Harvard University is defending its admissions policies in court against a lawsuit filed by a group that opposes affirmative action, and after weeks of school officials presenting statistics about who gets in and who does not, some students finally took the stand and had their say.
On Monday in a Boston court, eight current and former Harvard students of color explained why college admissions should not be colorblind, telling personal stories about how affirmative action helped them and others.
This case — the trial is expected to end this week — could end up at the Supreme Court, which has over the years been whittling away at affirmative action admissions programs and now seems poised to get rid of them altogether.
The lawsuit was brought by a group called Students for Fair Admissions, which opposes affirmative action and was founded by a conservative activist who has been trying for years to eliminate it in college admissions. The suit, filed on behalf of anonymous Asian American students, argues that Harvard discriminates against Asian Americans in admissions on the basis of race.
Harvard says it does not but does take race and ethnicity into account, in a limited way, during admissions. Harvard, and other schools that filed briefs in the case in support of Harvard, say race-conscious admissions are important to ensure diverse student bodies that offer a range of viewpoints and life experiences.
The lawsuit is not, as Washington Post columnist Christine Emba wrote, designed to simply increase the number of Asian American students at Harvard but, rather, has a broader agenda:
The Harvard lawsuit has not been structured strictly to alleviate the school’s particular skew against Asian American students. There would be obvious ways to do so: make the admissions process more transparent; reconsider the favoritism heaped upon athletes and legacy students, for instance. Instead, the solution that Blum is proposing is to completely prohibit the consideration of race in college admissions.
While the students suing Harvard did not testify or allow their names to be publicized, other students did, and their testimony is below.
There was Sarah F. Cole, an African American who graduated in 2016, who said: “Race-blind admissions is an act of erasure. To not see my race is to not see me.”
Thang Diep, a Vietnamese immigrant who is currently a senior, said: “I just personally really believe that I benefited from affirmative action. Like in allowing the admission process to take into account race and ethnicity, it allows my immigration history to be taken into account. It allows my own experiences of overcoming the — my racial identify when I was younger and understanding that to really be portrayed. And I think that matters in not only the college admissions process but also in this case.”
And there was Madison Trice, a current student, who described how racism had affected her earlier educational experiences:
Q) Do you feel that race was a barrier in your academic experience when you were in elementary school?
A) Yes. I recall one time my parents wondered what it would take to for me to get into the gifted class because I was doing very well academically and I still wasn’t being promoted. So they scheduled a conference with the teacher administrator, and the teacher said that I needed to have ten 100s on tests to be able to enter the class. So my parents pulled out my tests which they had been keeping records of and found that they had at least ten, if not more -- I think there were more -- 100s on the past tests. And they said, oh, okay, you can join the class. And I believe from that point on I was the only black student in the gifted class there.
Q) Was there a policy that you had to have ten 100s?
A). Not that I know of.
Q) Where did you attend high school?
A) I attended high school -- I spent one year in Maryland, half of a year in D.C., and the rest of my high school years were spent in Houston, Texas.
Q) And when you were in Houston, Texas, where you spent most of your high school years, what type of high school did you attend?
A) I attended a private predominantly white, pretty wealthy high school.
Q) What would you say was the racial makeup of your high school?
A) It was about 70 percent white, 20 percent Asian-American, and maybe somewhere between 7 and 8 percent black, like 1 percent Latinx and maybe 2 percent of mixed race.
Q) What was it like in your classes racially? What was the racial makeup of your classes?
A) The racial makeup of my classes was definitely predominantly white. I also found that it varied depending on the course. So for upper-level classes at that school also it was kind of -- I was more likely to be one of the only black students in the room.
Q) And what was it like to be one of the only black students in your classes?
A) It was difficult. It was pretty isolating at times. There were times where you felt like a representative for your entire race, where someone would say something offensive and you’d have to be able to discuss it in a very logical and calm manner. But there was nobody else to back up what you were saying, so you were kind of alone -- nobody else who had experienced it to back up what you were saying, so you were kind of alone in doing so.
Q) If you had been prohibited from identifying your race in your essay, would this have affected your ability to present your full self in your application?
Q). How so?
A) I think that the way that I was bullied was kind of inextricable from my race. I remember just thinking about -- even when I talk about being different in terms of my age or my personality, it was always like being different and black, appearing a certain way and being black so people couldn’t identify -- people couldn’t understand what my racial makeup was because I was black.
Take the time to read the entire transcript for yourself:
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(Correction: Fixing spelling of Thang Diep.)