A lawsuit against Harvard University that alleges racial discrimination against Asian American applicants is the latest attack on affirmative action. The controversy over the case underscores how skewed the debate over affirmative action has become, with the understanding of its original purpose and successes nearly lost.
Historically, the policy helped to reduce gender and racial inequities and to integrate higher education and the workplace. But the inequalities it was designed to address are still with us, some of them more severe than ever. Therefore, affirmative action needs to be defended and expanded — while we fight for the fundamental change that will allow system-wide racism and sexism to become a thing of the past.
Opening the doors. Affirmative action was a hard-fought civil rights gain designed to counter centuries of oppression against people of color, especially Blacks, as well as women. In 1965, before affirmative action, African Americans made up 4.8 percent of undergraduate students. By 1998, Black students accounted for 11 percent of the total, and Hispanics (the term of government record-keepers) represented nine percent.
Affirmative action brought people of color, women and white working-class men together to study and work. It never sought to deny a job or a place in higher education to qualified applicants of any race, or place a ceiling on their number. It called for a minimum number of women or people of color as a measure to ensure that workplaces and schools included them.
Quotas and set-asides, which reserve a percentage of opportunities for an underrepresented group in things like government contracts, were the teeth of affirmative action. They kept employers and institutions accountable. Failure to meet them could result in fines, lawsuits, and/or termination of public funding.
However, starting in the Reagan era, conservatives targeted affirmative action as a preference program that discriminated against whites. They mobilized massive resources to convince the courts to dismantle affirmative action. In 1978, the Supreme Court ruled in Baake v. University of California that quota systems were unconstitutional. In its Fisher v. University of Texas decision in 2016, the court further decided that considering race in admission practices is only acceptable if all other measures to increase diversity failed. The ruling was the latest in a series of decisions that severely weakened the reform.
White conservative Edward Blum, who funded the Fisher case and has also orchestrated lawsuits weakening voting rights, is spearheading the suit against Harvard. He is claiming that the college’s affirmative action policies discriminate against Asian American applicants. However, his real goal is to outlaw race as a factor in admissions. While Harvard’s admission documents reveal that their “positive personality” criteria may be biased against Asian Americans, the solution is to deal with the specific discriminatory practice, not eliminate affirmative action. If the lawsuit is successful, then people of color who are typically shut out of higher education, including some Asian American groups, will have less access.
The idea that affirmative action opponents are genuinely upset with Harvard’s discriminatory practices against Asian Americans is a dubious one. Elitism and exclusivity are what private universities base their reputations on. By ensuring that the kind of education regarded as the most superior is available only to a select few, they increase the competition for slots. That conservatives would graciously concede more of those slots to Asian American students in order to end Harvard’s “racial balancing” is far-fetched. In fact, it’s just as far-fetched as if they advocated for a real solution for all working-class students: free, quality higher education for everyone who wants it.
So far, 35 Asian American organizations have filed amicus briefs defending affirmative action in the Harvard case. There are 25 student groups at Harvard who have also weighed in against the suit, with some of them represented by the NAACP. On the other side, the Trump administration is standing behind the legal assault and is using it to try to overturn one of the most important gains of the civil rights movement.
The lawsuit should be dismissed. It aims to further dismantle affirmative action by mischaracterizing it as racial discrimination against Asian Americans. Actually, affirmative action is anti-discriminatory, and embedded in it is the breakdown of racist and sexist bigotry as people get to know and work with each other.
Dividing working people along skin-color lines is basic to the ruling-class strategy of thwarting solidarity. The Harvard lawsuit conjures up the stereotype that all Asian Americans are hardworking individuals who achieve success through merit alone. This “model minority” myth further divides oppressed groups by portraying other people of color as less able or less deserving students who steal coveted slots away from Asian Americans. “Model minority” racism also ignores the reality that Asian Americans are many different groups of people. Several of them, particularly Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders, suffer high rates of poverty and graduate from college less often than most other racial groups.
A working-class issue. In the eight states that have banned affirmative action, government employment of Hispanic men decreased by 7 percent and Black women by 4 percent. White men, however, experienced a 4.7 percent increase in employment after the bans.
Meanwhile, an estimated three million young people aged 16–24 are neither working nor in school, and they are disproportionately people of color. Young Blacks and Latinos are three to six times more likely to be out of work and out of school than young whites. As a result, they are more susceptible to poverty, substance abuse, and incarceration.
Harvard University’s admission policies should be changed to eliminate bias against Asian Americans on the basis of “personality.” And to make them more fair in other ways as well. But getting rid of affirmative action, as the lawsuit seeks to do, has nothing to do with fairness. Affirmative action has emboldened the poor, immigrants, the LGBTQ community, and the disabled to also fight for equal access to jobs and education. It was never just about race or gender; the 1965 executive order, for example, included religion and national origin. It is critical that workers and students understand and defend the original intentions of affirmative action.
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