Asian-Americans Are Split On Affirmative Action Lawsuits

by Sierra Fang-Horvath
Also Featured on Here and Now
06.07.18
Picture of Michael Wang and a letter from Princeton University.
Michael Wang, 22, was rejected from multiple Ivy League schools in 2013 and suspects some college admissions may be biased against Asian-Americans. Photo: Courtesy of Michael Wang

Asian-American students are at the center of two high-profile lawsuits against affirmative action: One at Harvard and one at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.

Following the lawsuits can be a frustrating experience for some Asian-Americans. Emma Deschene, 21, was born in China and grew up in the United States. She just finished up her junior year at UNC and she doesn’t agree with the lawsuits.

“And I’m just kind of confused. Yeah like annoyed and confused about like why this even seems necessary, and why they can’t see like the benefits that affirmative action brings other individuals,” she explained.

In other words, she’s worried these lawsuits could hurt her black and Latino classmates if affirmative action is rolled back. She’s not alone. The Asian-American community is split on the efforts.

Emma Deschene, a junior at UNC-Chapel Hill, doesn’t understand why Asian-American students would try to bring down affirmative action with their lawsuits against her school and other universities. Photo: Courtesy of Emma Deschene

On the one hand, there is history to Asians being discriminated against in the U.S. — like the Chinese Exclusion Act, the 1882 law which prohibited Chinese workers from coming to America — and the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. But, on the other hand, some people wonder if the lawsuits, which target race-based admissions, could make schools less diverse.

In the ’90s, California voted down affirmative action in public schools. And the year that the ban took place, UC Berkeley saw admissions for underrepresented minorities (black, Latino, and American Indian students) drop more than 50 percent, while Asian admissions went up 8 percent. Now it’s possible that what happened in California wasn’t an anomaly but a test case for what could happen for the rest of the country, if these lawsuits against Harvard and UNC are successful.

Jennifer Ho is a professor at UNC. She worries that the Asian-American plaintiffs in the UNC case are so caught up in their own rejections that they are losing the big picture. “They don’t have a full understanding of the history of race in the United States and the ways that they are being used by other groups in a larger narrative,” said Ho.

Before Asian-Americans were suing to end affirmative action, a young white woman named Abigail Fisher brought her lawsuit against the University of Texas at Austin all the way to the Supreme Court. That case against race-based admissions ultimately failed.

Although the plaintiffs in these anti-affirmative action lawsuits are all students, the cases were organized by Edward Blum and his group, Students for Fair Admissions.

When we asked to interview Blum and his plaintiffs, he introduced us to Michael Wang instead. Five years ago, Wang got rejected from his top school, Harvard. He started wondering about how race might have played a role in his rejection.

“Like I’m not saying that I should get into Harvard, but rather I’m just saying, was I treated equally with all students who apply to Harvard? Was I?” said Wang. “Were we all on the same starting line?”

Harvard’s Director of Media Relations Rachael Dane sent a statement in response to our request for an interview:

“Harvard College does not discriminate against applicants from any group in its admissions processes. We will continue to vigorously defend the right of Harvard, and other universities, to seek the educational benefits that come from a class that is diverse on multiple dimensions, from its capacity for academic excellence to its ability to help create a campus community that gives each student the opportunity to learn from peers with a wide variety of academic interests, perspectives, and talents.”

Still, some Asian-American students are unconvinced. Wang has become the unofficial spokesperson for those who feel like they didn’t get a fair shake. While others with litigation pending have stayed quiet to avoid a backlash, he’s keeping the issue alive by speaking out.

“And at least for me, like, when I received a rejection letter – I think a lot of people who apply to college … will feel the same thing,” Wang said. “You definitely feel disappointment but not for only themselves. But also for their parents.”

I can relate. My mom is Chinese. When my twin sister Hallie was accepted into Brown University, she quietly muttered “yay” when she read the news. But in the background, you could hear my mom shrieking with joy, “Whooooooooooo! Yayyyyyyyyyy!”

I don’t mean to make her sound like a Tiger Mom, but she definitely expected at least one of her kids to get into an Ivy and we both did. But when my sister and I were applying to college, we both feared that race might count against us.

Michael Wang, who supports the lawsuits, had expected to feel excitement about their progress, but even he has mixed feelings. “I’m worried definitely that Asian-Americans will end up being a tool in this,” he said. “For example, you know, the whole Trump administration coming in to be like, ‘Okay, like let’s investigate affirmative action.’ I was very skeptical about that, because I felt all of a sudden he’s interested in this issue. Like I understand this is part of the Republican agenda.”

Wang might be right. In April, the Trump administration’s Department of Justice — which is siding with the group suing Harvard — pushed for the college to turn over a decade’s worth of admissions files. Those records may directly impact the trial, which starts October 15 this year.

Support young journalists and artists