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 claimingthat 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.
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.