By Claudia Smith ‘20
On November 17, 2014, the organization called Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard University, claiming Harvard intentionally discriminates against Asian-American students. Upon hearing about this legal action, the first thought that comes to mind might be that the students suing are simply “sore losers”: individuals who got rejected from their dream school and are now filing a lawsuit to make themselves feel better. However, an analysis of Harvard’s admissions policies, which they have publicized for the purposes of the court case, has confirmed that Harvard, as well as most other colleges, are, in fact, discriminatory when it comes to Asian Americans. College admissions offices implement race-based affirmative action policies with the intention to expand the school’s racial diversity by favoring certain students in admissions over others based on their race. They also attempt to level the playing field for minorities who have been historically underrepresented or excluded, such as Native American, African-American, and Hispanic applicants. While this strategy originates with the desire for fairness for everyone despite their racial backgrounds, these affirmative action policies are ultimately a form of discrimination toward Asian applicants. In order to ensure fundamental fairness in the college process, as well as take a step in the direction of an equal, race-blind society, schools should abandon these racial preferences.
Affirmative action policies ultimately disadvantage Asian-American applicants by requiring them to reach higher academic standards than candidates of other races; this act of holding a certain racial group to an unfair level is a form of discrimination. Studies show that “Asian-American applicants need to have higher grades and test scores than other applicants (including white applicants) to gain admission to top colleges” (Jaschik). Specific test score data from Harvard University displays the population of Asian Harvard students to have the highest overall SAT scores, averaging on each section between 760-800. The data show that white Harvard students earned on average between 730-750 on each section, and Native American, African-American, and Hispanic students’ section score averages, all within the same general range, span from 690-740. While test scores are certainly not even close to all that makes up a student’s application, these statistics imply that Harvard holds Asian students to the highest standard for these numbers. These expectations are a form of unjust treatment towards Asians on the grounds of their race, as they assign labels to students of this race and force them to attain these higher, often times unrealistic goals for standardized testing and GPAs.
In addition to discriminating against Asian applicants, affirmative action hurts its intended beneficiaries, the students who are members of minority groups and who are meant to be favored in the admissions process. Despite their original motive, these policies “cast a pall of illegitimacy over [students’] legitimate achievements” (Barone). The belief, held by peers, faculty, and even hirers at potential internships or jobs, that affirmative action is the only reason for some students’ admission, clouds their recognition of an individual’s actual successes. Instead of improving the lives of these students, the stigma surrounding the issue of affirmative action simply marginalizes them with the assumption that most of those students got accepted to a prestigious school like Harvard because they are a minority, and their achievements are not actually “legitimate”.
Those who argue in favor of race-based affirmative action policies in college admissions maintain that it is necessary and beneficial for two main reasons: the first is that these policies incorporate and ensure diversity on a school’s campus, and the other is that they are a way to counterbalance the wrongs and disadvantages which have faced certain races in the past.
Affirmative action plans certainly allow for students on a campus to be exposed to variety of cultures and backgrounds that differ greatly between races. Thus, the argument that these practices enhance diversity is valid. However, the case that affirmative action helps to somehow compensate for the historical oppression and disadvantages that minority groups have faced is unconvincing, as it groups all the members of certain races together and assumes they have each suffered discrimination and disadvantages in life, while simultaneously assuming that those who are hurt by affirmative action, specifically Asians, have not been troubled at all with these disadvantages. The main reason that this argument is ineffective is that it lacks consideration of a very large, very important group: Asian Americans. Race-based affirmative action policies neglect the fact that Asians have been historically wronged and discriminated against. The Chinese Exclusion Act, approved in 1882, was the first serious law that restrained people from immigrating into the United States. The title of the act is discriminatory, literally selecting only Chinese people and declaring that they should be “excluded”. While this is severe example, it is one of the many historical acts of discrimination against Asians in America. Affirmative action disregards these examples of past oppression and disadvantages Asian-American students in the admissions process despite them. It takes into account the wrongs which other minorities have suffered, yet disadvantages those of Asian descent despite their historical oppression. While some might argue that historical oppression suffered by other minorities has been worse, or to a higher degree, it is impossible to weigh whose historical disadvantage has been the most harmful, as opinions on this will likely differ greatly between members of these different minorities, and this argument always simply ends in these outnumbered groups being pinned against each other. There is no way to assist some students without hurting others wrongfully; therefore, making college admissions race-blind is a crucial step in working towards a “level playing field” because it gives everybody an equal chance at admission in terms of their racial background.
Affirmative action policies are ultimately discriminatory despite their initial good intentions; they work to enhance diversity, but they fail when it comes to helping those who have been previously disadvantaged, as the policies overlook the prejudice and hardship Asian people have faced. Noted by The New York Times, “To continue to condescend to people because of their race based on historical injustices simply promotes those injustices” (O’Hare). As an alternative, colleges could consider implementing race-blind, socio-economic-based affirmative action; economic status has statistical correlation with race and thus could provide as useful to enhance a campus’s diversity. While this form of affirmative action might lead to students with lower test scores being admitted over those with higher ones, this preference would be on the grounds of socio-economic diversity rather than race, and unlike race-based affirmative action, socio-economic-based policies would not outright discriminate against particularly Asian-American applicants.