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Affirmative action and the Harvard lawsuit: how does it all fit together?

December 29, 2018

cover art by Gillian Mousseau

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The complicated and controversial history of affirmative action in America

Race-based affirmative action: an ambiguous yet politically charged term for a public policy that has been a perennial point of contention in American society. Average Americans and Supreme Court Justices alike have grappled with affirmative action for decades. In general terms, affirmative action policies aim to promote the education and employment of members of groups that are known to have previously suffered from discrimination. While supporters argue that affirmative action is necessary to ensure racial diversity as well as equality of opportunity, critics state that it creates unfair disadvantages based on things people cannot control, and should be treated as discrimination.

The original intent of affirmative action policies was to force institutions into compliance with the nondiscrimination mandate of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The concept was first codified in 1961 when President John F. Kennedy issued an executive order using affirmative action as a way to combat racial discrimination in employment. The order instructed federal employers to take “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are treated equally without regard to race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” This order was superseded in 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson signed an executive order affirming the Federal Government’s commitment “to promote the full realization of equal employment opportunity through a positive, continuing program in each executive department and agency.”

In 1995, President Bill Clinton reviewed all affirmative action guidelines by Federal agencies and declared his support for affirmative action programs, announcing his Administration’s policy to “Mend it, don’t end it.” President Obama notably called on universities to consider race as a factor to diversify their campuses, while President Trump nearly immediately reversed these policies after entering office and launched a Department of Justice investigation into certain universities spearheaded by former Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

Beyond the executive branch, affirmative action policies have been questioned in court since they became prominent. Famously, in 1978, a white student challenged The University of California Medical School after being denied, arguing that race-based admissions contributed to his rejection as he was more statistically qualified than minority students who were accepted that year. The U.S. Supreme Court in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke upheld the use of race as one factor in choosing among qualified applicants for admission. However, the ruling outlawed the school’s use of race based quotas. Before the lawsuit, the medical school saved 18 out of the 100 seats in each entering class for minority students.

No example better displays the split attitude towards affirmative action in America than Michigan’s battle with the policy. In 2000, a Michigan Federal Court ruled that the University of Michigan’s factoring of race into the admissions process was constitutional in Gratz v. Bollinger, and just a year later, another Michigan judged ruled in Grutter v. Bollinger that the University of Michigan Law School’s similar admissions policy was unconstitutional. In 2002, a Federal Appellate Court reversed the decision.

Some states such as California, Michigan, and Washington have left the decision of whether or not to end affirmative action up to the electorate, and passed constitutional amendments banning public institutions, including public schools, from practicing affirmative action within their respective states. A 2014 Pew Research Center poll found that 63% of Americans thought affirmative action programs aimed at increasing minority representation on college campuses were “a good thing” compared to 30% who thought they were “a bad thing.” Overall, 58% supported race-based affirmative action.

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The Harvard lawsuit: the facts laid bare

Four years after a federal lawsuit was filed against Harvard for discriminating against Asian American students, a trial was finally held in the last few weeks of October. The plaintiff, Students for Fair Admission (SFFA), accused Harvard of making their admissions process harder for Asian American students compared to students of other races with similar achievements. Harvard denied the allegations.

According to National Public Radio, SFFA first pointed out how a Harvard program sent recruitment letters to prospective students based on their Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) scores. Compared to white male students who lived in a rural area, Asian males had to score, on average, 60 points greater in order to have a letter sent to them. Harvard responded by saying that these programs are meant to increase interest among populations of students who might not have been considering Harvard and that these letters held no weight during the admissions process.

However, during the trials, Peter S. Arcidiacono, a Duke University economist, testified that after reviewing six years of data on Harvard admissions, he found that Asian American and white students were placed at a disadvantage in order to increase the attendance of  Latino and black students. According to The New Yorker, although Asian American students consistently outperformed other students in terms of extracurriculars and academics, there was a penalty against Asian Americans.

On the contrary, David Card, an economist at the University of California at Berkeley, testified for Harvard and argued that there wasn’t evidence of discrimination found in the data that Arcidiacono reviewed. Rather, Card argued that Arcidiacono had misinterpreted the data because he didn’t understand Harvard’s admission process. These conflicting arguments then led to the complete reveal of “90,000 pages of internal Harvard admissions documents,” according to Prep Scholar, a site that offers help for standardized testing. From the documents, it became clear that Harvard’s admissions officers rated students in four categories: academic achievement, extracurricular activities, athletic abilities, and personal qualities. Then, officers would give an overall rating.

After analyzing the data, Arcidiacono found that while Asian American students outperformed others in terms of the academic and extracurricular scores, they were trailing behind students of other races in terms of their personal and overall scores. Arcidiacono also argued that students who were admitted tended to have higher personal and overall scores. Therefore, SFFA expressed that these ratings were a major source of discrimination against Asian American students.

Harvard responded to these allegations by stating that race only played a significant part in the overall score and that these ratings were only considered in the preliminary stages of the admissions process, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education. Card countered by stating that since Harvard’s applicant pool is filled with high-achieving students, it would be difficult to only have admissions be based on test scores and GPA.

While this trial was focused on the effect of possible racial bias in the admissions process on Asian American students, it also has broad implications on affirmative action. No matter what the district court rules, both parties have expressed their desire to appeal to a higher court. Therefore, if the SFFA wins, it could possibly “upend decades of affirmative action policies at colleges and universities across the country,” Anemona Hartocollis, a writer for The New York Times, explained.

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Straight from the source: students’ personal views on affirmative action

My personal view is that while affirmative action has inadvertently made it harder for Asian-Americans like myself to get into college, it is with a worthy goal in mind. Today, minority groups are vastly underrepresented in colleges, which has contributed to the lack of job opportunities and disproportionate poverty they continue to face. Ensuring diversity is necessary to counteract the plaguing effects of centuries-old practices that have systematically denied minorities equal opportunities. Unfortunately, arguments against this necessary practice have been misleading and use Asian-Americans as political props: studies have shown that in a post-affirmative action world, Asian-American admission would only rise one percent. At the same time, the debate around affirmative action has worked to sow divisiveness in the community. It is important to remember that affirmative action previously benefited Asian-Americans, doubling the amount of Asian-American representation from 1976 to 1988, and as such, I find outrage to be hypocritical and based on incorrect perceptions.  

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Harvard lawsuit shows a crooked path to equality

The lawsuit against Harvard has proven that a big problem with affirmative action has been its continued use by institutions to justify prioritizing some minority rights over others. We think that policies which promote diversity are universally good, but when they transcend putting the successes of some minorities over others, there is clearly a flaw in the path towards equality.

Many Asian-Americans excel and overachieve all over the nation, and it often doesn’t go unnoticed by their peers and postsecondary institutions. However, the level of achievement many Asian-American students strive towards might not be enough for these students to gain admission into competitive schools, as shown in Harvard’s own admissions.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the trial revealed that Harvard considers a “personal factor” in their admissions, in which applicants are rated in a way that is almost completely up to the admissions officer. This, however, serves to deeply hurt Asian-American students’ admissions. Harvard’s own study of admissions shows that while Asian-applicants’ academic and extracurricular ratings in admissions far surpass those of other groups, their personal ratings are much lower.

The stereotype of an Asian-American student, as a child who only studies and does nothing else, and their “tiger” parents who get extremely upset when they come home with something less than an “A” grade, is put into a new light. Considering affirmative action, this type of trend among Asian families is not only reasonable: it’s required. An Asian student has to excel far past their white, black and Hispanic peers in order to have the same chance of admission to an elite school and their parents have to go above and beyond to give them that chance.

Every student should be more than a race they fill in on a Scantron. They are more than the stereotypes and labels society has created. College admissions should not be a question of one minority above another—that only props up the flaws of affirmative action that perpetuate the stereotypes Asian-Americans and other minorities already suffer. As this country goes to war with itself to come to terms with a history of racism and gender inequality in higher education, Asian families across the nation have already become a casualty.

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Straight from the source: students’ personal views on affirmative action

I feel like affirmative action will benefit me in the future. It’s very bittersweet, as I think it’s something that shouldn’t exist, but without it, the competition to get into certain colleges is tougher. I personally think that people should be accepted into colleges solely based on their achievements, academically and outside of school. Even though as a black person I’m likely to be helped by affirmative action, I want to make sure that I’m putting my best work forward because there are more talented students than me out there. Affirmative action tends to disadvantage talented Asian students. An example of this is Michael Wang, who the New Yorker wrote an article on. Michael had a 4.67 GPA, got a 36 on the ACT, and 99th percentile on the SAT. Outside of that, he was a top member of his school’s speech and debate team, co-founder of his school’s math club, and a singer in a choir that sang at Barack Obama’s first inauguration. He wasn’t accepted into any of the Ivy League schools he applied to except for UPenn. His less accomplished but still talented black and Latino peers got into the same schools he was denied from, due to the fact that there were also many talented Asian students applying. I want to make sure that my work is the best possible because the path of other people isn’t as easy as mine.

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Straight from the source: students’ personal views on affirmative action

While I have never been in a situation where I have personally benefited from affirmative action, I believe that this policy is necessary to correct policies and practices that have systematically prevented minority groups from achieving their full potentials. Contrary to incorrect understandings of this policy, affirmative action does not take opportunities away, nor unduly uplift individuals. Instead, it levels the playing field for the oppressed to correct systems built against them. For example, criteria used to evaluate applicants by U.S. colleges include academic performance, children of alumni, and participating in varsity sports (track, swimming, skiing, etc). Students from predominantly minority communities tend to have fewer resources and are therefore unlikely to have alumni parents or to participate in the multitudes of extracurricular activities that are available to students at schools like Edina. Over time, these students will have less and less representation in these colleges. Affirmative action recognizes this bias and makes a special effort to be inclusive. It is a mischaracterization to describe this corrective policy as favoring a specific group.

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Straight from the source: students’ personal views on affirmative action

I believe that affirmative action is necessary for minority students. Without this policy, there will be discrimination in some schools and in relation to their admissions. Everyone should have a fair chance to go to the college they please if they work hard for it and not just be turned away because of their race. Considering that we’re the ‘minority’, we should have the option to gain an advantage in the competition to receive a college education. As a Hispanic-American, I have been discriminated against multiple times and it has caused a lack of opportunities for me. I feel as if we lose the advantage of affirmative action discrimination will diminish my chances of wanting to go to the college I want. If we no longer receive these benefits, some people may believe it is a fair system and that all students have a fair chance of being accepted, but these races will just become oppressed again. Affirmative action should be a right to all minorities not just because we are oppressed, but so we can succeed and grow. The policy provides an equal playing field for all minorities and also allows us to attend multiple universities such as Ivy-League Schools without the discrimination of the administration interfering. Many students are thankful for this policy and to remove it will cause problems and roadblocks for many minorities.

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Straight from the source: students’ personal views on affirmative action

After having sent out my final college applications it’s hard not to think about the effects affirmative action may have on my future education. Affirmative action refers to the special consideration given to women, racial minorities, and members of other historically excluded groups. With so many schools having adopted affirmative action policies to their admission process it makes me wonder how being a Native American woman will affect my potential to getting accepted to the colleges I have applied to. Will this help me or hurt me? Will I only get into schools because of my ethnicity?

While being Native American may allow me to have a bit of advantage when it comes to colleges admissions, it doesn’t change the fact that I worked hard to accomplish the grades and test scores to get into the colleges I want.

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Breaking down Harvard applications: rejections vs acceptions

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