SoCal Asians Do Not Agree About Harvard's Affirmative Action Case

A bicyclist rides past a gate to Harvard University on Aug. 30, 2018 in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Photo by Scott Eisen/Getty Images)

A lawsuit charging that Harvard University's race-conscious admissions process discriminates against Asians has been sharply divisive.

The trial begins Monday.

The plaintiff is an organization headed by an activist who has challenged affirmative action before and it has found support among some in the Southern California Asian community.

The organization called Students for Fair Admissions sued Harvard in 2014, alleging that it racially discriminated against and rejected qualified Asian students in favor of less-qualified black and Latino students.

Harvard says its admissions process is "holistic" — that it weighs not only test scores, but a student's broader experience, which includes race and other factors.

The president of Students for Fair Admissions is Edward Blum, a legal strategist whose group backed a white student's legal challenge against the University of Texas several years ago. The student alleged she was denied admission due to her race. In 2016, the Supreme Court decided in favor of the university and upheld its affirmative action program.

In the Harvard case, the plaintiff cites at least one qualified Asian applicant who was denied entry, charging the reason was race. Harvard's current freshman class is nearly 23 percent Asian, according to the university's website. Black, Latino and Native American students follow at 15 percent, 12 percent and just under 2 percent, in that order.

The plaintiffs argue that Harvard engages in "racial balancing" by enrolling essentially the same percentage of black, white, Latino and Asian students each year. It also alleges that the university holds Asian students to a higher standard, and forces them to compete against one another for admission.

Should only merit apply in admissions?

The lawsuit has resonated with Asian-Americans like Benjamin Yu, president of The Orange Club, an Orange County political group comprised of conservative Chinese-Americans.

"Basically, we just want the colleges to admit students based on their merits, instead of meddling in the process and systematically discriminating against students based on their race, skin color and national origin," Yu said.

He said a relative of his was denied admission to an East Coast university he wouldn't name, even though he adds she had higher test scores than non-Asian peers who were admitted.

"She said she [had] classmates and friends accepted by the school, which she knows had a lower score than her," Yu said.

Yu traveled to Boston to take part in a rally with other supporters of the plaintiffs, and to witness the trial taking place in federal district court.

In August, the federal Department of Justice expressed support for the plaintiffs in court documents.

Another Southern California resident, Thang Diep of Reseda, is also planning to be at the trial, but he's testifying on the side of Harvard, where he's a senior.

Diep, who is studying neurobiology, believes that while his test scores could have been higher, his experience overcoming language and cultural barriers as a young Vietnamese immigrant in the San Fernando Valley helped him get into Harvard.

"I definitely think race-conscious admissions helped my application and helped show the admission officer a ... fuller picture of who I was in high school," said Diep.

He said he went from being mocked for his accent as a child to involving himself in student government and being named one of two class valedictorians.

Why are Asians split on affirmative action?

Class plays a role in this divide, said OiYan Poon, a professor of higher education at Colorado State University, who once worked in admissions for University of California, Davis.

Poon interviewed Asian opponents of affirmative action for a research project and found many of those who opposed it tended to be affluent Chinese immigrants. She said many of them benefitted from post-1990 immigration rules that favored more highly skilled professionals and investors. She said many of these immigrants tend to have more conservative values.

"They tend to be much more privileged economically and more highly educated than previous generations of Chinese-Americans or other Asian-Americans," Poon said.

But there's also been some misinformation about affirmative action, she said, which tends to spread via social media. Poon said some of those she interviewed "seemed to think that affirmative action remains racial quotas, which were banned in 1978."

Advocates opposed to the lawsuit say an end to race-conscious admissions would ultimately harm Asian-American students, among them lower-income Chinese, Southeast Asians and others.

"When you eliminate race as a consideration, it is white people that benefit, not Asian-Americans," said Nicole Ochi, an attorney with Asian Americans Advancing Justice in Los Angeles. "But of course, it is more sympathetic to have a historically oppressed and discriminated-against group to be the face of the lawsuit," she said.

Her legal advocacy group is participating in the trial representing a group of current and former Harvard students, including Diep, who have been granted special status as friends of the court.

When California dropped race in admissions

California's Proposition 209 barred state institutions from considering race as part of their admissions process in the late 1990s. After that, according to the University of California, the system initially saw a steep drop in black, Latino and Native American student admissions.

While Asians didn't fare as badly immediately after the proposition took effect, Poon calculated from UC data that Asian and Pacific Islander student admissions to most system schools in the decade that followed its passage declined in comparison to overall student admissions.

UCLA spokesman Ricardo Vazquez said admission rates among Latinos, in particular, have since risen as the state's demographics have shifted.

The Harvard trial is expected to last about three weeks.