Calling all Ephs: We should support affirmative action in higher ed.

Rachel Jiang

This year’s spooky season is certainly frightening. On Oct. 31, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear two concurrent anti-affirmative action cases: one against Harvard University and another against the University of North Carolina (UNC). The debate over affirmative action has increasingly gained traction and generated more controversy in recent years, especially within the Asian American community. These controversies are laden with anti-Blackness, classism, and, most importantly, misinformation. 

In our community, Williams alum Michael Wang ’17 formed an alliance with white conservative Edward Blum, a key activist for Students for Fair Admissions — the same organization suing Harvard and UNC — where they advocated for abolishing affirmative action. Therefore, it is crucial for us — especially Asian and Asian American Ephs — to advocate for affirmative action and stand in solidarity with Black, Brown, and Indigenous students. We need to put in consistent, rigorous work individually and as a community to reject and dismantle anti-Blackness, classism, and white supremacy.

Affirmative action was first codified by President John F. Kennedy’s Executive Order No. 10925 in 1961, which urged federal contractors to “take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and employees are treated [fairly] during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin,” as a response to the long history of discrimination against Black Americans in education and employment. Higher education applies these same principles, using affirmative action to provide equal opportunities through a holistic review process that evaluates students based on factors that are not just academic — including race and ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and extracurriculars. 

To counter misinformation surrounding admission practices, especially Harvard’s admissions process, I want to highlight findings from David Card, a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley. In expert testimony during the 2017 Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard College case, Card used statistical models to find that there was no evidence of a statistically significant negative association between Asian American ethnicity and an applicant’s likelihood of admission in five of the six admissions cycles for which data are available. He also found that the importance of race in explaining admissions decisions is much smaller than that of many factors Harvard considers. 

Card highlighted race as just one factor of a holistic admission process, which is what affirmative action entails — not racial quotas or using race, or any social identities, to discriminate against other students and decrease their chances of acceptance. 

A common argument in anti-affirmative action rhetoric is that race-neutral admissions are a better alternative to affirmative action in fairness while maintaining diversity in higher education. Card evaluated multiple alternatives for affirmative action Havard could adopt and found that using race-neutral policies to generate diversity comes at a cost to cohort quality. On top of unconvincing alternatives, I want to emphasize that abolishing affirmative action perpetuates institutional and historical inequalities that have prevented marginalized groups from having equal opportunities in higher education. 

With no conclusive evidence of discrimination against Asian American students or a better alternative, why is it that many Asian and Asian Americans are anti-affirmative action and often align themselves with Blum’s Students for Fair Admissions? White conservatives like Blum prey on existing prejudices within the Asian and Asian American communities, curating the narrative that more qualified Asian and Asian American students are rejected because less qualified Black and Brown candidates “stole” their spot. This echoes Michael Wang’s characterization of college admissions as a “zero-sum game.” But this is false. In Fisher v. University of Texas, where Blum helped plaintiff Abigail Fisher sue the University of Texas for allegedly using affirmative action to discriminate against her, 42 white students and five Latinx and Black students with grades lower than Fisher were accepted, while 168 Latinx students and Black students with grades as good and better than Fisher were rejected that admissions cycle.

To Asian and Asian American Ephs: We must stand up for each other, but also, we must stand up for all Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other people of color while confronting and overcoming prejudices within our communities. We must refuse the model minority myth and proximity to whiteness, which are narratives curated and used by the white Right to manipulate and pit us against other minorities. 

The College has already signed the amicus brief in support of affirmative action. Now, it is up to us, especially Asian and Asian American students, to act. It’s important to inform yourself and each other and examine your privilege in affirmative action. And you don’t have to be alone. Talk to friends and family about it. Hold reading and watch parties. Rally together. Finally, if affirmative action is overturned, it’s of utmost importance to support each other with love. 

Rachel Jiang ’23 is a political economy and American studies major from Austin, Texas.

This article was updated at 10:28 p.m. on Oct. 5 to correct the name of the president who issued Executive Order No. 10925. It was John F. Kennedy, not Lyndon B. Johnson. Johnson’s Executive Order 11246, which similarly called for affirmative action, was issued in 1965.