S.B. Woo speaks at a meeting of the University of Delaware Association of Retired Faculty. Photo: University of Delaware
S.B. Woo speaks at a meeting of the University of Delaware Association of Retired Faculty. Photo: University of Delaware

The US Justice Department said in early August that it’s investigating a complaint that accuses Harvard University of discriminating against Asian American students in its admissions practices.

The move stems from a May 2015 suit filed against the Ivy League institution by more than 60 Asian American organizations nationwide. The complaint alleges that Harvard holds Asians to a higher admissions standard than African Americans, Hispanics and whites under a racial quota that unfairly limits the number of Asian American students admitted to the college annually.

Harvard argues its admissions policy is fair and that it considers each applicant “as a whole person” — not just based on test scores and grades alone — consistent with standards set by the US Supreme Court.

The high court, a year ago, upheld a University of Texas admissions plan that allows race and ethnicity to be considered as one of many factors in admission. If the Harvard suit also reaches the Supreme Court, any ruling in the case could alter the future of affirmative action at American universities.

The question of whether elite US schools like Harvard discriminate against Asian Americans in the admissions process is a highly divisive one. Many members of the community – which includes individuals of Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage – hold conflicting views on the subject.

Asia Times recently interviewed S.B. Woo and John C. Yang, two Asian American leaders on different sides of the issue.  

S.B. Woo is a retired physics professor and a former Lt. Governor of the State of Delaware. He was born in Shanghai, China, and came to the US at the age of 18. 

He is president of the 80-20 Initiative, a political action committee (PAC) that focuses on organizing Asian Pacific Americans into a swing bloc-vote in presidential elections. He has served as the national president of the Organization of Chinese Americans and as a trustee of the University of Delaware.

What is your reaction to Justice Department probe into the admissions process at Harvard and other Ivy League schools for alleged discrimination against Asian American applicants?

It’s about time. President Obama was great in fulfilling his written promise to our 80-20 PAC in tripling the number of Asian American life-tenured federal judges.

However, Obama’s US Education Department was disappointing. It didn’t take up the investigation on discrimination against Asian American applicants in the admissions process at top colleges.

But as things turned out, the inaction might be a blessing in disguise. A Democratic administration isn’t likely to take an investigation against liberal institutions like the Ivy League colleges seriously.  

It’s a reality in American politics — i.e. a Democratic administration will always favor liberal institutions, even when they are WRONG!

Do you believe that there is discrimination against Asian American applicants at such US schools, and are they subject to unfairly higher admissions standards?

Yes, blatant discrimination. Asian American students must perform 140 points better on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), a standardized test widely used for college admissions in the US, than their white peers to gain equal access to elite colleges. (Weighed against a perfect SAT score of 1600 points.)

Please refer to table 3.5 on page 92 of Thomas J. Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford’s famous book, “No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life.” Ivy colleges have been using the nobility of diversity as a cover to set a quota on the percentage of Asian students on their campuses.

Don’t get me wrong, the Ivy colleges are excellent in many areas. But in this apparent cabal, the Ivy League colleges seemingly acted shamelessly.

Can you detail the reasons?

Let me use this space to break two myths.  Some believe that Harvard must be right. There might be two reasons that Asians are not admitted – though they have better academic credentials.

The first reason given is that Asian Americans are only 6% of the US population, and that they already make up about 17% of all Ivy League students. Too many already! 

The second reason given is that Asian students may lack leadership qualities and innovation and that this is a negative when they are considered for admission.

Really? Listen!  Note that  Jewish Americans are only 2% of the US population. But they make up about 25% of all Ivy League students. 

When it comes to leadership and innovation, also note that the Presidential Scholars program in the US also evaluates all US high school graduates on an annual basis. They do this holistically. The measurements include leadership, service and other extracurricular activities.  Over the past 15 years, Asian Americans, on average, have accounted for 28% of the awardees.

What is your position generally on so-called affirmative action for minority students in admissions at US colleges and universities?

80-20 embraces not only affirmative action – but also ethnic diversity. We are in favor of giving 310 and 130 (extra) SAT points respectively to black and Hispanic applicants in the admission process. Indeed, give them more points if necessary to achieve a critical mass for diversity.

Some say that Asian American legal actions against Harvard and other schools is orchestrated by US conservatives who want to overturn affirmative action policies in the US courts. Is this true?

Not true. Quite the opposite. 80-20 has advocated giving black and Hispanic applicants more  SAT points if necessary to fulfil a robust diversity. Is that the same position as that of the US conservatives?

US liberal institutions give generous grants to induce some the Asian American “civil rights organizations” (opposed to the Harvard suit) to betray their own people.

What has harmed Asian students greatly is that they are forced to yield 140 points on the SAT to whites. That practice uses the cover of diversity to set a quota on Asian American students. It is a sham deceptively practiced by Ivy League colleges.  

That is why, when my organization pointed out the charade, that prestigious media outlets like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, The New Yorker, and Fox News all came out with strong articles that sided with our position and asked Harvard to stop practicing institutional racism.

How does the controversy over Asian American admissions fit with larger issues of alleged discrimination against Asian Americans in US society?

It fits because it comes come out of the same mold. Our children face higher barriers to get into elite colleges, while our adults face glass ceilings in workplaces. All of this is for the same reason – the racist belief that Asians can be work horses but not race horses.  

America operates on a free-market system in commerce and in the political arena. Only the strong will win out. As a very small minority we must unite and be politically much more astute in order to compete well enough to avoid discrimination. As of now, some of our community’s richest folks have donated tens to hundreds of millions of dollars to Harvard in order to get a Harvard building named after their families. This, in spite of the fact that Harvard is the likely leader of this cabal against Asian children.  

Will history see the names of those buildings as a shameful mark on those families?

Charging Harvard with possibly leading this apparent cabal is a serious accusation. To see my basis for this charge, go to this site.  It is entitled “UGLY facts on discrimination against Asian Am Youth.”

John C. Yang. Photo: Asian Americans Advancing Justice

John C. Yang is the president and executive director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), a national organization active in civil rights and empowerment issues affecting the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. 

He is an attorney who co-founded the Asian Pacific American Legal Resource Center, a nonprofit that serves the legal needs of Asian Pacific Americans in the Washington, D.C. area. He also served as president of the National Asian Pacific American Bar Association and has held leadership positions in other Asian American groups.

What is your reaction to Justice Department probe into the admissions process at Harvard and other Ivy League schools for alleged discrimination against Asian American applicants?

Affirmative action and the compelling interest in diversity was just re-affirmed last year by the Supreme Court. The US Department of Justice should be seeking to enforce that Supreme Court decision, not seeking ways to undercut or re-litigate it.

The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department has an entire section devoted to Educational Opportunities to review these types of issues. They are staffed by career civil servants. This section should be the one that should handle these types of matters. The fact that an investigation would not be handled by these career people has many of us in the community concerned that this is just a pretext for seeking to re-litigate affirmative action.  

Of course, we oppose intentional discrimination toward any racial or ethnic groups, which already is prohibited by law. In the Harvard case, if there was discrimination against Asian Americans, we would be opposed to that discrimination or any discrimination against any community.  

Do you believe that there is discrimination against Asian American applicants at such US schools, and are they subject to unfairly higher admissions standards?

I am more concerned with, and I think the Asian American community at large should be more concerned with, ensuring that the admission practices considers each applicant individually, based on all of the qualities that they would bring to the university. 

As we know, college admissions are not just test-score based. Rather, they are based on numerous factors that have nothing to do with test scores. This includes getting athletes, getting legacies (where relatives of alumni get preferences), getting people from rural America, getting students who’ve worked throughout school, getting first generation college students, and getting the children of wealthy donors. Getting a diversity of experiences is important.  

Can you detail the reasons?

The consideration of race in the Texas university system did (positively) affect the ability of Asian Americans to get into school. This shows the fallacy that somehow affirmative action hurts Asian Americans.

Efforts to dismantle affirmative action would marginalize currently underserved communities who suffer from school segregation, inadequate preparation for college, and other barriers to higher education, and this includes many Asian Americans, particularly Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders. Filipinos, Hmong, Laotian, and Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders, for example, are among those AAPIs who greatly benefit from affirmative action in higher education admission decisions. Less than 15% of Laotian American, Hmong American, and Cambodian American students are graduating from four-year universities. They face significant educational barriers that affirmative action helps to overcome.

What is your position generally on so-called affirmative action for minority students in admissions at US colleges and universities?

Affirmative action expands college opportunity beyond those who can claim legacy or whose affluence can buy their way into college and looks at who can thrive in the learning environment when given equal opportunity.

Asian Americans, like all students, benefit from an application process that considers all of each candidate’s qualities, including factors such as language spoken at home. Getting rid of affirmative action would hurt many Asian American applicants who continue to face educational barriers. 

Some say that Asian American legal actions against Harvard and other schools is orchestrated by US conservatives who want to overturn affirmative action policies in the US courts. Is this true?

Many of the individuals involved in the Harvard lawsuit were involved in the failed effort to dismantle affirmative action in Texas and elsewhere in the US. Asian Americans are being used by SFFA (Students For Fair Admissions, a nonprofit group opposed to racial classifications and preferences in college admissions) as a face and tactic to challenge affirmative action. We refuse to be used as a wedge to end a policy for racial justice and equality. The people behind these lawsuits are not out to protect Asian Americans as minorities. They are using our community to try to dismantle a system that seeks to create equal opportunities for all of us.

Conservative Asian Americans need to realize that a dismantling today of affirmative action in education will lead to an effort to dismantle affirmative action in other areas such as business and in the workplace, a place where Asian Americans have benefitted significantly in having the opportunity to rise above middle management to executive positions and lead their companies.

How does the controversy over Asian American admissions fit with larger issues of alleged discrimination against Asian Americans in US society?

There’s a notion that Asian Americans are a monolithic community – a model minority that is doing well and has assimilated into this country. But these assumptions are false. Too often we are viewed as perpetual foreigners and targeted for hate crimes or dismissed as a community of color. Many of us are socioeconomically disadvantaged. We often face language barriers. To stereotype that we are a model minority with no difference, feeds into a larger context of disparities that hurt Asian Americans and all minority groups.

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