by Akemi Tamanaha, Associate Editor
As the Supreme Court debates the legitimacy of affirmative action, two Asian American Harvard graduates are speaking out about how they benefitted from the admissions policy.
Sally Chen and Thang Diep graduated from Harvard University in 2019. During the fall semester of their senior year in 2018, they gave testimony during the federal district court case Students for Fair Admissions vs. Harvard University.
The case was brought forward by conservative activist Ed Blum and his anti-affirmative action group Students for Fair Admissions. Blum and his group claimed that race-conscious admissions at Harvard discriminated against Asian American applicants. The case played on a myth called the “Asian penalty,” a belief that Asian American applicants must have higher grades and test scores than other applicants to get into prestigious colleges because they’re Asian.
Legal groups interested in including a student perspective on the case reached out to student organizations at Harvard. Chen and Diep decided to provide testimony explaining how they felt they benefitted from affirmative action as Asian American students.
“I believe I benefited from affirmative action”
Diep is a Vietnamese American immigrant who told AsAmNews he wanted to testify to include a Southeast Asian American perspective.
“I felt that a lot of the narrative around any Asian American issues often centered around East Asian Americans,” Diep said.
When Diep was at Harvard, the admissions office began allowing students to view their admissions files. He submitted his admissions file to the district court as evidence, believing it disproved the plaintiff’s claim that Harvard gave Asian American applicants lower personal ratings.
According to The Harvard Crismon, a Harvard admissions officer described Diep’s application as “not a bad package when you put it all together.” Diep believes his personal statement about his immigrant status helped push his application over the line considering he did not have the highest grades.
“I believe I benefited from affirmative action and I believe a lot of Asian American students benefited from affirmative action. By that I mean race plays such a huge impact on our lives and to not be able to share about these things would be really dehumanizing,” Diep said.
Chen, like Diep, believes that her personal background played an important role in her admission. She is the daughter of Chinese working-class immigrants from the California Bay Area. Her parents spoke limited English, meaning Chen was often left to advocate on behalf of their family.
Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett recently questioned whether applicants could write about their personal experiences in an essay rather than just “checking a box.” Chen did just that, writing about those experiences as the daughter of immigrant parents with limited English proficiency. She says it helped her get into Harvard.
“Having this context was important to making me a much stronger candidate,” Chen said.
Advocates for affirmative action also argue that the policy creates a diverse student body that enhances the campus experience. Chen worked with different ethnic studies departments and joined cultural groups while studying at Harvard. She says that experience has influenced the post-graduate work she does now at a non-profit called Chinese for Affirmative Action.
“A lot of this really highlighted how having all of these different perspectives at the table made our education work a lot stronger,” Chen said.
A majority of Asian Americans support affirmative action
Asian Americans who support affirmative action are also frustrated that the issue is being used to pit Asian Americans against other minority groups. Anti-affirmative action activists argue via the model minority myth that hard-working Asian American applicants are losing out to other students of color.
Diep said that as the case gained national attention Black and Latinx students were targets of harmful stereotypes. They were told they didn’t deserve a spot at Harvard or that they only got in because of affirmative action. Diep testified in 2018 to show support for his peers.
“I wanted to be in solidarity with them and say, you know, we all deserve to be here,” he said.
He also told AsAmNews he wonders why the media only briefly discusses the fairness of other policies, specifically legacy admissions.
Anti-affirmative action supporters have implied that a majority of Asian Americans feel hard-done-by affirmative action. In reality, Chen pointed out, most Asian Americans support affirmative action. A recent poll by AAPI Data found that 69 percent of the Asian Americans surveyed supported affirmative action programs.
Blum and Students for Fair Admission have recruited a handful of conservative Asian American voices to criticize affirmative action in the media.
“I think that a lot of sort of media portrayal centers those particular voices in a way that is not representative of the whole or even representative of the diverse perspectives that Asian Americans have on a lot of these issues,” Chen said.
She added that while Blum has supporters speaking to the media, he failed to find Asian American students to testify in his case against Harvard. Ultimately, she believes Blum and his allies are not actually interested in looking out for Asian American students and other students of color.
“Even if this was a legitimate case where there was discrimination against Asian students, the remedies he’s calling for is the complete removal of race and ethnicity in education. He’s not calling for anti-bias training, he’s not calling for support professors of colors, he’s not calling for cultural centers,” Chen said.
She feels that Blum is “leveraging” fear around growing anti-Asian sentiment but wants Asian Americans to know that ending affirmative action is not the answer.
Limited access to higher education
Diep feels the limited access to higher education is also driving a wedge between minority communities. Harvard only accepts around 5 percent of its applicants every year, helping to foster the narrative that students must “fight” for a spot at the elite university.
Diep wants to focus the conversation on increasing access to education across the board. Both he and Chen have first-hand experienced dealing with inequitable access to higher education. They also continue to witness those inequities in their lines of work. Diep currently works with young Vietnamese American students at a community center in Boston called the Vietnamese American Initiative for Development (VietAID). Chen is the Education Equity Program Manager at Chinese for Affirmative Action.
They both believe that affirmative action will help address systemic inequities in higher education, but stress that it is not a “cure-all.”
“If we’re truly really invested in increasing access to education for all, I think affirmative action is one step but it should not be the only thing to address structural inequity to accessing higher ed,” Diep said.
The Supreme Court Case
For Chen and Diep, affirmative action is just one step towards fixing educational inequities, and it is one step that could be stalled by the Supreme Court. On Monday, the court heard arguments at the center of the lawsuits brought forward by Blum against Harvard and the University of North Carolina. It will be asked to decide whether the race-conscious admissions at the school were unlawful.
Chen and Diep are concerned about a future ruling given the conservative make-up of the court.
“In previous cases, Roe v. Wade included, we have seen how we can’t necessarily depend on our highest courts and institutions to secure our civil rights. I would say we aren’t necessarily optimistic,” Chen said.
They both feel that advocates should continue fighting for affirmative action, regardless of the ruling.
“Let’s say the Supreme Court decides to overturn affirmative action, we need to show that there were people who support affirmative action and who don’t agree with the Supreme Court decision,” Diep said, adding that this was a great time for Asian Americans and other minority groups to come together in community.
Organizations like Chinese for Affirmative Action are preparing to find different ways to support students of color in case of an unfavorable ruling.
“I would say that a lot of organizations are gearing up to demand more of our local and state governments, our school districts, and our flagship colleges to be proactive regardless of the outcome of this case to actually support students of color,” Chen said.
“… We are taking this as a call to action.”
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