The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Harvard affirmative action case pits Asian Americans against each other — and everyone else

(Adam Glanzman/Washington Post/Adam Glanzman/Bloomberg)
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Comedian Hasan Minhaj dedicated the premiere episode of his Netflix show “Patriot Act” to villainizing the Asian American plaintiffs in the Harvard anti-Asian bias lawsuit. He closes out the episode by calling them “the worst kind” of American for potentially jeopardizing affirmative action.

I was alarmed and dismayed at this hostile critique from one of the few politically outspoken Asian Americans in Hollywood. Minhaj’s depiction of the plaintiffs perfectly highlights how Asian Americans still struggle to find a collective voice in America’s black-and-white racial discourse.

I’m a third-year student at Harvard Law School who has closely followed the development of the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard trial, which wrapped last November after three weeks of intense arguments over whether Harvard admissions discriminates against Asian Americans. Judge Allison Burroughs is scheduled to issue her opinion next month.

But the problem of discrimination against Asian Americans has taken a back seat in public discourse to concerns about the future of affirmative action, even though Burroughs affirmed early on that she would defend race-conscious admissions.

Harvard has successfully spun the lawsuit into a debate about affirmative action so that it can avoid acknowledging anti-Asian discrimination. Meanwhile, the SFFA, a group funded by conservative activist Edward Blum, is using anti-Asian bias to attack affirmative action.

This zero-sum framing has left Asian Americans, who mostly support affirmative action, in a difficult position. Either be good allies to other racial minority groups and shame the SFFA plaintiffs when Asian Americans are already “overrepresented,” or be outcast as greedy villains who are naively being used by white conservatives.

It is incumbent upon Asian Americans to rewrite the script. Asian Americans can both #defenddiversity and condemn anti-Asian discrimination. This means openly confronting problematic stereotypes, in the forms of both internalized racism and external prejudice, while conscientiously avoiding the role of racial wedge.

Classmates often awkwardly confess to me that they don’t want to attend a Harvard that is “too Asian,” forgetting that Asian Americans are not a monolith but a diverse group comprising almost 50 ethnicities, more than 300 languages and the full range of socioeconomic backgrounds.

In fact, Asian Americans experience the greatest income inequality in the United States. Lumping all Asian Americans together most harms underrepresented Southeast Asian American groups who face barriers to education, health care, and affordable housing.

Asian Americans must resist ideas like “overrepresentation” that inherently pit minority groups against one another in higher education, conveniently distracting from the Asian American penalty relative to white applicants. The argument that Asian Americans are overrepresented also ignores that Asian Americans enroll in college at higher rates than other minority groups but experience the lowest admissions rate of any group.

Harvard’s lower acceptance rate for Asian Americans is explained, if not by illegal racial balancing, then by Harvard’s Asian personality penalty. The lawsuit has revealed that Harvard systematically assigns Asian Americans a lower “personal rating,” a critical category in admissions that assesses qualities such as kindness, humor and courage.

Asian Americans must resist stereotypes that we are unpersonable.

Harvard has attempted to defend itself by arguing that the personal score assessment is incredibly complicated and considers an enormous variety of unobservable factors. Harvard also embarrassingly admits that Asian American applicants receive worse teacher, counselor and alumni recommendations compared with white applicants.

After one particularly intense day at trial, a classmate and I reflected on these arguments as we headed back to campus. She speculated that maybe Asian Americans simply have less interesting personalities because we spend so much time focused on school. I was stunned and disappointed.

I vividly recalled the countless times I had received feedback at a job mischaracterizing me as “professional but quiet” or “a quiet leader.” Strangers consistently guess that I’m an introvert. My friends all know me as annoyingly chatty and abrasively opinionated. This anecdote is not at all unique; too many Asian Americans have experienced the same stereotyping from peers, professors and employers alike.

Do Asian Americans buy into the idea that we have inferior personalities, or do we recognize that the Harvard admissions process is susceptible to social prejudice?

Do we swallow accusations by powerful celebrities like Minhaj that the SFFA plaintiffs are “the worst kind” of American for putting affirmative action at risk, or do we call Minhaj out for exacerbating the harmful stereotype that Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners, even as they endeavor to assert their civil rights? Instead of “othering” each other, Asian Americans must work together to combat all racism and discrimination.

Instead of passively awaiting Burroughs’ verdict next month, Asian Americans should push for Harvard and other schools to implement periodic bias training that explicitly addresses Asian American stereotypes.

Asian Americans can also support ongoing efforts at universities to build ethnic studies programs. Such programs would equip future generations of students to explore and understand difficult issues of anti-Asian discrimination and Pan-Asian identity.

At Harvard, I am among students who are planning a photo campaign in early February to showcase Asian American diversity on campus. Others have begun to organize a Pan-Asian graduate student alliance, similar to the Harvard Black Graduate Student Alliance, to raise the administration’s awareness about Asian American issues.

On the last day of the trial, I listened to closing arguments with mixed emotions. Adam Mortara, speaking for SFFA, pleaded against caricaturing Asian Americans as one-dimensional. Bill Lee, senior fellow of the Harvard Corporation and Harvard’s lead counsel for this lawsuit, denied any possibility of implicit bias. The optics would have been laughable if the stakes weren’t so high.

In the coming weeks before Burroughs issues her decision, Asian Americans have a historic opportunity to rewrite how we fit into the narrative of American race relations.

Beyond elite college admissions, Asian American activism must continue its efforts to interrupt America’s black-and-white racial discourse.

We cannot afford to let others speak for us any longer.