A View from the Ivy Gates: Christine Yano on Privilege and Affirmative Action

yanoChristine Yano is Professor of Anthropology at the University of Hawai’i and co-editor (with Neal K. Adolph Akatsuka) of the new book Straight A’s: Asian American College Students in Their Own Words. This guest post offers her reflections on current and recent lawsuits on affirmative action in higher education.

Privilege is an ugly word.  And any pedestal of privilege holds a fraught position that draws critics and wannabes.  Given these elements, the possibilities for manipulation of privilege and its pedestals run high.  In my mind, this is part of the backdrop of the current lawsuit against Harvard University’s admissions policy by the so-called Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) led by conservative activist Edward Blum.  The lawsuit charges that Harvard’s undergraduate admissions policy discriminates against Asian American applicants, by holding them to a higher bar than others, based on their numerical test scores and rates of admission.  The lawsuit on surface carries commonsense momentum, because it feeds upon a history of rumor and innuendo, in part driven by similar lawsuits levelled at other places of privilege, such as University of California, Berkeley.  It feeds upon stereotypes of Asian Americans as a model minority that is high-achieving and low maintenance, ignoring the diversity of national origins, culture, education levels, and social class.  The model minority stereotype thrust upon Asian Americans by white media during the racially volatile 1960s categorized them as the so-called “good minority” in contrast with other persons of color as the “bad minority.”  The lawsuit feeds upon the creation and manipulation of such divisiveness, pitting minority against minority in the most insidious ways.  The lawsuit generates its own hype.

978-1-4780-0024-2I come to these thoughts on the impending lawsuit through perusing related documents in the news media, but also through my experiences as a Visiting Professor of Anthropology at Harvard in 2014-2015, teaching an experimental and temporary undergraduate course entitled Being Asian American: Representations and Realities (Anth1606).  My students were primarily Asian American undergraduates, who were excited and enthusiastic to find a class that dealt with their own experiences.  The students’ energies coalesced as Straight A’s:  Asian American College Students in Their Own Words.  Straight A’s consists of first-person narratives of Harvard Asian American undergraduates, gathered by the students (dubbed “Asian American Collective”) through personal writings and interviews.  As their instructor and fellow Asian American, I was moved by their tales, which were direct, unblinking, and intimate.  They helped me learn the pitfalls of the public pedestal of Harvard and the constant scrutiny that such a position entails, which includes families (sometimes arcing back to extended families in Asia), friends, high schools, communities, and more.  These students live under tremendous pressure, and a lawsuit such as Blum’s only adds to the confusion and complexity of their college years.

I admit that I, too, did not know exactly what to make of the lawsuit without having done some background reading.  Because the lawsuit feeds into so many pre-existing assumptions, stereotypes, and histories, those who hear news of it may find themselves hard put to examine its context more closely.  After all, prejudice against Asian Americans is a very real thing.  Shutting out minorities (here Asian Americans; in the past, Jews) from institutions of privilege is well documented and an ugly part of history, including that of Harvard.  These kinds of historical encounters with the allegations set forth by the lawsuit give a kind of common-sense, superficial acceptance of its premises. This is a dangerous thing, especially given an age of right-wing conservatism with calls for dismantling affirmative action programs.  The lawsuit implies that the admissions process at a place of privilege such as Harvard follows affirmative action practices—that is, racial and ethnic quotas—that in this case have worked against one minority that has proven too successful for their own good.  Proponents of the lawsuit suggest that the answer is to abandon all affirmative action that might give any particular group an advantage (or here, disadvantage) over any other group.  Thus Blum and his followers (including some recruited Asian Americans, such as Yukong Zhao, president of the Asian American Coalition for Education) have found a circuitous means to argue against affirmative action in general.  It’s a neat and cynical trick.

But in fact, the trick is not quite so neat.  For example, the lawsuit mischaracterizes Harvard’s current admissions process.  In fact, many institutions, including Harvard, utilize holistic review—that is, a widespread, multi-factored review process that aims to assess the context of the whole person, rather than simply relying on test scores.  That context includes family background, life circumstances, and unusual achievement, assessed through letters of recommendation, personal essays, and interviews.  Holistic review allows institutions to deliberately and purposefully look beyond numerical test scores to recognize future value to careers and communities.  This is not about a “positive personality” score to which Asian Americans have been ranked lower—what Blum labels the “Asian Penalty.”  Rather, holistic review provides admissions offices with a range of factors that might predict fit and function, including in some cases recognition of educational barriers that certain Asian American applicants may face, such as low-income families, refugee status, or lack of English as a primary language.  The lawsuit, in fact, relies upon disaggregated data that takes Asian Americans as a monolithic group, ignoring those who might fall outside the model minority category.  Blum’s trick only works if we uncritically accept the methods of his fact-gathering and the ideological basis of his argument.  The key element to understanding the issues involved lies in contextualizing Blum and the motivations behind SFFA.

And a number of groups have done just that.  Foremost among these is the Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance (H4A), an organization of 7000 Asian American and Asian alumni around the globe and founded in 2008.  If anything, their voice should be heard as persons directly concerned with the lawsuit issues.  In an extensive June 29, 2018 message to members, the H4A Board and Executive Committee emphasized two main points:  1) they support the inclusive, whole-person admissions process that Harvard uses; and 2) they oppose any form of racial discrimination in the process.  The message also notes Blum’s history of conservative activism, of which this lawsuit is only one.  Blum, for example, was at the forefront in bringing down civil rights protections in the Voting Rights Act.  He twice went unsuccessfully to the Supreme Court on behalf of a white plaintiff in Fisher vs University of Texas to end the consideration of race in admissions.  Realizing that he needed Asian American plaintiffs to further his generalized case to dismantle affirmative action, he sought and found them in his newly created “Students for Fair Admissions.”  The Harvard lawsuit is the result.

One of the most comprehensive documents that I have read is that issued by the Coalition for a Diverse Harvard of June 26, 2018, entitled “Admissions Lawsuit Update: A Look Behind the Hype.”  The Coalition, a multi-racial, multi-ethnic organization of nearly 1100 Harvard and Radcliffe alumni and students, includes more than 200 Asian Americans and was founded in 2016.  Its steering committee spent hundreds of hours reviewing the lawsuit documents, and comparing the statistical evaluations in a “battle of the experts”—Dr. Peter Arcidiacono (Professor of Economics, Duke University) representing SFFA versus Dr. David Card (Professor of Economics, University of California, Berkeley) representing Harvard.  Because the lawsuit is ongoing, its conclusions are as well.  However, the Coalition importantly identifies the overarching aim of Blum and SFFA as seeking to ban holistic review admissions processes nationwide through a court ruling that any use of race or ethnicity in an evaluative educational setting is unconstitutional.  If successful, the injunction would prevent all educational institutions from conducting their screening with knowledge of the applicant’s race, including surnames, mention of family background in personal essays, or in-person interviews.  SFFA seeks an admissions process that elevates (or returns) the importance of numerical test scores, while disregarding, among other things, life histories, special skills and talents, and individual passions.  This flies in the face of longstanding acknowledgment of the very limitations and biases of standardized testing.

The key here is not only that the Blum-SFFA position on admissions is wrong-headed.  It is, of course.  But there is more to it than that.  Rather, Blum-SFFA seeks to dismantle the very goals of diversity in access to higher education by “fracturing communities of color” (the words of the Coalition).  And he is using Asian Americans as his bulwark.  Those goals of diversity have been long served by affirmative action, widespread programs that recognize that students do not arrive from the same starting line.  Harvard’s admissions process may not be considered strictly “affirmative action,” but in prioritizing the whole person over a test score, and by upholding a goal of a diverse student body not because of a statistical mandate, but because of the richness to be gained and curated and advanced by difference, the ipso facto result takes race as one part of the context of all students.  The experience of race says something about the student, not as an assumption, but as one element in a particularized context of culture, family, educational expectations, stereotypes, and more.

Because the lawsuit plays so easily into sneering comments about privilege, as well as widespread rumors about access to pedestals of privilege, such as Harvard, the general public may too easily fail to look beyond the accusations.  They’ve heard this before; they’ve felt this before.  Asian Americans as almost-whites, subject to the same kinds of reverse discrimination that whites might face.  Model-minority privilege.  Focused on the easy predictability of the accusation, the general public may too easily ignore the goals of the accusers, and rely too easily on their own intentional and unintentional stereotypes of Asian Americans and other domestic communities of color.

Thus it is important to re-focus and re-calibrate our attention.  In this case, the true news story lies in the accusers’ ideology of exclusion and political conservatism.  The accusers’ world view has no room for affirmative action.  Ultimately targeting and dismantling those practices that seek to rectify social conditions of inequality, the accusers would have us believe in the holy grail of test-score objectivity.  This is why Blum advocates eliminating any and all references to race in the admissions evaluation.  The accusers would have us rush to the defense of poor Asian Americans, whose only crime was doing too well.  They would have us ignore the educational richness of a diverse campus, as well as the steps that an institution might take to achieve that balance. They would have us ignore the many ways that an individual might excel and contribute to a variety greater goods.  Using the public spotlight upon privilege and its pedestal, the accusers manipulate a quasi-minority position to do battle in the courts.  In many ways, it is a battle of world views.  But that characterization sounds far too neutral.  Indeed, this is a human rights issue.  The Harvard lawsuit represents a struggle for the very concept of what higher education and its access in the United States might mean.  The stakes run high as Blum threatens the ongoing work of affirmative action aimed at extending privilege and pedestal to a broader swath.  Asian Americans are but a pawn in his game.  This fall the courts will decide whose world view prevails.

Read more about the Asian American experience at Harvard in Straight A’s: Asian American College Students in Their Own Words. Check out the introduction, and save 30% when you purchase a copy from Duke University Press by using coupon code E18STRA at checkout.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s