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Credit: Julia Schorr

On Thursday, Aug. 30, the Justice Department supported students who are suing Harvard University over affirmative action policies, claiming that they discriminate against Asian-American applicants. In this Trump administration era, this is a major move against national affirmative action in colleges, threatening policies that have been in place in major private and public universities for decades.

This angers, scares, and disappoints me, as an Asian-American student who goes to an “elite institution.” 

I grew up in an affluent, predominantly white and East Asian New Jersey suburb. Many of my classmates were high-achieving Asian students, tackling on countless Advanced Placement classes, extracurricular activities, and studying tirelessly for the highest standardized test scores, all to chase Ivy League dreams. The fall of senior year was filled with elated highs and brutal lows, as I watched myself and my friends get rejected and accepted from various universities across the country. This process was not without bitterness. One student from my high school was known for filing a complaint against Princeton University for discriminatory policies against Asian-American students.

The Asian-American students who have sued elite institutions in the past few years are not unlike the people that I have grown up with. I sympathize with those hurt by college rejection — I suffered from a lot of it, as well — but I do not sympathize with the privileged Asian Americans that turn to a lawsuit as a result of this rejection, who feel that they personally are entitled to an acceptance from a certain school. Rejection from a school you think you deserve to be accepted to stings, but that does not mean affirmative action is the reason you were not accepted. 

In the midst of these lawsuits and debates, people have forgotten what affirmative action represents. It is not a tool that is used to limit Asian American and white students from elite colleges; instead, the foundation of these policies is to ensure that other marginalized minorities have an equal chance at admission to support a diverse student body. Affirmative action is not aimed to prevent singular cases of exceptional white or Asian students from getting into Harvard — it is used to promote the greater good of diversity and ensure that historically underprivileged groups receive fair attention.

“Rejection from a school you think you deserve to be accepted to stings, but that does not mean affirmative action is the reason you were not accepted.”

Of course, it is not only Asian American students that have taken issue with affirmative action. White students and individuals have also aligned themselves with anti-affirmative action, claiming that these policies hurt their admission chances (for example, the Fisher v. University of Texas case), or that they somehow represent a racist agenda. Edward Blum, a white politically conservative legal strategist, is the founder of Students for Fair Admissions, the organization behind the most recent lawsuit against Harvard. 

While anti-affirmative action activists like Blum claim to be rallying allies for Asian Americans jilted by colleges, their arguments inherently pit Asian Americans against other minorities and other underserved communities of Asian Americans, splintering our community and preying on the “model minority,” promoting the misguided belief that “hard work” is the only factor that separates applicants. What their arguments do not leave room for is the systematic oppression that many minorities face, factors that are not in their control. 

The fact is, affirmative action policies do help minorities, and many Asian Americans benefit from them. From helping underprivileged Southeast Asian communities gain admittance to colleges to the large and vibrant Asian percentages at universities across the country, affirmative action does not aim to undercut the success of Asian Americans in this country. It inherently serves to uplift other communities, those that may not have a fair shot. It’s not a perfect system, but it is not a system that should be dismantled; instead, it should at least be re-evaluated to ensure greater promotion of diversity, especially socioeconomically. Removing these policies can serve as a dangerous precedent to preventing diversity from spaces — especially the elite/privileged of “top” universities — that desperately need it. 

Joseph Williams // CC BY 2.0

I understand the frustration many high-achieving Asian students feel. When it feels like other students who have the same scores and grades as you get admitted and you do not, there are natural feelings of bitterness and injustice. However, the greater scope of affirmative action is not for you and your individual desires — it is to promote and uplift communities of color, to give everyone an equal shot at receiving an education. If that means you have to “settle” for a school that isn’t Harvard, then so be it.

To many of my fellow East Asian American students, recognize your privileges. To white students, recognize your privileges. Recognize that while you may feel personally scandalized by affirmative action, it is not a tool that serves you or any one group. Affirmative action aims to ensure that marginalized students in various communities have the opportunity and access to the same privileges that you may already have. Recognize this.

JESSICA LI is a College junior from Livingston, N.J., studying English and psychology. Her email address is jesli@sas.upenn.edu. 

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