The following is the winning entry of the Asia Times essay contest on the issue of alleged discrimination against Asian Americans in the college admissions process. The writers will be awarded a cash prize of $300. AT extends its congratulations and best wishes to Mses. Yan and Lim. — The Editor

By Ivy Z. Yan and Bernadette N. Lim

In recent months, various Asian-American organizations have mobilized to take a stand on the role of race in Harvard’s admissions process. Among them, Harvard’s Asian American Brotherhood rejected the hypothetical use of racial quotas, should they exist in Harvard admissions. A few days later, 64 Asian-American groups across the nation filed an administrative complaint seeking to dismantle race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard University and charging the College with an “unlawful use of race.”

Both of these events coincide with the ongoing lawsuit against Harvard by Project on Fair Representation (POFR), which has employed Asian Americans as racial mascots for the anti-affirmative action debate. POFR’s lawyer Edward Blum, a veteran opponent of affirmative action, launched Harvard Not Fair and its two sister websites, UW Not Fair and UNC Not Fair, with stock images of Asian-Americans and bolded lines inquiring: “Were you denied admissions to Harvard/UW/UNC? It might be because you’re the wrong race.”

In response to these recent events, as two Asian American students at Harvard, we would like to add nuance to an oversimplified debate and question the assumption that consideration of race in admissions constitutes anti-Asian bias.

Affirmative action does not constitute racial quotas. Asian American commentator Jenn Fang explains how commonly cited admissions statistics used by affirmative action’s opponents, such as those by Thomas Epenshade, exaggerate evidence of anti-Asian bias. Rather, she suggests that Asian-Americans face a disadvantage when compared to white students, not other students of color, when applying to institutions of higher education. And, within the Asian American population, Espenshade’s data shows higher probability of acceptance for lower-class Asian Americans, which hints that underrepresented Asian ethnicities who also tend to come from lower-income families still benefit from affirmative action.

Asian Americans at Harvard University graduation ceremonies
Asian Americans at Harvard University graduation ceremonies

Current affirmative action policies consist of “race sensitive holistic admissions policies.” These policies only begin to level the playing field in a society where racial barriers continue to limit educational opportunities for students of color. Acknowledgment of race as a facet of identity and structure of inequality contributes to cross-racial understanding, empathetic learning, and reduction of stereotyping and isolation faced by minority students. Holistic admissions policies, which consider race as just one aspect of an applicant’s personal story, thus operate to admit a diverse study body across a range of social indices.

We stand in solidarity with black and Latin students who so frequently bear the brunt of criticism for policies such as affirmative action. We as Asian-Americans cannot buy into the rhetoric of college admissions as a zero-sum game among minority students. The United States is quickly becoming a country with a majority-minority population, but white students still comprise over 60 percent of the college student population.

We implore the Asian-American community at Harvard and beyond to take note of these nuances and think critically before pointing the finger at a policy that seeks to bring some measure of justice to higher education.

At the same time, we share concerns about how well affirmative action functions in providing opportunities to disadvantaged populations. Based on the evidence, we do not believe allegations that Harvard has instituted a racial quota against Asian Americans. However, we do agree that Harvard and other institutions of higher education must make their admissions processes more transparent.

In contrast, questions about how legacy preferences preserve inequality in Harvard’s admissions process demand answers. According to Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid William R. Fitzsimmons ’67, the acceptance rate for legacies has hovered around 30 percent, a number that is nearly six times the general acceptance rate.

We also wonder whether the admissions process takes the extreme disparities within our communities into consideration with regard to socioeconomic status and refugee condition. An enormous range of experiences can easily become smeared under the umbrella term “Asian American.” To ensure affirmative action does its job, Harvard must release disaggregated data on its admitted pool and ensure its admissions officers recognize the range of experiences of students of color.

Beyond admission of a diverse student body, Harvard must also ensure it provides a welcoming environment for students from marginalized backgrounds by supporting its still under-resourced ethnic studies programs, addressing the lack of culturally competent support services, and giving students of color a space on campus where they can meet and build community with one another.

For all the charges of racism that one could level at Harvard, an oversimplified call to eliminate the use of race in admissions should not be one of them.

Asian Americans are not your wedge. We support equal opportunity in higher education. We support affirmative action as a mechanism to accomplish that goal. And in the ongoing battle over Harvard’s admissions policies, we hope that communities of color can come together to make their voices heard on this campus.

Ivy Z. Yan and Bernadette N. Lim are members of the Harvard College classes of 2015 and 2016 respectively, as well as the Asian American Women’s Association and the Progressive Asian Pacific Islander Alliance.

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