For those supporting colorblind policies that embody the 1964 Civil Rights Act’s directive against race-based discrimination, the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent decision to keep open the possibility of hearing the Harvard anti-Asian discrimination case is hopeful news.
The Harvard case involves the university’s admissions process that allegedly discriminated against Asian-American applicants for decades. Rather than refusing to hear the case, as Harvard and its supporters hoped, the Supreme Court kept the door open to hearing the case by asking the U.S. Department of Justice to weigh in on the case before making a final hearing decision.
Students for Fair Admissions, the group that brought the case, charged that Harvard violated the Civil Rights Act in four ways.
First, the group contended, Harvard adopted a so-called “holistic” admissions process that used subjective factors, such as personality traits, that resulted in discrimination against Asian Americans.
Second, Harvard engaged in racial balancing so the admissions rate for Asian Americans always stayed around 18-20% for years regardless of the qualifications of individual Asian applicants in any particular year.
Third, it was alleged that Harvard used race, not just as one factor among many as allowed by previous SCOTUS decisions, but as an impermissible dominant factor.
Finally, SFFA contended that Harvard used race as a key factor when race-neutral factors, such as low-income status, could have promoted diversity equally as well.
While the legal issues involved in the case, such as the extent of equal protection rights, are important, those issues should not overshadow the disturbing empirical research at the heart of SFFA’s complaint.
SFFA presented research by Duke University economist Peter Arcidiacono, who put together a two decades-long admissions database on how race affected admissions at Harvard.
First, Arcidiacono found that Asian-American applicants “as a whole are stronger on many objective measures than any other racial/ethnic group including test scores, academic achievement and extracurricular activities.”
Specifically, Asian Americans’ average SAT score was 25 points higher than white applicants; 154 points higher than Hispanic applicants; and 218 points higher than African American applicants. Further, Asian Americans had the highest academic index, which is the combined score for standardized testing and high-school performance.
Yet, observed Arcidiacono: “Despite being more academically qualified than the other three major racial/ethnic groups (whites, African Americans and Hispanics), Asian-American applicants had the lowest admissions rates.”
Harvard’s own data “show that this has been true for every admissions cycle for the classes of 2000 to 2019.”
According to Arcidiacono, Harvard penalized Asian Americans by giving them relatively low personal ratings on traits such as likability, integrity, helpfulness, courage and kindness, which is absurd and insulting. Thus, Asians with high academic ratings received low personal ratings, while other minorities with low academic ratings received high personal ratings, which is a sign of race preferences at work.
Arcidiacono concluded that removing racial and ethnic preferences would have increased Asian-American admissions to Harvard by more than 46% over a six-year period.
The trial judge in the case, an Obama appointee, admitted that Harvard’s admissions process discriminated against Asian Americans, but still ruled against them because, among other things, Asian Americans — in her words –“did not possess the personal qualities that Harvard is looking for.” Shocking.
While the Biden Justice Department will undoubtedly side with Harvard, since the administration dropped a Trump-era challenge to similar anti-Asian discrimination at Yale, the fact that the Supreme Court held open the possibility of hearing the case is hopeful news that the justices are finally interested in ending what Chief Justice John Roberts has called a “sordid business, divvying us up by race.”
Lance Izumi is senior director of the Center for Education at the Pacific Research Institute. Along with Rowena Itchon, he is co-author of “Race Preferences and Discrimination Against Asian Americans in Higher Education” in the new book “A Dubious Expediency.”