Department of Ethnic Studies - College of Letters and Science - University of California, Berkeley

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‘It’s Like Reliving My Past’: Harvard Lawsuit Echoes Previous Fight Over Race and Admissions


By Mihir Zaveri

In March 1990, L. Ling-chi Wang got on a plane to Washington, where he felt that his words were being twisted.

Mr. Wang, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, had recently scored a victory when the school acknowledged it disproportionately hurt Asian-American applicants in its admissions, amid a wave of similar allegations of discrimination sweeping more than a dozen other universities.

But in Washington, Mr. Wang lobbied against a resolution introducedby a representative from California, Dana Rohrabacher, that called for the federal government to ramp up investigations into reports of such discrimination.

What troubled Mr. Wang, a strong supporter of affirmative action, was that Mr. Rohrabacher was claiming that universities’ policies helped underrepresented black and Hispanic students get in while, as the congressman put it, squeezing Asian-Americans out.

“We feared that the resolution would pit Asian-Americans against other minorities and gut affirmative action as a tool for correcting past injustices,” Mr. Wang said in an interview.

When the resolution died, Mr. Wang felt vindicated.

The conflict, however, was far from over.

Thirty years later, Asian-Americans once again find themselves at the center of a fervent national debate on affirmative action that could reshape higher education in the country. The spotlight is on Harvard, where a lawsuit asserts that the university illegally limits the number of Asian-Americans admitted, judging them based on stereotypes such as being quiet and studious.

The plaintiffs have stated their belief that racial classifications are “unfair, unnecessary and unconstitutional,” but, during last month’s trial, said their case was more about ending discrimination than erasing students’ races from their applications. The Trump administration is also investigating similar claims against Yale.

Harvard and Yale deny the claims. A number of elite universities filed a brief in support of Harvard, which argues that its ability to consider race in admissions helps it maintain a diverse student body.

If it were to eliminate the consideration of race, Harvard estimates that would cut the number of African-American, Hispanic and other underrepresented minorities by nearly half.