On Tuesday, the verdict in the Harvard affirmative action lawsuit came down.
U.S. District Judge Allison Burroughs first ruled that Harvard University does not consciously or intentionally discriminate against Asian Americans. However, she also found that the school can and should do better for Asian Americans — but not by eliminating affirmative action.
Instead, Burroughs stated Harvard’s admissions process would benefit from conducting implicit-bias trainings, maintaining clear guidelines on the use of race and closely monitoring race-related statistical disparities.
She ultimately concluded: “There is always the specter of perfection, but [the Constitution] does not require it.”
Tuesday’s opinion defends both affirmative action and Asian Americans.
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.
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.
Most critically, the court found that “the disparity between white and Asian American applicants’ personal ratings has not been fully and satisfactorily explained.”
The personal score is a metric Harvard uses to rate applicants on such qualities as courage, likability and kindness. Litigation last year revealed that Harvard systematically gives Asian Americans lower personal scores.
As Burroughs told Harvard during trial, “You [still] have a personal rating problem.”
I wholeheartedly agree with Burroughs that Harvard can do better. Harvard must work out a race-conscious admissions process that doesn’t tolerate trading off Asian Americans. This is especially true now that Harvard knows bias against Asians has invaded its system and become, to use the court’s words, “baked into” the recipe.
Harvard has already begun a course correction. It amended its guidelines last year to include explicit language that warns admissions officers how to appropriately limit their consideration of an applicant’s race.
But there’s more to be done. For instance, Harvard’s system of granting tips to legacies and recruited athletes disproportionately favors white students. Those who support educational diversity should confront Harvard’s open stance that race diversity is not as important as Harvard’s competitive standing in Ivy League sports.
Uplifting Asian Americans does not mean dismantling affirmative action, a long-standing, constitutionally backed policy that advances important goals of educational diversity and societal reparations. These goals benefit everyone, including the most vulnerable and disadvantaged Asian Americans.
It may be tempting for many Asian Americans, and others, to dismiss this lawsuit as “a hullabaloo by salty people who didn’t get into Harvard,” to quote an Asian American friend.
But we need to see the bigger picture. This lawsuit is symptomatic of larger questions that Asian Americans cannot continue avoiding, such as what it means to be Asian American, how to be allies for racial justice, assimilation versus representation and the widening socioeconomic gap within our communities.
At Harvard, students and alumni from all backgrounds must come together to organize for ethnic studies, hiring more minority professors and programming that will help us navigate how Asian Americans fit into the story of racial equality in the United States.
In a moment when Asian Americans finally have the chance to begin telling and centering Asian American stories in the media and when two Democratic candidates — California Sen. Kamala Harris and businessman Andrew Yang — are vying to become the first Asian American president, these issues are critical.
How these conversations happen, and whether we help shape the narrative, is up to us.
— Meghan Liu is a 2019 graduate of Harvard Law School.