Indian-Americans rally behind federal court’s decision to uphold affirmative action

Class of 2019 at Harvard’s 368th commencement, May 30. (Kris Snibbe/Harvard Staff Photographer)

Anurag Bhaskar, a 2019 Harvard law graduate from the Dalit community was in India early this month when a federal court in Massachusetts ruled to uphold the race-conscious students’ admissions policy at Harvard, saying it finds no proof of intentional discrimination against Asian-American applicants as was alleged in the case.

Anurima Bhargava, also a Harvard graduate who recently served as a Fellow at the Institute of Politics and Kennedy School, was also not in Cambridge when the court upheld on Oct. 1 Harvard’s longstanding efforts to admit and educate a racially-diverse student body in the closely-watched affirmative action case.

Despite being in countries thousands of miles apart, both received the news warmly as did many Indian-American and other Asian-American students across the U.S.

“I welcome this court judgement that it did not find any racial discrimination in Harvard admission. I’m happy about it. I feel it’s a good thing for people who had studied there and for the future students, if the court found no proof of Harvard’s alleged racial discrimination in admission policies,” Bhaskar, who finished his LLM this past June from Harvard and is now teaching a semester at National Law University in Delhi, told this correspondent.

The Lucknow native said he was aware of the controversy on Harvard’s admission policy as it started when he was at the university where students would often discuss how Harvard maintains student diversity in all respect. He remembered how some students in his class would even discuss the prospect of a possible adverse impact on racial minorities, if the Harvard policy were challenged in court.

In her ruling, Allison Dale Burroughs, Judge of the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts, said Oct. 1 that the court finds “no persuasive documentary evidence of any racial animus or conscious prejudice against Asian Americans.” Burroughs said that while Harvard’s admissions program is “not perfect,” ensuring diversity at Harvard relies, in part, on race-conscious admissions.

Indian-Americans rally behind federal court’s decision to uphold affirmative action

Miyu Imai meets her roommate Shifa Hossain, her mother Shahnaj and sister Mim, during move-in day on the Harvard campus, Aug. 27. (Rose Lincoln/ Harvard Staff Photographer)

How it Began

At the center of the controversy has been a 2014 lawsuit in which the plaintiff, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), accused Harvard of considering race “too much” and discriminating against Asian-American applicants. It accused the university of engaging in “racial balancing,” similar to quotas, and limiting the number of Asian-American applicants who are admitted. SFFA said bias against Asian-Americans show particularly in terms of the so-called “personal ratings” of applicants by Harvard.

SFFA is said to be an anti-affirmative action advocacy group headed by Edward Blum, a politically conservative legal strategist. SFFA’s complaint against Harvard had been supported by the Trump administration with the Justice Department’s “statement of interest” added to the case last year.

After the court ruling Blum said in a statement that he was disappoint ed by the verdict. On Oct. 4, SFFA filed a notice of appeal to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 1st Circuit.

But Bhaskar said Burroughs’ ruling is the vindication of a step taken by the university to ensure diversity. He remembered during the conversation with this correspondent that there were students from Latin American, African and Australian backgrounds in addition to Indian students. “I think in my class there were students from 60 different countries and certainly it was an enriching environment,” Bhaskar told India Abroad over telephone from India.

Bhaskar, who said he might come back for a Ph.D at Harvard, clarified that he was not an Indian-American student at Harvard, but an Indian citizen who came from an underprivileged background from his native Lucknow to do LLM. The Ivy League university, according to news reports,chooses about 1,600 students each year from about 40,000 applicants.

Referring to SFFA, Bhargava said “those white activists” filed the suit in the name of Asian-American students, yet they had asked the court to require “Indian and other Asian-American students to hide, instead of celebrating who they are and where they came from.”

Burroughs’ ruling affirmed Harvard’s argument that race-conscious admissions policies are necessary to admit a diverse class. When SFFA sued Harvard in 2014, it alleged that the college’s holistic admissions process discriminates against Asian-American applicants.

However, Burroughs wrote that removing considerations of race and ethnicity from Harvard’s admissions process entirely would deprive applicants, including Asian American applicants, of their right to advocate the value of their unique background, heritage, and perspective. She said it would likely also deprive Harvard of exceptional students who would be less likely to be admitted without a comprehensive understanding of their background.

In a statement, Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow said, “Today we reaffirm the importance of diversity — and everything it represents to the world.” According to a Harvard Crimson report, not all students, however, reacted to Burroughs’s ruling happily.

Indian-Americans rally behind federal court’s decision to uphold affirmative action

Dean of Harvard College Rakesh Khurana photographs Ali Hakim ‘18, Christopher Debiase ‘18, and Siddharth Yarlagadda ‘18 before the Phi Beta Kappa procession begins. (Stephanie Mitchell/Harvard Staff Photographer)

John Hughes, a lawyer for SFFA, had argued with the judge that admissions data from Harvard showed a strong pattern of bias against Asian-Americans, particularly in terms of so-called “personal ratings,” a measure of abstract qualities such as leadership skills and friendliness. Hughes said the fact that Asian-Americans get worse personal ratings year after year is pretty strong evidence that racial bias has crept into the system.

Harvard’s lawyers conceded, according to news reports, that Asian-Americans indeed had on average received lower personal rating scores in recent years, but maintained this was only one of many factors considered in admissions. Asian-Americans on average scored higher than other racial groups on some factors, they said.

SFFA alleged in its lawsuit that Harvard’s race-conscious admission policies discriminates against Asian-American applicants.

Over the course of the lawsuit, details about Harvard’s “secretive admissions policies” had emerged. The case went to trial without jury in October 2018. Harvard and SFFA fought over the admissions policies for three weeks before the decision was left at the hands of Burroughs.

Case Attracts Attention Beyond Harvard

The Harvard case attracted attention of both students and academics beyond its campus. Students in other Ivy League institutions also took a stand on the issue of affirmative action, mostly in support but some opposing it as well.

San Francisco-based Meghana Nallajerla, a 2018 UPenn graduate who is now a Fulbright Research Scholar in Colombo, Sri Lanka, said in an interview with this correspondent that she welcomes the court ruling but she is very disappointed to see that under SFFA “Asian-Americans are pushing this white supremacist and anti-black narrative.”

She said that unfortunately there are plenty of people of her generation that are against affirmative action, but she was not sure how many of them are actually informed about reservation policy.

“I think it is informed by anti-blackness and racism, but I’m not sure if they know about the Indian side of it. As far as the first generation immigrants of dominant castes from India are concerned, I think the same kind of resentment against oppressed communities in India translates and maps out very perceivably onto anti-blackness and anti-affirmative action sentiment here,” Nallajerla told India Abroad.

In her perception, caste dynamics and casteism is also a notable part of anti-affirmative action sentiment amongst first-generation Indian-Americans.

Harvard’s program has been held up as an example of the proper use of race in admissions for decades, since affirmative action had its landmark test at the Supreme Court in the Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case that was decided in 1978. According to news reports, in that case, the high court ruled that the consideration of race in admissions was constitutional, but race could not be the sole factor for the decision — it needed to be used in concert with other factors.

Harvard says race is only one of the considerations alongside many other factors in deciding about admission.

“The consideration of race, alongside many other factors, helps us achieve our goal of creating a diverse student body that enriches the education of every student,” Bacow said in a statement.

Battle Spreading Beyond Courtroom?

The New York Times noted in an article that the battle has also spread beyond the reaches of the courtroom. It said the Justice Department has opened investigations into admissions practices at Harvard and at Yale.

“In Washington State, voters will decide with a ballot measure in November whether to keep affirmative action at public colleges. And race-neutral alternatives for promoting diversity have been gaining sway, like the effort by the College Board to include the socioeconomic backgrounds — but not the race — of students with their SAT scores,” the Oct. 2 Times report said.

After the judge’s ruling, Rakesh Khurana, dean of the college, who took to the stand during the trial’s second week, wrote in an email to The Harvard Crimson that he is “profoundly grateful” for the decision.

Khurana said a Harvard education extends far beyond its classrooms and lecture halls to its dining halls, residences, and the many formal and informal opportunities for its students to learn from each other.

A report in Washington Post said the ruling protected affirmative action but did not give Harvard a complete pass on discrimination against Asians, offering Asian-Americans the opportunity “to step into our place” in the fight for racial equality. Burroughs acknowledged the challenges and stereotypes faced by Asian American applicants.

“For instance, the court noted that Asian-Americans were, more often than other groups, labeled “standard strong” — a category Harvard uses for applicants who aren’t “distinguished” enough to get admitted,” it said. The court also found it “difficult to explain” the “anomalies” in Harvard’s criteria for sending recruitment materials, which last year disadvantaged Asian- Americans by requiring them to have higher SAT scores to receive a recruitment letter.

Still, people like Aarti Kohli, executive director of Advancing Justice Asian–Law Caucus, which filed an amicus brief on behalf of Asian-Americans and other students of color at Harvard who support race-conscious admissions, felt the judge’s decision is a “critical victory” for Asian- American students who benefit from affirmative action and support race-conscious admissions policies.

“While we must do more to ensure that Asian-American students do not face unequal opportunities through harassment, stereotyping and language barriers, the use of race-conscious admissions policies — which safeguard against discrimination — is an important step,” Kohli said in a statement.

During the three-week trial last October, the Law Caucus said, four of the students testified regarding how they benefited directly from Harvard’s race-conscious admissions process and why the consideration of race in college admissions is a safeguard against racial discrimination.

Lawsuit Centered on Harvard’s Personal Rating

According to news reports, much of the lawsuit centered on a subjective “personal rating” that Harvard assigns to applicants. The suit argued that Asian-Americans consistently receive lower personal ratings because of racial bias, leading many to be rejected despite having strong academic records.

The group built its case around a statistical analysis using six years of Harvard admissions data and it found that Asian- Americans had the lowest personal ratings and the lowest admission rates, while Black and Hispanic fared far better in both areas.

The lawsuit against Harvard University sparked intense interest in Asian-Americans’ attitudes about race-conscious admissions and other policies to address racial diversity in college admissions.

Earlier this month, the New York University held a discussion on Affirmative Action in Higher Education addressed among others by Bhargava, who led federal civil rights enforcement in colleges and universities during the Obama administration. Their discussion focused on the continued importance of universities being able to take students’ race and ethnicity into account to achieve the benefits of diversity, remedy past discrimination, and break the cycle of segregation in schools and communities.

The speakers analyzed the decision in the Harvard case, particularly the court’s thorough review of the admissions data and records and finding that no Asian-American student had experienced discrimination in the admissions process, and went through the repeated rulings by the United States Supreme Court that having a diverse student body is of vital national interest.

Bhargava told this correspondent that at a time of increasing division and hate across America, it is critical that college campuses can bring students of different backgrounds and experiences to learn and build together, adding that opening the doors of Harvard beyond the privileged and elite to those who were previously not allowed or have struggled to enter those doors is critical to Harvard’s goal of educating citizens and to create community of mutual respect and dignity of all.

“Generations of Indian students at Harvard and at colleges across America movingly testified to the transformative power of being part of a campus community where they could bring and tell their stories and traditions, and hear and bear witness to experiences and perspectives vastly different from their own,” Bhargava told India Abroad.

Indian-Americans rally behind federal court’s decision to uphold affirmative action

Durba Mitra, assistant professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality at Harvard, teaches a class on “Global Feminisms.”

Asian American Attitudes on Affirmative Action

According to Karthick Ramakrishnan, professor of Political Science and Associate Dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of California, Riverside, who wrote a blogpost on in June last year analyzing ‘Asian American Attitudes on Affirmative Action,’ Asian- Americans have consistently supported affirmative action policies, with some differences in support depending on question/wording.

He noted that support among Chinese-Americans has declined dramatically over four yearswhile it has remained stable for other Asian-Americans.

Ramakrishnan, however, said despite declines due to opinion change among Chinese- Americans, nearly two-thirds of Asian Americans still support affirmative action.

Some Asian-American students had earlier said they felt conflicted about the lawsuit because while they support diversity on campus, they had been told by their parents and school counsellors they had to do much better than their peers and should appear “less stereotypically Asian” in their applications to get into an elite institution.

A report in last October said while polls have consistently found that most Asian-Americans believe affirmative action policies are good and necessary, academics have observed that the faction of largely Chinese-American and some South Asian activists who are supporting SFFA’s lawsuit have outsize visibility on the national stage.

It quoted OiYan Poon, director of the Center for Racial Justice in Education at Colorado State University, who has studied and advocated for affirmative action, as saying that there are “clear generational and class divides between the Asian-American supporters and critics” of the lawsuit.

The Slate report said the most active supporters of the lawsuit tend to be recent immigrants from mainland China who are highly educated — skilled professionals who benefited from H-1B and EB1 visas in the 1990s and early 2000s.

In the interview Nallajerla said that its is wrong to assume that Asian-Americans have unanimity of opinion on the subject because views differ depending on their country of origin and ethnic and racial background. She noted that there obviously are differencesof opinion among Chinese-Americans, Cambodian-Americans and Bangladeshi-Americans because of their experiences.

In a press statement, Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, said the court’s ruling confirmed what the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld: affirmative action policies expand equal educational opportunity for all people of color, including Asian-Americans, and are legal and it is time for Edward Blum and the Department of Justice to accept that.

“A broad cross-section of our society supports these goals, and we applaud the court for reaffirming the constitutionality of these policies. Our nation’s rich diversity is its strength. It’s in everyone’s interest for colleges and universities to ensure that students benefit from the diverse perspectives and experiences of qualified students from all backgrounds,” she said.

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