, the concept of being “race blind” sounds like the ultimate ideal for America’s future. To supporters of considering race in admissions, it sounds like the ultimate ignorance of America’s longstanding racial disparities.

But dig a little deeper into people’s stories and you’ll find some common values. Virtually everyone agrees that society should be free from racial discrimination and that admissions to selective universities should be fair.

“It is an emotional issue because it has to do with our core values about racial equality, one way or another,” says Janelle Wong, a professor of American studies at the University of Maryland in College Park, who sees race-conscious policies as critical to ongoing civil rights efforts.

The federal trial has been diving into the details of how Harvard’s admissions process works, and whether it might be relying too heavily on race, to the point of discriminating and unfairly restricting Asian-American enrollment, as the group bringing the suit against the Ivy League school has claimed.

William Lee, lead attorney for Harvard, ended his opening statement in the Students for Fair Admissions Inc. (SFFA) v. Harvard trial last week noting that diversity in elite universities is linked to the diversity in the courtroom now. What he sees is a sharp contrast to 42 years ago, when he stepped into a similarly crowded Boston courtroom and realized he was the only person of color in a sea of white men.

The case is expected to make its way to the Supreme Court, which could potentially ban race-conscious affirmative action in higher education.

Those stakes have prompted people to raise their voices – whether in public rallies, on social media, or over dinner conversations – about the roots of their deep commitment for or against affirmative action.

Differing views 

Consider the stories of Kelley Babphavong, a Harvard junior, and Gregory Davis, a Harvard PhD student, for instance. 

Charles Krupa/AP/File
Admissions practices at Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass., are currently being scrutinized in a Boston courtroom. The case is expected to make its way to the Supreme Court, which could potentially ban race-conscious affirmative action in higher education.

Ms. Babphavong is a critic of her school’s admissions policies, and she attended the Boston rally in support of SFFA. The child of Laotian immigrants, she says equal access to education has always been critical to her family.

“My parents have really instilled the value of education as a main reason why they moved from Laos, because it was going under Communist control and they really saw that the education system was growing worse,” she says in a phone interview.

Babphavong refers to data submitted by SFFA that alleges that Asian-American students admitted to Harvard have higher test scores than their peers. That leads some to suspect that Asian-Americans are held to a higher standard, and that some are not getting in because of preferences for other minorities to suit racial balancing goals. “That's really impacted me, to see potentially other Asian-Americans being barred from access to better education simply because of their race,” she says.

Mr. Davis, on the other hand, has been watching the court rulings on affirmative action since he attended a predominantly black high school in Detroit. Davis opted to attend Morehouse, a historically black college in Atlanta, and later enrolled in law school at the University of California, Los Angeles, which had almost the polar opposite demographics. A 1996 state ban on affirmative action prevented the school from considering race as a factor in admissions. Of about 1,100 law students, Davis says, he was among only about 40 who were black.

“It was fascinating ... to be constantly reminded of how the upper echelons of the profession and class were dominated by white students,” he says in a phone interview. “It’s not to say that they didn’t deserve to be there, but it was kind of a stark reality for me.”

Often he and other black students felt a pressure to share differing perspectives in discussions related to race, Davis says. Davis was willing, but for some of his black classmates, the obligation had “a silencing effect,” he says. Should the Harvard admissions case make it to the Supreme Court, he worries such conditions – or an atmosphere even worse for black students – could become a reality on the bulk of US campuses.

Racial equality: 'How do we get there?'

Both stories embody an aspiration for racial equality. That’s a common hope in the US, but “then it becomes a question of, how do we get there?” says Liliana Garces, an associate professor of education at the University of Texas at Austin.

One side believes that trying to be blind to race will lessen discrimination, and “the other side says, ‘No, if we don’t look at it and address it head on, then things actually will get worse,’ ” Dr. Garces says, noting that her research and experience have placed her in the latter camp.

Even Supreme Court justices have echoed these dueling perspectives over the years.

“The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote in the 2007 Parents Involved case, which struck down the way two K-12 school districts used race to try to balance school assignments.

In a dissent in the 2014 Schuette case on affirmative action, Justice Sonia Sotomayor offered a direct retort: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”

On the race-neutral side of the argument, some see a major flaw in the Supreme Court rulings that say diversity is a compelling government interest that can justify a narrowly tailored use of race in admissions. The Court has sided with universities' stance that racial diversity contributes to viewpoint or ideological diversity in class discussions, for instance. But that’s “based on the assumption that people of certain races all think alike, which is quite offensive,” said John Yoo, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, during an Oct. 4 panel discussion on the Harvard case at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

Alex Zhong, founder and president of the Association for Education Fairness, a Maryland-based organization advocating for race-blind admissions in school choice and enrichment programs, also spoke at that event and later with the Monitor by phone. He immigrated to the United States after leaving a low-income community in China. His parents’ total education added up to just eight years, he says. For him, the US promised opportunity to excel, free from economic barriers in China.

But in 2016, the school district in Montgomery County, Md., where his daughter attended, implemented comprehensive admissions reforms to its magnet programs for academically advanced students. The changes vastly increased accessibility, especially for low-income students, and were spurred in part by an effort to boost black and Latino representation, though race was not a factor in admissions. The effect was powerful. Representation for black and Latino students jumped by 8 percentage points, but Asian-American enrollment fell by the same proportion. Mr. Zhong’s daughter had attended a magnet elementary school program but was not admitted to the middle school equivalent.

“This is totally different from our expectations of this country,” he says. “Race-blind to me means we don’t care about that person’s race. We only care [about] his character, his personality, his capability,” he says, alluding to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech.

Certain simulations show that if Harvard admissions swapped racial considerations for class-based metrics, Asian-American enrollment would go up but African-American enrollment would go down, testified Richard Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation and a consultant to SFFA, on Oct. 22.

Harvard has repeatedly challenged accusations of racial bias in the trial. It argues that admissions decisions are based on a combination of elements and that a plus factor for racial diversity can be applied to Asian-Americans as well as other nonwhite students.

Supporters of affirmative action see race as a crucial component in an applicant’s life that should be recognized. “When I hear the term ‘race blind,’ I just see a lack of understanding of systemic racism that many people of color face,” says Rollin Hu, an Asian-American senior at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md., who wrote a widely distributed op-ed on the intersection of Asian-American identity and elite college admissions for the school newspaper.

Looking at the whole picture

Ultimately, both sides in the trial say that applicants deserve to be seen as whole people, rather than being reduced to racial categories. The idea is ripe for common ground outside of the court as well.

But often people are confused about how affirmative action currently works. They frequently think about racial quotas, but those haven’t been allowed for years in higher education. Race can only be considered in a very narrowly tailored way to try to ensure that people are seen through a multifaceted lens, says OiYan Poon, an assistant professor of higher education leadership at Colorado State University in Fort Collins. She supports Harvard’s approach to admissions and contributed to an amicus brief before the trial.

When she asks those who oppose affirmative action what their ideal system would be for college admissions, she says, “ironically, almost all of [them] have basically described the current state of race-conscious whole-person review,” she says. Asian-Americans she’s interviewed on both sides tend to say “it’s important to understand that kids are different, … and if there’s a kid who’s coming from a lot of disadvantage … admissions should account for these things to really understand the whole picture of any given student’s accomplishments and potential for future contributions.”

Even some of those who have staked out firm positions on either side of the debate express compassion for where their ideological opponents are coming from – in part because of the trial’s personal reach.

“I am sympathetic to quite a few of these groups [supporting SFFA]. I recognize their experiences. A lot of them do parallel mine,” says Mr. Hu, who supports Harvard in the trial. He acknowledges that some level of racial stereotyping seems to exist within elite college admissions, citing research presented in the case that suggests Asian-American students applying to Harvard are, on average, awarded lower scores in assessments of personal and social character.

Zhong, likewise, says he can understand the drive students from under-resourced backgrounds have to enroll in elite schools and programs – even the one his daughter was initially rejected from (after five appeals, he says, she was placed in the program at a different school).

“I personally empathize with all the kids from poor families because my wife and I, we were from poor families. We really understand how dear the opportunity is for us and for them,” he says.

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