Claims of anti-Asian discrimination at Harvard reveal a long, complicated fight over affirmative action

Students celebrate receiving their degrees at Harvard commencement in the Tercentenary Theatre of Harvard Yard. (Lane Turner/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Does one of the nation’s most prestigious universities really have a racially biased admissions process, or are the organizers behind such a claim merely pushing a larger, more controversial agenda?

Those were the questions prompted by a federal complaint filed last week with the Departments of Justice and Education by more than 60 Asian-American organizations who say Harvard University uses racial quotas and other illegal practices to discriminate against Asian-American applicants.

“The discrimination in college admissions is the biggest civil rights issue Asian-Americans suffer from,” read a release inviting all members of the media to the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Friday, where leaders from the Coalition of Asian-American Associations gathered to call for an investigation of the Ivy League school’s admissions practices.

It’s not the first time Harvard has been accused of capping the number of Asian-American students in its incoming classes. A November 2014 lawsuit by a group called Students for Fair Admissions made the same claim. That suit compared the school’s alleged Asian-American policies to its treatment of Jewish applicants nearly nine decades ago, when Harvard expanded its admissions criteria beyond academic achievement, essentially as a means of cracking down on the growing percentage of Jewish freshmen that then-president A. Lawrence Lowell feared would “ruin the college.” 

But critics — many within the Asian-American community — have questioned the real motive behind these cases, charging that both may be using the alleged racial discrimination against Asian-Americans as a wedge issue to promote a much larger agenda: the dismantling of affirmative action.

“They are trying to confuse people,” University of California Irvine sociologist Jennifer Lee said of the language used in the Harvard complaint. “They don’t discuss affirmative action, but are very deliberate about using the term ‘quotas,’ because it tends to provoke controversy among Americans.”

Lee believes there is no question that affirmative action is at the root of this fight. For proof, she points to Edward Blum, the man behind the 2014 lawsuit, who, in recent years, has emerged as the country’s most powerful challenger of racial equality laws.

Blum is not an attorney but a former stockbroker turned Republican activist who, according to a 2012 Reuters profile — has “launched at least a dozen lawsuits attacking race-based protections” over the past two decades. Through the Project on Fair Representation, a nonprofit legal defense fund he founded in 2005, Blum recruits plaintiffs for lawsuits aimed at “influencing jurisprudence, public policy and public attitudes regarding race and ethnicity.”

In 2012, he got two major cases accepted for review by the Supreme Court in a single session — a feat the Washington Post described as, “less likely than averaging a triple-double for an entire season in the NBA.” In one case, an Alabama county aimed to dismantle a key part of the Voting Rights Act. The other challenged affirmative action on behalf of a white student who was not accepted to the University of Texas. 

Blum searched for three years “for a white college applicant who had been rejected despite solid scores,” according to Reuters report, before connecting with Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff in Fisher v. Texas. After Fisher’s case was sent back for review by a lower court, Blum continued to pursue plaintiffs to challenge affirmative action policies, this time setting his sights on a different demographic.

He created a new organization, Students for Fair Admissions, and three new websites, Harvardnotfair.org, UNCnotfair.org, and UWnotfair.org, each one showing a photograph of a woeful-looking Asian student alongside the message: “Were you denied admission to Harvard? or the University of North Carolina? or the University of Wisconsin? It may be because you’re the wrong race.”

At Harvardnotfair.org, Edward Blum recruits plaintiffs for a lawsuit alleging that Harvard University uses racial quotas to limit the school's Asian-American student population.

In November 2014, he filed two new lawsuits, one against North Carolina, on behalf of a white student who wasn’t admitted, and the other against Harvard, on behalf of an Asian-American plaintiff.

“We allege that Harvard has a hard, fast quota limiting the number of Asians it will admit,” Blum told NPR in an interview at the time.

The complaint filed against Harvard last week cites the Students for Fair Admissions lawsuit as providing “comprehensive evidence demonstrating that Harvard University systematically discriminates against Asian-American applicants during its admission processes."

When asked for comment on the complaint, a Harvard spokesperson referred Yahoo News to a statement released in response to the November lawsuit, in which general counsel Robert Iuliano defended the school’s admissions process as “fully compliant with the law.”

“When a similar claim — that Harvard College discriminates against Asian-American applicants — was investigated by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights, federal officials determined that the College’s approach to admissions was fully compliant with federal law,” Iuliano said in the statement. “That our approach to admissions is fully lawful remains true today.”

By Friday, more than 135 other groups representing Asian-Americans, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders had joined in a separate declaration of support for affirmative action.

“The truth is that affirmative action does not constitute quotas,” the groups stated, denouncing efforts to “end race-sensitive admissions policies” at schools like Harvard for “wrongfully and disingenuously” equating the two.

Yukong Zhao, head of the organizing committee behind the Harvard complaint and author of the book, “The Chinese Secrets for Success,” told Yahoo News that the organizations involved in the complaint were not opposed to all aspects of affirmative action, just race-based admissions policies.

“The most important thing is, even with current law, with current Supreme Court ruling, Asian-Americans are the most discriminated,” he said, attributing his claim to “social stigma” and “prejudices.”

But in response to the critics who say the ultimate goal of these cases is to tear down affirmative action, Blum told Yahoo News, “in some respects, they’re right.”

“It has become apparent in America in 2015 that affirmative action is no longer a black and white issue,” Blum said. “We are now a multiracial, multiethnic nation, and for colleges and universities to classify students by race and treat them differently by race no longer fits within the old paradigm.”

“Today,” he added, “Asian-Americans are suffering for the benefit of blacks, Hispanics and whites.”

Blum acknowledged some of the other factors that may offer students from underserved socioeconomic communities a leg up in the application process, such as attending high school in a disadvantaged neighborhood or being the first member of one’s family to go to college. Blum said he supports “lowering the bar a little bit for high-achieving kids from these backgrounds, as long as the bar is lowered for everyone” regardless of race.

“To lower the bar or raise the bar because of an accident of birth is no longer tolerable,” he said.

UC Irvine’s Lee, who has done extensive research on Asian-American stereotypes and the American educational system, said she found it “really bothersome” that Blum, “a white man, is speaking on behalf of Asian-Americans,” and cautioned against giving into the natural assumption that stereotypes and biases are always bad.

Where other demographics of students, for example African-Americans, have been found to suffer from what Lee called a “stereotype threat,” in which the threat of being perceived negatively can hurt a student’s performance, she asserts that the kinds of stereotypes associated with Asian-American students (smart, hard-working, etc.) can actually enhance academic performance.

“When viewed positively by teachers and guidance counselors, Asian American students get help with their homework, are placed in more competitive academic tracks and rise to the occasion,” Lee said.

The Harvard complaint, however, charges that despite exceptional academic achievement among Asian-American high schoolers, as evidenced by the demographic’s substantial representation among National Merit Scholarship semifinalists, U.S. Physics Olympiad Winners, U.S. Presidential Scholars and other prestigious accolades, college admissions officers still “often treat all Asian American applicants as a monolithic block and denigrate these applicants as lacking in creativity/critical thinking and leadership skills/risk-taking."

The complaint also alleges that such discriminatory practices “have caused tremendous harm to students in the Asian-American community,” including stress and other mental health issues resulting from the pressure to study harder, “a lack of trust in American institutions; self-identification crisis; and fortification of racial barriers.”

In the words of the coalition, “For each and every Asian-American college applicant, such practice engenders a feeling that, [by] being Asian-American, he or she is somehow less American than his or her peers of other racial backgrounds, and he or she does not, and will not, ever have full citizenship as an American.”

Both the Harvard and UNC lawsuits are in the midst of a “laborious” discovery process, which Blum said means “there won’t be much to talk about for the next year or so.” Students for Fair Admissions is still seeking potential plaintiffs for a suit against the University of Wisconsin, but, Blum said, it is frankly “looking for students who had been denied admission to lots of competitive universities.”

As for whether any other schools can expect to be hit with a Fair Admissions lawsuit in the near future, Blum replied, “Not that I’m going to tell you about.”