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The complex realities of race, identity and privilege in Harvard’s lawsuit

Harvard University is widely reputed as one of the most prestigious and elite centres for academic excellence in the world. Nevertheless, in light of an impending lawsuit backed by the US Department of Justice (DOJ), it has been thrust onto the stage of polarising political ideologies and enhanced cultural sensibilities that pervade a divided American society.

The lawsuit, first filed in 2014 by the Students For Fair Admissions, alleges that Harvard admissions policies illegally discriminate against Asian American applicants; it has also raised calls for schools to adopt a ‘race-blind’ admissions framework. On the other hand, this topic has sparked a staunch resistance from many in the Asian community and beyond, with Harvard’s Asian American Alumni Alliance among those who oppose the lawsuit. While this may appear a straightforward case of ethnic discrimination on the surface, a deeper introspection illuminates uncomfortable questions and challenges facing the American education system as it deals with the complex and sensitive issues of diversity, race, identity and privilege ingrained within society.

The lawsuit…first filed in 2014 by the Students For Fair Admissions…alleges that Harvard admissions policies illegally discriminate against Asian American applicants

The development of this crisis emerges in the wake of the decision by the Justice Department’s Civil Rights Division to revive the 2014 complaint against Harvard filed with the Education and Justice Departments by 64 Asian-American groups. The basis of these allegations is predicated on the belief that systematic and unlawful discrimination takes place through the employment of racial quotas, utilization of higher admission standards and intentional stereotyping to achieve goals of racial balancing and diversity.

Asians had to score 140 points higher on the S.A.T than white Americans to have the same chance of admission to top universities, as illustrated by a 2009 Princeton study. Significantly, this position is indicative of an intriguing alignment of right-wing conservative political interests of the Trump administration and a section of disillusioned and aggrieved Asian American groups. The study gives momentum to an enduring conservative argument that affirmative action is a misguided progressive policy designed to support black and Hispanic minorities at the expense of penalized Asian and white groups.

Asians had to score 140 points higher on the S.A.T than white Americans to have the same chance of admission to top universities

However, a more intricate and critical examination of Edward Blum, the man spearheading the lawsuit, reveals a nation and ethnic group grappling with the problematic demands of identity and privilege in the modern age. Edward Blum is a conservative activist who has a marked history of opposing civil rights protections and policies that promote racial diversity in America, as was notably seen in his unsuccessful attempt to sue the University of Texas. His organization, Students for Fair Admissions, advocates the idea that the adoption of a ‘colour-blind’ process would be more justified and impartial than the current model, and that any consideration of race is harmful and destructive.

The foundations of this movement have been built upon the narrative that racial diversity in education is opposed to the interest of Asian Americans. Contrary to this view, racial diversity is intrinsically tied to racial equality. Jeannie Park, President of Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance, asserts that disregarding race within a holistic framework erodes the background, identity and culture that shape an individual as being unique and distinctive. By conflating colour blindness with the concept of equality, Blum sets a dangerous precedent that such a policy would establish an equal playing field. Instead, race-blind policies would serve to propagate inequalities and create further barriers to opportunity for ethnic minorities, including Asian Americans.

By conflating colour blindness with the concept of equality… Blum sets a dangerous precedent that such a policy would establish an equal playing field

The cultural sensibilities evoked from this lawsuit have critically exposed wider issues, namely the ‘model minority myth’. This refers to the idea that members of this particular ethnic group have higher socio-economic success than the population average. Yet many have actively denounced this stereotype as being detrimental as it is being used to justify the exclusion of Asian Americans from minority benefits, and perpetuates tensions with other ethnic groups.  In the battle to dismiss race-conscious admissions, the idea that Asian American students are harmed by efforts to accommodate under-represented students is being taken advantage of.

The debate surrounding affirmative action has cast an awkward and uncomfortable spotlight on many Asian Americans who are themselves confronting complex issues of privilege and identity. Those who have sought to capitalise on the model minority myth have been criticised for the naïve outlook of Asian Americans as a monolith – characterized by stereotypes of being hard-workers, high socio-economic earners and academically oriented. ‘Asian-American’ constitutes an enormously diverse group, comprising an array of nationalities, religions, and ethnicities, and a variety of socioeconomic statuses.  While Asian Americans may be the highest income earners of any racial and ethnic group, income inequality is also highest among Asians according to analysis from the Pew Research centre. Not only does this dismiss the notion of universal privilege, the utilization of Asians as a political prop to further the passing of a misunderstood race-blind policy has potentially dangerous implications in eroding the centrality of identity and culture altogether.

In a socio-political climate where being an immigrant is proving to be increasingly demanding, the Harvard lawsuit highlights many uncomfortable questions facing American society. Harvard have uncompromisingly defended the use of race-conscious affirmative action and emphasized the importance of diversity and multi-culturalism on campus. However, simultaneously denying that the current admissions system disadvantages Asians also fails to confront the problem directly. As Jeannie Suk Gersen notes in her commentary in The New Yorker, “It distorts and confuses the debate to lay the preferential treatment for whites over Asians at the feet of affirmative action — or, on the other side, to deny that Asians are disadvantaged in admissions today”. No matter how the future of this instrumental case unfolds, the deeply entrenched tensions and burdens of racial and ethnic identity have left an indelible impression that transcends the borders of the US education system.

The trial begins today on Monday October 15.

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