BOSTON — Lee Cheng, son of a librarian and a bookkeeper from China, graduated a quarter-century ago from Harvard University with a life story that represents an immigrant version of the American Dream.
But on Sunday Cheng blasted his alma mater for an admissions policy he believes is unjust because it takes race into account. He and a few hundred others denounced alleged bias against Asian Americans in a rally at Copley Square on the eve of a trial in federal court that will examine whether Harvard discriminates against that group.
“Let me ask all of you: Does Harvard get to discriminate against our kids?” Cheng asked.
“No!” the crowd replied.
“Does anyone get to tell us we’re not 100 percent American?”
Cheng, 47, of Orange County, Calif., who graduated from Harvard in 1993, is co-founder of the Asian American Legal Foundation. The nonprofit organization advocates for civil rights of Asian Americans and supports the lawsuit against Harvard filed by a group called Students for Fair Admissions. Cheng denied the suggestion that Asian Americans who oppose affirmative action are “being used” for a white supremacist agenda. “Offensive, false and racist,” he said.
The suit alleges that the university’s race-conscious review of undergraduate applications is biased against Asian Americans and that Harvard limits the number of students it admits from that group, giving preferences to others in an attempt to racially balance the class.
Harvard denies the allegations and said it is follows Supreme Court guidance as it seeks to assemble a diverse class.
“I want all of you to know that each Harvard College student is admitted affirmatively,” university President Lawrence S. Bacow said in a statement to the community. “Each student brings something special to our community and contributes to our rich learning environment in a way that is unique. Harvard would be a dull place — and not likely achieve the educational aspirations we have for our students — if we shared the same backgrounds, interests, experiences, and expectations for ourselves.”
The coming trial is stoking passions here, on the Harvard campus in nearby Cambridge and elsewhere as the latest chapter in the nation’s long debate over affirmative action. Many Asian Americans say that the suit does not represent their views, and the trial is expected to feature testimony from Harvard students and alumni of Asian descent who back the admissions policy. Some also demonstrated Sunday in Cambridge in support of the policy.
But the rally in Copley Square on Sunday afternoon showed there are significant divisions within a community that spans many ethnic groups.
Jimmy Wong, 57, who works for the state government, said he came to protest bias against Asian Americans. For too long, he said, Asian Americans have been taken for granted as what he termed a “silent minority.”
“They think we’re going to roll over and play dead,” said Wong, an immigrant from Hong Kong. “We’re here to say no. We’re now the loud majority. We’ve gotten where we are because we work hard.” He said college admissions, like justice, should be race-blind.
Karl Zhang, 58, a college professor from Fairfax County, Va., who is Chinese American, said the admission policies of elite schools “is not good for us and not good for the United States.' He drew a comparison to discrimination against Jewish students generations ago. “Why give us a much, much higher bar” for admissions? he asked.
Joseph Vijay Ingam, 41, of Los Angeles, is a college admissions consultant of Indian American background. He came here, too, to denounce Harvard’s policy, charging that its admissions leadership is biased against a group of students “whose only crime is the color of their skin and the shape of their eyes.” Others who turned out for the rally traced their roots to Laos, Bangladesh and elsewhere in Asia.
Harvard is one of many selective colleges and universities that consider race and ethnicity in admissions. Admissions chiefs from these schools, several of which have filed briefs supporting Harvard, deny that the process is tainted with racial bias. They say that race is just one factor among many in what is known as a “holistic review” of applications.
The trial starting Monday here represents a significant challenge to that long-established practice.