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The fight against Harvard that may take down affirmative action

The case alleges discrimination against Asian Americans, and may soon be taken up by the Supreme Court.

In 2014, a lawsuit was filed by an organization calling itself Students for Fair Admissions, which is made up entirely by one man–longtime opponent of affirmative action, Edward Blum. Blum’s SFFA alleged on behalf of a group of Asian-American plaintiffs that Harvard discriminates against Asian-American applicants in their review process. Though the SFFA initially lost their case in 2019, their battle is not over.

The Supreme Court could hear the SFFA’s appeal as soon as this month. The Supreme Court has a conservative majority of 6-3, which could favour overturning the ruling by the Appeals Court, and even eliminating affirmative action as a whole. Leah Litman, a constitutional law professor at the University of Michigan Law School believes that it’s “more likely than not” that the Supreme Court will take the SFFA’s case, in which the Supreme Court may overturn the historic precedent of allowing racial preferences in universities across the country. 

Affirmative action is a set of policies and practices that are meant to increase the representation of a certain group, whether it be a religious minority or a certain race. In the United States of America, affirmative action has historically been used to benefit African American and Hispanic people, to make an effort in combating the effects of systematic racism throughout America’s history. 

Universities are legally allowed to consider an applicant’s race, as long as they believe that it will benefit the educational environment of the school. 

Affirmative action has been a highly controversial subject, with critics arguing that it is a form of reverse discrimination, and devalues the accomplishments of people who are chosen based on their race.

Public opinion on the issue of affirmative action is very mixed. According to a Pew Research poll conducted in 2017, 71 percent of Americans said that “affirmative action programs to increase the number of black and minority students on college campuses” are a good thing.

But another Pew Research Poll, in 2019 this time, found that 73 percent of Americans said “race or ethnicity should not be a factor in college admissions decisions.” 9. 

Public opinion of the decision of Fischer v. University of Texas, where the Supreme Court ruled that colleges can consider race and ethnicity in admission, was disapproving. 65 percent of Americans in a Gallup poll opposed the Supreme Court’s ruling in the 2016 decision.

The SAT is a generalized test in the United States that is generally considered for college admissions and is scored out of 1600. It is a major factor for colleges in considering an applicant’s admission. According to data from the book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal conducted by Princeton sociologists Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, Asian applicants have a -140 point penalty versus a baseline of White applicants on their SAT scores. To have an equal chance of admission, Hispanics on average can achieve a score of 130 points less than the White baseline, and Black applicants can have a score of 310 points fewer.

Testimonies from the SFFA

In the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard trial, the plaintiffs claimed that Harvard imposes a soft racial quota that keeps the size of the Asian-American population low. Edward Blum, the man behind the SFFA claimed that the percentage of Asians accepted to Harvard remained around 20 percent in recent years, despite dramatic increases in the number of Asian-American applicants.

The plaintiffs also interviewed and deposed several Harvard officials who revealed that despite scoring the highest on admission measures such as test scores, grades, and extracurricular activities compared to other racial groups, Asian-Americans scored the lowest on personal ratings. Personal ratings are rated on a scale of 1-6 by traits such as positive personality, likability, courage, kindness, and being respected by others. In comparison, African Americans scored the lowest on the academic rating but highest on the personal rating. Blum argues that Harvard is using the personal rating as a form of racial balancing, which is illegal in the U.S.   

Peter Arcidiacono, a Duke economist who testified on behalf of the students, concluded that if personal rating penalties applied to Asian American students were removed, there would be a 16% increase in the admissions of applicants.

Arcidiacono suggested that an applicant’s race plays a major role in Harvard’s admission. He testified that given the the same characteristics of GPA, family background, and extracurricular activities, an Asian-American  would have a 25% statistical likelihood of admission, a White American would have a 36% likelihood of admission, an Hispanic American would have a 77% likelihood, and an African American would have a 95% chance of being accepted.

Harvard’s defense

Harvard denied engaging in racial discrimination and said that their admissions policy complies with the law. They also stated the percentage of Asian-American students has risen from 17 percent to 21 percent in a decade whereas the overall population of Asian-Americans is 6 percent. Harvard also had several students testify on their behalf. Sally Chen, who was in the graduate class of 2019, expressed her support for the college and affirmative action: “Every applicant has a different story to tell, and race can be a part of that story. Students deserve the opportunity to be recognized for it.”

The trial was paused until the Supreme Court issued its decision on Fischer v. University of Texas and was resumed in October 2018 in the Massachusetts federal district court in Boston. By October of the following year, federal judge Allison D. Burroughs ruled in favor of Havard, and that there is no persuasive documentary evidence that there is prejudice against Asian Americans.

The SFFA’s battle against Harvard has spanned over almost a decade, and could change the current state of race-conscious college admissions across the country.

“If the loser tends to be another minority, then there’s something wrong with that,” Wang, a graduate from Williams College says.

“I believe Asian-Americans are losing, and Asian-Americans, at the end of the day, still are a minority.”

Cover Image: Abdullah Almutairi/Pexels

1 comment on “The fight against Harvard that may take down affirmative action

  1. Pingback: The capabilities I have demonstrated through my work in New Media Lab – Dylan Nelson’s Blog

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