Affirmative Action: A Convenient Distraction from Institutional Inertia

Earlier in June, The Supreme Court deferred a 7-year old lawsuit that challenged admissions policies at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina, seeking counsel from the Biden Administration and delaying judicial review for at least a few months–if not forever.

At Faultlines Magazine, we believe that legal minutia, the battle’s new Asian American mascots, and even the outcome serve as distractions from the harder questions. So we explored the

For example, what is the purpose of Affirmative Action today? Does race-based admissions exist to create diverse campuses to enrich the experience of higher education, which has been exclusively white for the vast majority of its existence? Or is affirmative action an avenue through which powerful institutions such as Harvard University seek to mitigate America’s stark socioeconomic disparities? 

Most importantly, has Affirmative Action been at achieving either of those aims?  Or is it merely a milquetoast public relations stunt that allows universities to continue their centuries of procrastination on much more drastic overhauls in their admissions policies?

By Sofia Elena Chaelin Lee & Warren Wu
w/ additional reporting by Yanyan Li, Edward Mendel, Vidyuth Sridhar, and Ryan Whalen.

In 20/21 hindsight, we should have cherished the halcyon days of 2014. Our last slow news year–when Donald Trump was “that toupee dude from Celebrity Apprentice,” dystopian pandemics remained socially distant in reddit sub-threads and the year’s chart-topper was Taylor Swift’s Blank Space–an electropop ode to low-stakes games–a tune fit for both courtship and court cases.

Meanwhile, in Texas, conservative crusader and failed GOP congressional candidate Edward Blum plotted his next attack on progressive policies even as Fisher v. University of Texas made its way through the appeals process. When the Supreme Court handed Blum a definitive defeat–upholding UT’s use of race-conscious admissions policies–he decided to recruit new mascots for his war against affirmative action.

“I needed Asian plaintiffs,” Blum stated, and after launching, he found new proxy plaintiffs, then sued Harvard University and The University of Carolina (UNC) purportedly for illegally holding these candidates to a higher standard. 


Although Blum’s ambitious suit reignited headlines and hot takes in 2014, the Supreme Court’s decision in mid-June 2021 to postpone the case to seek the Biden administration’s feedback garnered little media coverage. A few years ago, any update would set WeChat groups ablaze and trigger long anti-affirmative screeds from Asian American Facebook moms who lived in fear that their sons were not immature, just mediocre.

But now? Those spaces are dominated by emoji-littered debates on Vaccine and COVID-19 conspiracies.

Blum’s use of judicial yellowface masked his attack on affirmative action under the guise of fighting for Asian American admissions justice feels not just trivial, but anachronistic to a country radicalized by the trauma of recent history.

After all, with democracy hanging by a thread, do we really care if James goes to Princeton or Pomona when civil rights conversations today are centered on addressing systemic inequality with far higher (i.e. life-or-death) stakes?

To Professor Vinay Harpalani, a University of New Mexico Law Professor who teaches courses on both Constitutional Law and Civil Rights, securing equality for Asian Americans was never the priority. “It’s a political attack on affirmative action.” Instead of truly fighting discrimination as the Blum claims, “It’s about pitting Asian Americans against other people of color.”

Jeannie Park, long-time president of the Harvard Asian Alumni Association, also say right through Blum’s ploy “we also very much were aware of how the lawsuit was using Asian Americans and trying to pit Asian Americans against other groups, and did not want to be part of that.”

While using the age-old “model minority” myth to drive a wedge between Americans of color may have seemed strategic in 2014, we’re not in Kansas anymore, thanks to increasing awareness of how the ruling class attempts to sow division amongst people of color.

As Legislation Lags, Progress Accelerates

Pundits from journalist Fareed Zakaria to medical sociologist Nicolas A. Christakis predict that the collective trauma we are just emerging from as a nation has already triggered an awakening and historical acceleration.

The political tumult of the Donald Trump presidency–which culminated in a bloody attempted coup during a global pandemic after months of coast-to-coast marches to fight systemic racism against black people (peaceful uprisings that showcased exactly the graphic police brutality and over-militarization being protested).

As Carlos Lozada wrote for the Washington Post near the end of 2020, “disadvantaged communities are increasingly vulnerable, and social activists are emboldened.”

To be fair, Blum couldn’t have predicted recent history–but he should (and likely did) recognized that the roots of injustice in America were not planted by affirmative action seeds. In fact,  it’s the other way around, as Park put it succinctly, “the only way that you can fight racism is with policies that acknowledge race, and that acknowledge racism.”

Affirmative Action: Necessary but Inadequate

“The terrible paradox of the civil rights movement is that outlawing racial discrimination made it harder to remediate its effects,” Harvard professor Louis Menand mused in the The New Yorker in January, 2020. 

Though eloquently stated, Menand’s paradox is an obvious one: Passing laws that forbade treating citizens differently on account of race also stymied preferential policies to mitigate the toll taken by centuries of harm.

Contrary to popular belief, Harpalani says, the only legal justification for race-conscious admissions is “the educational benefits of diversity.” Therefore, it was never intended to equalize and right history’s wrongs. Education experts in the field find affirmative action to be necessary–especially since every instance of instituting race-blind policies drastically reduced racial diversity–but inadequate on its own for long overdue progress.

When asked about other reforms to bolster affirmative actions intent, he then rattled off a list, from the decentering the Western curriculum to diversifying University faculty, especially at the leadership level, and devoting more resources to support students who don’t arrive at college on equal footing as their peers from elite boarding schools.

Professor Mitchell Chang, who teaches Education and Asian American Studies at UCLA, regards affirmative action is “a starting point, at best.”

What about the college experience for those admitted? Will institutions evolve with the times or forever remain bastions of white supremacy in which students of color are regarded as guests?”

“The staff in certain institutions is actually more racially diverse than the student body,” he remarked casually, letting the uncomfortable implications hang in the silence that followed.

In addition, while Asian Americans are certainly not the central “victims” in a zero-some battle game, there is evidence–both statistical and anecdotal–that they do face unique hurdles.

For Asian Americans, a Battle on Two Fronts

“There’s built-in bias in the system and it’s a problem that extends beyond affirmative action, which has become a scapegoat in our communities, “ said Esther, an education consultant who has specialized in guiding Asian American applicants through the gauntlet of admissions for over a decade. 

While she regards Blum’s lawsuit as a “ridiculous embarrassment,” Esther has found that there is an “ implicit bias”  that Asian American pursuits do not stem from sincere passion.

“When white students do things that they get to be themselves, when Asian students want to do things — they’re seen as calculating or achievement robots,” said Esther.

Chang agreed, but also noted that immigrant “tunnel vision” places institutions such as Harvard on a pedestal, imbuing them with a sanctity that is “undeserved.”

“[These institutions] are revered as gatekeepers [to] obtaining certain privileges…that have been… more or less exclusive to whites.” Chang continued, “and I think we have to highlight those other pathways out.”

Affirmative action, to many students of color at elite universities, has grown to be seen as a tourniquet, a temporary fix to an even larger issue.

Cai, a rising junior at UNC Chapel Hill, and low-income student of color, commented on the bandaid-like nature of affirmative action, “I believe it should exist and should be in place, along with several other structural changes within university. Like adding more black faculty with tenure. I think it should be there, but it’s not even the bare minimum to help students of color.”

Similarly, Jessica Zhu, a rising Asian American sophomore at Stanford University, which filed an amicus brief in support of Harvard in its legal battle with SFFA, came to an almost identical conclusion.

“It’s necessary but not sufficient. Affirmative action has definitely helped to improve racial underrepresentation, but BIPOC, particularly Black and Indigenous students, are still very underrepresented at Stanford,” stated Zhu.

Necessary but Inadequate: Affirmative Action Today

Stanford, one of the top universities in the country, is located in California, a state that’s had affirmative action and race-considered admissions banned since 1996. This 15-year ban has had a lasting impact on the racial makeup of California’s public universities, which have yet to regain their original levels of diversity.

Affirmative action’s ineffectiveness is evident, but it’s functional focus is clear to Professor Harpalani, “the most important” aim of affirmative action is to level the playing field for underprivileged students.

“I don’t think Harvard’s admissions policy is doing much at all to address economic inequality,” Harpalani remarked, “[although] it probably is attaining some of the educational benefits of diversity, [which] is… why universities are allowed to use race as part of the admissions process.”

As for redressing “other types of challenges [underprivileged students] face,… Harvard, the admissions process, [and] affirmative action [aren’t doing] much to address that,” Harpalani observed, “So I would like to see it do more. And I think it can do a lot more, whether Harvard wants to do that or not… [because] they want to maintain their elite status.”

Chang believes, “we have to consider affirmative action, as not as the end all and be all, [but] a starting point, at best… In order to address the larger inequalities, much, much more needs to be done.”

To him, “[addressing inequality on college campuses] requires a number of other things… it’s curricular, it has to do with support for students… It has to do with faculty hiring… and leadership, [and] it has to do with staff support… Admissions is one of them, and it gets the most attention. And it’s still very, very important.”

If technology grows at an exponential rate, perhaps a Kurtzwel parallel exists for social progress–momentum that builds on itself and accelerates.  Since the pandemic has blown the overton window of what’s possible for progress, perhaps we will soon see systemic overhauls that address the racial makeup of admissions offices and university professors, support for low-income students, and legacy preferences sooner than we expect.

Affirmative action as a policy is merely a bandage, stopping institutions from reckoning with their past, inputting real structural change, and upholding the status quo. We can only hope that during our lifetime, these policies will make race-based affirmative action unnecessary, making it and its frivolous fights merely arcane vestiges of history.

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