OiYan Poon is a visiting professor of education at the University of Maryland. She is co-author of Rethinking College Admissions: Research-Based Practice and Policy.
This Halloween, my seven-year-old daughter is dressing up as Marvel Comics character Black Widow. She loves that Black Widow is a fierce woman who, along with an array of other powerful characters, is committed to combatting the universe’s existential threats. Black Panther, Shang-Chi, Ms. Marvel, America Chavez, Falcon, Captain Marvel, the Incredible Hulk, Captain America, Thor, Iron Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy, among others, each have unique talents, skills and stories. They are powerful on their own. Together, they are more than the sum of their parts.
Instead of trick-or-treating this year, my daughter and I will assemble on the steps of the United States Supreme Court with a diverse community of people to defend diversity and affirm opportunity in education. We will witness the nine justices hearing oral arguments in the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill lawsuits.
I am a researcher and educator with more than 20 years of experience studying how race-conscious admissions policies work and how they affect Asian Americans. I am also a co-author of a legal brief submitted to the U.S. Supreme Court supporting diversity and race-conscious policies on behalf of more than 1,200 research experts on education, race and Asian Americans. The brief narrates decades of rigorous research studies that demonstrate how diversity is important to a healthy multiracial democracy and benefits all students, including Asian Americans.
More than 40 years of Supreme Court precedent and robust social-science research have demonstrated the importance of racial and ethnic diversity to education and learning. The majority of Supreme Court justices have followed research and evidence demonstrating how diversity benefits all students in three Supreme Court rulings – University of California Regents v. Bakke (1978), Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), and Abigail Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (2016). The court has affirmed time and again that postsecondary educational institutions can consider race as one of many factors in evaluating the files of individual students to advance diversity on their campuses and learning environments.
The plaintiff in the current cases – Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) – is an organization founded by Abigail Fisher and Edward Blum, two white Americans who do not seem to believe in the value of diversity. They want to end race-conscious admissions policies that support diversity.
SFFA argues against research evidence and it claims it is unconstitutional for colleges and universities to recognize how racism plays a role in students’ individual experiences and educational opportunities. It contends, against research and legal precedent, that diversity is not an important public interest.
Deviating from previous attacks on diversity in college admissions, SFFA also asserts, without evidence, that race-conscious policies harm Asian Americans. The lower courts have found no evidence of anti-Asian discrimination in race-conscious approaches to admissions.
There is consensus within the research community that without race-conscious admissions policies and practices, Asian Americans, like other racialized students, would face varying magnitudes of increased barriers to selective colleges.
Through race-conscious practices, admissions professionals consider the unique education-relevant contexts of individual applicants. These practices do not lead to uniform group treatment. Following established case law, admissions offices evaluate applicants as individuals. Race-conscious admissions practices include the assessment of each applicant as an individual with specific educational journeys, challenges and opportunities. Research has shown that such practices can increase Asian American admission chances at selective institutions. In the Harvard case, such admissions practices resulted in a slightly higher admission rate for Asian Americans – 5.15 per cent of Asian-American students who apply are accepted, compared with 4.91 per cent of white applicants.
Harvard routinely rejects 95 per cent or more of eligible applicants each year.
The great majority (about 69 per cent) of Asian Americans support race-conscious policies. This statistic contradicts SFFA’s baseless claims of anti-Asian bias in affirmative action. Yet, many news reports ignore this fact. They often feature images of the vocal and small minority of Asian Americans who protest these policies.
I am not surprised to see opinion polls conducted in multiple Asian languages finding significant support for affirmative action – policies that counter racial inequalities.
Since 2020, there has been a rise of anti-Asian violence and harassment. The persistence of anti-Asian racism has become undeniable. Many Asian-American friends and I worried over the divisive and anti-Chinese rhetoric hurled by Donald Trump and other Republican politicians. These politicians called COVID-19 the “China virus” and the “kung flu,” stoking centuries-old xenophobic hostilities that targeted anyone who appeared Chinese, scapegoating Asians for the health and economic crises.
Asian Americans have seen these hostilities before. My South Asian-American (Indian and Pakistani) friends reached out in solidarity, as post-9/11 hostilities that target them remain persistent. Non-Asian friends also offered support and concern.
The Asian-American identity itself is a product of movements for solidarity. It emerged during the civil-rights movement in the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. The idea was to bring together Filipinos, Japanese, Chinese, Indians, Koreans and other Asians in America in political solidarity to advocate for each other’s distinct and interconnected concerns. They worked together with African Americans, Latinx, Indigenous peoples and white allies who shared a vision for a more just society.
To be sure, there is a vocal and visible minority of Asian Americans, who mostly identify as Chinese American, who oppose affirmative action. I have found that some are misinformed about how race-conscious policies work. Others believe that policies for diversity dismiss and undermine the hard work and grit of individual Asian Americans, who still face racial biases.
I agree that anti-Asian biases exist for Asian Americans navigating their journeys to college. This is true for students of other racial-minority backgrounds as well. For example, research findings indicate that high-school teachers’ letters of recommendation generally discuss white students in more positive terms than they do Black and Asian-American students. Importantly, anti-Asian racism is different from anti-Black racism and other forms of oppression. Without admissions officers who are aware of these systemic racial biases and the myriad ways they can affect students, racial inequities like these can go unchecked.
Race-conscious admissions policies and practices are critical tools to centre individual stories and experiences, including those of Asian Americans. In the lower court trial, Asian Americans such as Sally Chen – a Chinese-American Harvard student from San Francisco – testified about the importance of race-conscious admissions. She asserts, “I support affirmative action because there are complex stories in Asian America that need to be told and they can’t be separated from the impacts of racism in this country.” Although Asian Americans such as Ms. Chen, Thang Diep and Margaret Chin testified in court in favour of race-conscious admissions, no Asian American testified in the trial against these policies.
Like the majority of Asian Americans, I believe in policies that affirm diversity. I refuse to fall for SFFA’s baseless claims. Research and personal experiences have shown me that race-conscious admissions policies and practices allow educators and university administrators to recognize and affirm the individuality and unique circumstances of students seeking college admissions.
My daughter – the Avengers fan – and I believe that people with a diversity of talents, skills and strengths need to come together and fight for a better future. There are many daunting, even existential problems in our world. We need more spaces for diverse individuals to learn, communicate, work through conflict and solve problems together. We, like that cast of superheroes, are greater than the sum of our parts.
It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court justices will follow decades of legal precedent and research. My daughter and I hope that the court will continue affirming diversity and allow colleges and universities to cultivate robustly diverse learning environments for a more just future.