OPINION: Affirmative action is worthwhile, but must be done with caution

Shideh Ghandeharizadeh | Daily Trojan

In 2014, the anti-affirmative action organization Students for Fair Admissions filed complaints against Harvard University for discriminating against Asian Americans on the basis of race.

The federal lawsuit, which went to trial on Oct. 15, alleges that Harvard uses unfair admissions tactics, specifically targeting Asian Americans to create a more diverse student body.

As Harvard attempts to diversify its student population with each matriculating class, it makes special efforts to recruit students from 20 states it classifies as “Sparse Country.”

In these states, all students who have PSAT scores of 1310 or above are sent letters encouraging them to apply to Harvard. To recieve this letter, Asian American students must score 1380 or better. It was also revealed that admissions officers give Asian American candidates low “personal” ratings compared to their white peers, based on their perception of the applicants’ personality, even when alumni interviewers scored them similarly.

Something has to be done to remedy these injustices.

Harvard’s admission process is clearly flawed; however, an attempt to remove affirmative action completely will do more harm than good. Race should be considered among the wide range of factors in admission because it is an important part of prospective students’ identity and the campus experience, but schools must be careful not to over — or under — emphasize it.

It is clear that Harvard’s admission process is problematic. The disparities the university’s process produces unfair burdens among Asian American applicants and denigrates their accomplishments. But it also points to a wider issue — that of affirmative action and the way its well-intentioned goals can be manipulated by institutions.

A study conducted by a Princeton sociologist in 2009 showed that white applicants are three times more likely than Asian American applicants who have the same qualifications to be admitted to selective institutions.

This train of thought categorizes Asian Americans into a stereotyped monolith and perpetuates the existence of the “Asian tax,” the extra 140 points Asian Americans have to get on the SAT to have the same chance of admission as white students. Large social and economic disparities exist within the Asian American demographic itself that disadvantages poorer and less educated groups.

Affirmative action aims to level the playing field for all marginalized groups who have faced disadvantages due to socioeconomic and political inequalities. There is no doubt that institutions need to comply with this standard to ensure fairness and promote a rich learning environment.

However, the actual implementation of affirmative action is tricky. In this case, there is a paradox in the way race is perceived by Harvard’s admissions officers. The “positive” stereotyping of Asian Americans as smarter or more hard-working traps them in a losing battle. They have to play into the rigged game — reach a near unattainable level of excellence rooted in stereotypes or suffer in the admissions process because of it. According to the American Psychological Association, Asian American teenagers face higher rates of stress and suicidal thoughts due to academic pressures.

Grouping Asian Americans with white applicants, as the SFFA is doing, to negate the benefits of affirmative action is fallacious and wrong. White applicants have always been in historically advantageous positions, having not suffered from discrimination.

The fact that Harvard fails in its current admissions process does not mean affirmative action is meritless. Harvard’s policy has failed Asian Americans because race was considered the most significant component of applications rather than one part of the bigger picture.

Harvard’s admissions process ultimately uses a type of affirmative action that does not accomplish equality at all. It heightens institutional disadvantages Asian Americans face by holding them up to a standard not put in place for white applicants and other minorities. Instead of aiming to diversify the student body peacefully, it creates wedges between different communities of color by pitting them against each other in the college application process.

Affirmative action, as ruled in Fisher v. University of Texas Austin in 2016, upholds the idea that race can be taken into consideration, but it cannot be a deciding factor in applications. Society has not yet reached (and may never reach) a point where race-blind admissions processes are implemented, as shown by the unequal standards to which Asian Americans students are held. Universities should keep affirmative action policies in place and use race as a factor in the admissions process. This allows them to correct institutional inequalities that disproportionately discriminate against Asian Americans and other minorities, regardless of the decision in the Harvard case.