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Affirmative action ignites tension among college students, alumni

Over 100 students gathered on Monday outside the Supreme Court in support of the policy, but others say it leads to inequality in university admissions

Supporters of affirmative action in college admissions rally outside the Supreme Court in Washington on Oct. 31. (Eric Lee for The Washington Post)
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Angie Shin, 21, arrived in Washington on Sunday, exhausted from an early morning flight from Boston and months of helping mobilize their Harvard University classmates in support of affirmative action policies now in peril.

“I’m running on, maybe, six collective hours of sleep in the past 72 hours,” Shin said. The Korean American college senior was one of hundreds of students and supporters who gathered on Monday outside the Supreme Court, which was hearing arguments on cases that could end the use of race-conscious admissions policies in higher education.

The protesters weathered intense rainfall, holding up umbrellas and protest signs for cover while chanting despite a microphone malfunction halfway through the rally.

Many were students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Harvard, which are named in the lawsuits being argued before the court. But there were also those from Yale, Howard and Georgetown universities. Some huddled around phones to listen to the oral arguments.

Supreme Court seems open to ending affirmative action in college admissions

“It’s beautiful,” Shin said. “I can’t believe there are so many people that are enduring the rain, enduring audio visual issues, all to show their support. We didn’t budge.”

The high court’s decision could usher in a new era for a generation of students that has only known an America where many universities consider race in their admissions processes. For decades, the court has upheld affirmative action in higher education, but with a new conservative majority, these students — and those following them — may need to adjust to a country without it.

That concerns students like Jorren Biggs. Growing up in a large Black community in Durham, N.C., Biggs has always considered race a central aspect of his identity. When college application season rolled around, he wrote his application essay about Black masculinity.

“I talked about … how I came to terms with being a Black man,” said Biggs, 21. “And what that meant from a performance standpoint.”

Now a senior at UNC, Biggs worries the Black student population, currently about 9 percent, would dwindle if the use of affirmative action — which he says promotes educational equity — were deemed unconstitutional by the Supreme Court. Already Biggs said he is often the only Black student in his classes and is sometimes mistaken for a recruited athlete or a blue-collar campus staff member.

An African American studies major, Biggs said he fears less diversity at the university could also spell trouble for his department and other majors tailored around identity.

“Blackness is something that has always been stressed by my family as an integral part of my identity, so coming to UNC, it was crucial for me to develop a Black community,” he said.

While pro-affirmative action groups dominated the hundreds protesting on the Supreme Court steps, there was also Frank Paul Lukacs, an attorney who said he has filed legal briefs against affirmative action in the past. He stood alone behind three signs that read “End Affirmative Discrimination Now” and “End Racism,” and referenced the “European American Legal Defense and Education Fund.”

“There’s a lot of us, but nobody has enough guts to stand in front of this antagonistic crowd,” Lukacs said. “They just didn’t want the confrontation.”

The two cases, filed by Students for Fair Admissions, an anti-affirmative action nonprofit founded by conservative activist Edward Blum, allege that race-conscious admissions policies at American universities disadvantage Asian American students.

But at both UNC and Harvard — the defendants in the cases — Asian Americans have led the charge in defending the use of affirmative action.

Sally Chen, who graduated from Harvard in 2019, is part of the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard and works as the education equity program manager at Chinese for Affirmative Action.

“Racial diversity on campus was key to expanding my own understanding of issues that I work on today, even within Asian America,” said Chen, 25, adding that she met undocumented Asian Americans students on campus for the first time, a testament to the diversity of the community. But she said she has also grappled with anti-Asian racism, including an experience when a campus staff member mistook her for a tourist in Harvard Square and asked her to leave a campus building.

Asian Americans as the “model minority” being harmed by affirmative action policies is a myth, Chen said.

George Yeadon, who graduated from Harvard in 1975, was among the first Black Harvard students accepted under a policy that considers race in the admissions process. He is “certain” he was admitted under this affirmative action program.

“I think my class may have been the second or third class where the number of Black students increased two- or threefold,” he said, adding that the Black student community was integral to his time at Harvard, where Black students were “expected to fit into what was already there as opposed to bring a different kind of culture,” leading them to form their own cultural organizations and bond over meals together.

But some students, including Jon Wang, say institutional racism no longer exists, rendering affirmative action unnecessary and unfair. The 18-year-old freshman at the Georgia Institute of Technology was rejected from all eight Ivy League schools and was wait-listed at the University of California at Berkeley, he said, despite scoring a 1590 on the SAT and earning a weighted grade-point average of 4.65.

“Definitely before college admissions, I knew … being Asian or Indian definitely makes it harder for you to get into college,” he said, adding his views were confirmed during a high school Quiz Bowl state championship tournament when he felt that his team, composed of four Asian American students, was held to a higher standard than its opponents, who were Black and Latino students and “weren’t buzzing in at all.”

His college rejections helped him “reflect on my time in high school and maybe what I could have done better,” Wang said, but he says he would have had a better chance at admission were he Black or Latino.

Perhaps some admissions slots should be “allocated for lower income people. But I think this broad base, sort of factoring in of race, is unfair,” said Wang, who is a member of Students for Fair Admissions.

His Asian American peers at Georgia Tech aren’t speaking up out of fear, he said. “Some people are afraid of getting canceled,” he said, but are privately against affirmation action, too.

Affirmative action is still needed, said Erika Munguia, 21, co-president of Mi Pueblo, an organization that has launched a pro-affirmative action social media activism. But it’s not the best system to increase educational equity overall, she said.

“If on a national level, the government and the states were to allocate … more funding for education prior to college, that would address the gap,” said Munguia, who is Salvadoran and immigrated to the United States at age 12.

“I think having people who share my race, who share similar backgrounds, it’s helpful in the sense that you feel like you have people you can fall back on … for moral support,” she said. “I think there are times when there’s a lot going on at home, there’s a lot going on at school, and I think it helps … having people who look like me.”

Shin, the Harvard student, echoed Munguia’s sentiment.

“I’ve run into a lot of bad days at Harvard,” they said. “And I can say with full confidence that I would not be mentally stable to pursue my student career … if it weren’t for my support network, and if it weren’t for my friends, and if it weren’t for my communities of color that are there to support me.”

More on race in education

The latest: The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Monday on the race-conscious admissions policies at Harvard University and UNC-Chapel Hill. Conservative Supreme Court justices seemed open to ending the use of affirmative action in admission decisions, repeatedly expressing doubt that the institutions would ever concede an “endpoint” in their use of race to build diverse student bodies.

What happens next? The court will rule on the legality of using race as a factor in college admissions. The court can publish its rulings at any time, but because of the significance of this case, the justices will likely wait to finalize their opinions until the end of the term in late June or early July.

What is critical race theory? Here’s why Republicans want to ban CRT lessons in schools.

What has happened in schools? A Maryland school apologized after a viral video showed White students singing the n-word. A Brigham Young University investigation found no evidence that a fan yelled racial slurs at a Duke volleyball player.