The Asian American Coalition for Education filed a complaint against Harvard University in 2015 alleging the school has discriminatory practices against Asian Americans. Photo: iStock/Getty

Some Asian American groups have applauded news that the Trump administration is directing the US Justice Department to probe and sue universities over affirmative action admissions policies deemed to discriminate against white applicants. Others opposed the reported White House move.

The New York Times said on August 2 it had obtained an internal notice to the agency’s civil rights unit asking for staff attorneys to work on a project on “investigations and possible litigation related to intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admissions.”

“We are very encouraged” by the Trump administration’s move, Yukong Zhao, the president of the Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE), a national organization for promoting equal rights for Asian Americans in education, told Asia Times. “It’s long overdue. The US government has done nothing for years to reduce or eliminate discrimination against Asian American students.”

Assistant Professor Julie J. Park, an affirmative action expert in higher education at the University of Maryland, criticized the Justice Department project. “The Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed the ability of colleges to consider race as one of many factors during the admissions process. Colleges need the ability to evaluate the whole student and understand where they’re coming from,” Park said.

Zhao’s AACE filed a complaint with the US Justice and Education departments in May 2015 alleging that Harvard University discriminated against Asian American applicants through the use of racial quotas that disregarded their academic, test score and other qualifications. The filing joined by 60 Asian American organizations was one of the largest ever by Asians in the US on an education rights issue.

The group has filed similar complaints against Yale, Brown and Dartmouth universities.

The AACE actions reflect a belief in some parts of the community that Asian American students, though nonwhite, are subject to higher standards of academic performance and extracurricular criteria than African American, Hispanic and white students in the admissions process — especially to top ivy league schools such as Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

The AACE contends on average, after adjusting for extracurricular activities, that Asian-American students have to score 140-450 points higher on Scholastic Aptitude Tests or SATs than students of other races in order to attend elite US universities.

“Anyone who knows the score about the college admissions issue knows that the only race being being discriminated against currently is the Asian race,” S.B. Woo, a retired physics professor and former lieutenant governor for the State of Delaware, told Asia Times.

Asian American foes of policies designed to close the gap between minority and white student enrolments said they were not disturbed that the Justice Department document did not specifically mention Asian American students. Some also noted that the reported document made no specific mention of studying “anti-white bias.”

 “‘Against white’ is just the New York Times’s careless distortion of the news … There was no mention of ‘against whites’,” said Woo, the president of the 80-20 National Asian American PAC, a political action committee.

The Times story said: “The document does not explicitly identify whom the Justice Department considers at risk of discrimination because of affirmative action admissions policies. But the phrasing it uses, “intentional race-based discrimination,” cuts to the heart of programs designed to bring more minority students to university campuses.”

Roger Clegg, a former official in the Justice Department under President Reagan told the Times that Trump’s move was a “welcome” development.

“The civil rights laws were deliberately written to protect everyone from discrimination, and it is frequently the case that not only are whites discriminated against now, but frequently Asian Americans are as well,” the Times quoted Clegg as saying.

Margaret Fung, the executive director of the activist Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, criticized the Justice Department project.“Asian Americans support diversity in higher education and will not be used as a wedge group against affirmative action. Instead of investigating discrimination against white college applicants, the Justice Department should focus on ensuring equal educational opportunity for all racial minority groups,” Fung said.

The US Supreme Court has said in multiple rulings that schools have a compelling interest in forming a diverse student body and can use race as one of many factors in admissions decisions. The court reaffirmed its view as recently as June 2016, ruling 4 to 3 that a race-conscious admissions policy at the University of Texas was constitutional.

However, there are currently two court cases pending against Harvard and the University of North Carolina alleging that the admissions policies of these schools discriminate against Asian American students.