By Alisa Rao and Ethan Messier
An investigation on the ongoing legal battle between Harvard University and an anti-Racist legal group about Harvard’s racist admissions policies.
It is the dream of aspiring students around the globe to be accepted into the prestigious Harvard University. Many work tirelessly throughout their high school or undergrad years to catch the eye of the admissions officers, hoping to be among the lucky few admitted in what should be a fair and unbiased admissions process. In 2014, a group representing Asian-American students who had been rejected by Harvard University filed a lawsuit against the institution, which has gone through several federal appeals and is now on the steps of the Supreme Court. The Students for Fair Admissions claims that Harvard’s admissions policies are, in fact, not fair at all -considering race as a factor when reviewing applications which has disproportionately crushed the dreams of Asian-American applicants.
Students for Fair Admissions, an anti-affirmative action advocacy group was formed after more than a dozen Asian-American students applied to Harvard and were rejected, according to a 2020 article from the New York Times. The lawsuit contends that Harvard systematically discriminates against Asian-American applicants while giving preferences to other racial and ethnic minorities. They say that Harvard uses a quota system that limits the number of Asian applicants that may be accepted in a given admissions cycle. This would be in violation of federal civil rights law.
Harvard rebuked, saying its admissions system is fine tuned to “produce a broad spectrum of diversity, not only of race, but of income, ideas, geographic origin, and talents”. The SFA initiated this lawsuit in 2014, and has spent years in a battle to obtain internal Harvard admissions records. In 2018, secrets about the Harvard admissions process were revealed when the group obtained thousands of records from the University that reveal a “dean's list” that gives special consideration to the children of wealthy donors, and a “lop list” of students who could be cut at the last minute to balance the class in the way the admissions officers wanted to.
Another fair admissions group -the Project on Fair Representation- filed a lawsuit in November 2014 against Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill claiming unfair admissions processes and highlighting that the number of Asian American students admitted each year rarely fluctuates, indicating that Harvard has a “quota” for Asian applicants, according to an article by Catherine Morris at the W.E.B. Du Bois institute at Harvard. If the quota theory is true, this would require Asian-American students to compete amongst each other for a limited number of spots, meaning Asian-American applicants are held to a higher academic standard. The outcome of the 2014 lawsuit was that Harvard denied the allegations and no further action was taken.
A recent article from the Boston Globe written in June of 2021 says that after five years of legal battles that ultimately ended in 2019 when a federal judge declaring that Harvard’s admissions program is constitutional, Judge Allison Burroughs has given the suggestion that ‘although Harvard’s admissions were not perfect it nonetheless met the legal standard needed to ensure that it was not motivated by racial prejudice or stereotyping. The SFA lawsuit is at the doorstep of the Supreme Court and president Joe Biden. The Supreme Court has asked President Biden to weigh in on whether they should hear the case. The editor at the Boston Globe states, “the lawsuit is closer than ever to making it to the US Supreme Court, whose 6-3 conservative majority gives anti-affirmative action activists a hope for a major win- or, to put it more accurately, a chance to deliver a devastating blow to racial equality.”
However, throughout History similar events have happened also. Affirmative Action policy is a relatively recent concept in American history. In the reading When Affirmative Action was White by Ira Katznelson, we learn that president Lyndon B. Johnson was the first world leader to openly declare his support for affirmative action during his 1965 address at Howard University. He highlights the need for affirmative action policy as a way to provide equal footing for Black citizens to compete in the American society after having endured centuries of oppression. He says, “It is not enough to just open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through these gates.” This highlights the nuance of affirmative action and how good intentions can also have negative consequences. It has allowed Black and Brown Americans the opportunities they righteously deserve, but has also harmed Asian-Americans. This raises the question, in a system where minorities are institutionally oppressed, is policy enough to undo these setbacks? Or is affirmative action merely a bandaid on systemic racism in America?
Racism has been at the forefront of America’s prestigious universities and institutions for centuries. In a reading from our course titled, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, the author Khalil Muhammad discusses the role that Harvard scholars played in the promotion of scientific racism. The works of Louis Agassiz, a Harvard professor of zoology and geology, notably used statistics to prove the inferiority of minority races and the superiority of the white race. Harvard academics and professors at other institutions have been perpetuating racial prejudice for centuries, and the ongoing affirmative action lawsuit is merely another instance of discrimination in these institutions.