But that’s what you get for stepping into the racially charged lawsuit against Harvard University admissions accusing the college of discriminating against Asian American applicants as it sought to foster racial diversity on campus. The two alumni groups I help lead — one Asian American, one multiracial — stood in support of diversity and race-conscious admissions, as do most Asian Americans. Alongside 23 other student and alumni groups, we signed amicus briefs and wrote affidavits, and our members took the witness stand. We were relieved that U.S. District Judge Allison D. Burroughs’s decision this week powerfully affirmed the need for the consideration of race in admissions and methodically dismissed the claim of discrimination. But just as the case may drag out in appeal, the intense emotions provoked by the plaintiff's suit, which exploited nearly every stereotype out there about Asian Americans, will not subside soon.
I believe the case turned into a lightning rod for the anger that many Asian Americans have felt at the real and sometimes violent racism we face. In a country that mostly sees race as black and white, or black and brown and white, the indignities we suffer as immigrants and descendants of immigrants who are viewed as perpetual foreigners (Yes, I speak good English, I was born in Cincinnati, dammit!) are often invisible. So here was a chance to give the finger to the Man, while still hoping our kid gets into his supposedly law-breaking college.
But here’s what I came to see: The Man is still so supreme that even if it felt like this lawsuit might take him down, it was actually advancing his ultimate agenda — to maintain power and keep us down — by turning us against each other.
In the Harvard case, there’s a specific man, conservative activist Edward Blum. Blum, who said he “needed Asian plaintiffs” for the suit he was spearheading against Harvard, is the same man who catalyzed the Shelby County case that resulted in a Supreme Court decision that weakened the landmark Voting Rights Act. Blum and his organization also filed an amicus brief supporting adding the citizenship question to the 2020 Census, which would cause the undercounting and thus the under-resourcing of communities of color, including impoverished Asian Americans.
So why would we align ourselves with someone who is working against our greater interest? I’m also puzzled when Asian Americans don’t see that race-conscious programs are still needed for so many of us, especially once we get beyond the college walls. The #HollywoodSoWhite and #StarringJohnCho campaigns have highlighted how few Asian Americans are represented in popular culture. And more broadly, though we enter the workforce in high numbers, we are the least likely to get promoted to management positions. For years, I facilitated a leadership program for the Asian American Journalists Association — the type of race-shaped program that bumped more of us toward the head of the newsroom but also the kind of program that diversity opponents would like to banish. Saying the country’s policies should be race-blind actually means cementing the status quo, which favors one race and one gender.
What was most gratifying about Burroughs’s decision was the number of times she cited testimony from alumni and student witnesses, who spoke vividly about how inextricable race was from their lives and their identities and thus their college applications. They were black and Latinx and Asian American, but their moving stories shared a theme: what it feels like to be marginalized and their own sense of how race-consciousness was an important part of the solution, which Burroughs stirringly echoed.
The most profound lesson for me of these past two years is that alumni and students could come together across generations, across race and ethnicity, religion, gender and across all the other boundaries that can divide us to fight for what’s right. Today’s students are better off with the splendid diversity around them. And if they can stay united, maybe they will finally upend the status quo and bring us closer to a society that truly offers equal opportunity for all. That’s the real American dream my parents handed me when they left everything they knew on the far side of the Pacific Ocean more than 60 years ago. It wasn’t about getting into Harvard, and it shouldn’t be.