Students v. students

Opinion by Megha Parwani
Nov. 1, 2018, 1:00 a.m.

Last week, Harvard went to trial for allegedly discriminating against Asian Americans in the college application process. There’s been a lot of commentary surrounding this case, with people coming at it from all sorts of angles—from legal forecasts to uneasy memoir to semi-smug delineation of Harvard’s often less-than-meritocratic admissions criteria.

One thing I find compelling, and disturbing, are the aesthetics of this trial. In the words of ABC News, the trial has been “orchestrated” by Edward Blum, an anti-affirmative action activist who previously worked with Abigail Fisher when she sued (and lost to) the University of Texas for its race-conscious admissions process in 2016.

While suggesting Blum “orchestrated” the present trial may be giving him too much credit, his collaboration with plaintiffs Students for Fair Admissions is a notable change from his previous anti-affirmative action tactics. This time around his partner-plaintiffs are Asian Americans, students of color, working to undermine a system designed to empower students of color. An avenue for minority solidarity has turned into one for destructive identity politics, with Blum dubiously pulling strings in the background.

Beyond aesthetics, this case is distasteful because it weaponizes the ‘model minority myth’ attached to Asian American identity against other students of color. The myth romanticizes Asian American social mobility, homogenizing all Asian Americans as able to pull themselves up from the bootstraps and realize the American Dream, often by spending all their time studying math and playing violin. And then getting into Harvard, although this is now contentious.

The model minority myth has long antagonized the Asian Americans it falsely describes and those it is used against: other ethnic minorities. Beyond stereotyping away the nuanced experiences within ethnicities, the myth pits people of color against each other. It serves no one, except those turning a blind eye towards glaring issues of minority immobility. If Harvard ‘loses’ and affirmative action is upturned, then the perpetuation of the model minority fallacy means both Asian Americans and other minorities will have lost, each in their own ways.

Yet if Harvard wins, there is still a catch. They’ll have won, in part, by arguing that Asian Americans don’t always get into Harvard because they ‘score’ relatively lower on personality criteria. A troubling consequence of “holistic” admissions is that –judging applicants off a few numbers, essays and a semi-standardized interview—is that stereotypes can sneak it. Perhaps this is a necessary evil, an inevitability of human admissions officers interacting with human applicants.

However, if it emerges that, as some argue, Harvard’s disproportionate Asian representation is somehow more conscious and insidiously motivated –by race, money or something else—then Asian Americans face an injustice. But is it justified to attempt to rectify this possibility by undermining other minorities? It does not: it is self-defeating to rectify injustice by inflicting it on others.

While Asian Americans have a valid grievance, we are taking up arms against the wrong opponent through this lawsuit. And while doing so, we are allowing ourselves to become ‘model minority’ pawns in an anti-affirmative action agenda.

Maybe it seems easy for me to adopt this view as an Asian American who attends an elite university and who never sought to attend Harvard, yet my identity does not distort the likely outcomes of this case: at the end of the day, if Harvard loses, it is unlikely that its admissions process will become just. It might become more outwardly meritocratic, but meritocracy is only just if we presume a level playing field, which we cannot. What is likely, however, is that Harvard losing could upturn affirmative action and then we will become incapable of leveling the playing field altogether.

Contact Megha Parwani at mparwani ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Megha Parwani '22 was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volumes 258 and 259. She designed Frankly Speaking, a crowd-sourced opinion column, and served on the Editorial Board for Volumes 259, 258, and 256. She is double majoring in Philosophy and Political Science. Contact her at mparwani 'at' stanforddaily.com.

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