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A Lawsuit Seeks to Erase Harvard Applicants’ Racial Identity. It Reveals What Some Americans Still Don’t Get About Discrimination

6 minute read
Jin Hee Lee is Senior Deputy Director of Litigation of the NAACP Legal Defense & Educational Fund, Inc. (LDF) and represents 21 Harvard student and alumni groups in an amicus brief in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard College. On August 16, LDF filed a response to Students for Fair Admissions’ efforts to prevent the court from considering evidence submitted by its clients.

I am proud to be an Asian American woman of Korean descent. But sadly, I did not always feel this way. For most of my childhood, I was embarrassed by my appearance, my name, my food — anything that made me different from everyone else in my all-white, rural community in Tennessee. One of my earliest memories is looking at a silhouette of my profile in preschool and disliking how flat my face appeared next to the silhouettes of the white children in my class.

My childhood experiences left an indelible impression on me: that race is a defining trait that can create tremendous burdens for children of color. That is why I became a civil rights lawyer, and it is why I work at a racial justice organization. The racial bias that Asian Americans experience will persist as long as other people of color suffer from discrimination themselves. Otherwise, we fall into the trap of the model minority myth: that we are the “good” people of color, who are not quite white, but white enough and do not suffer from our own disadvantages.

That myth belies the historical truth for Asian Americans in this country, who were once considered so foreign that we were legally barred from the privileges of full citizenship. We share a history of racial oppression with Native Americans, African Americans and Latinos, having been subjected to discrimination in immigration and housing, to segregation in education and to racially motivated violence.

Given this history and my own experiences, I am troubled by the false narrative that racial diversity in education is at odds with the interests of Asian Americans. This misconception is on full display in the lawsuit filed against Harvard College in 2014 and currently set for trial this October, which seeks to erase the racial and ethnic identity of all applicants to Harvard. Contrary to the assertions of Edward Blum, who founded the organization that brought this case, racial diversity is intertwined with racial equality.

It comes as no surprise that Blum is behind the Harvard lawsuit, given his endless quest to prevent elite colleges and universities from engaging in efforts to foster racial diversity and inclusion. His attempt to prevent the University of Texas from considering race, as one of many factors, to promote campus diversity went to the Supreme Court twice and lost both times. Having lost that fight, he has now recruited some Asian Americans to attack race-conscious admissions with a new tactic that relies on the model minority myth, claiming that Asian American students are harmed by efforts to admit underrepresented and disadvantaged students.

Blum and his organization, Students for Fair Admissions, assert that a colorblind admissions process is more equitable — that any consideration of race, regardless of the circumstances, is itself discrimination. Thus, they make the extraordinary request to remove all racially identifiable information from a student’s application packet. Think of what that means in realistic terms. Students would be banned from providing any information that revealed their racial or ethnic heritage, such as their immigration story, their passion for their traditional arts or dance, or mentoring and other volunteer service within their specific community.

By equating colorblindness with equality, Blum and his supporters wrongly assume that everyone begins on an equal footing. That is hardly the case, however, as our country still grapples with racial inequities in education, housing, employment, immigration and the criminal-justice system. Colorblindness in college admissions reinforces and replicates those inequalities and creates barriers to opportunity for qualified students of color, including some Asian Americans. Colorblindness also masks racial inequities in standardized tests, which are not a neutral or accurate measure of merit or predictor of success; and implicit biases held by teachers, guidance counselors and admissions officers.

Blum and his supporters treat Asian Americans like a monolith despite the wide variety of Asian ethnicities and the stark income disparity among Asian Americans — the largest of any racial group. In fact, many — especially those of Southeast Asian heritage — face significant barriers to educational and economic opportunities like their Native American, black and Latino counterparts.

The majority of Asian Americans firmly support race-conscious admissions because we know that no student can be prepared for success without learning from people very different from themselves. And we also understand the racial isolation felt by underrepresented students because we have experienced it ourselves.

I now have the honor of representing 21 ethnically and racially diverse Harvard student and alumni organizations who together submitted an amicus brief in support of Harvard’s ability to consider race within its holistic review of student applicants. They do not support racial quotas, and they do not condone intentional discrimination against any racial or ethnic group. Rather, they firmly believe that Harvard must consider race or ethnicity, along with a host of other factors like parents’ occupation, intended major, geography and rigor of high school curriculum, to ensure a diverse and dynamic class of qualified students.

As is stated in their submission to the court, these student and alumni organizations know firsthand the immeasurable benefits of diversity and will be directly harmed by its loss, which would significantly degrade the educational experience of all Harvard students. Their experiences run contrary to the goals of this lawsuit, and Blum’s organization is now attempting to have their important perspective struck from the court record. My organization is challenging these efforts to ensure that our clients’ voices will inform the outcome of this crucial case.

When I left my small, all-white town at the age of 18, I not only took with me insecurities about my racial identity, but also an ignorance about other people of color. I spent my college and adult years overcoming that ignorance and confronting my own biases — an effort that continues to this day. No student should feel racial isolation, and students of all races and ethnicities must learn from and challenge each other. Anything less in any educational institution, including Harvard, would be a gross disservice to its students and to our nation as a whole.

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