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On Thursday, August 13th, the Department of Justice (DOJ) said that Yale University’s undergraduate admissions process “illegally discriminates” against White and Asian students in violation of federal civil rights law.
The Department of Justice found that “race is the determinative factor in hundreds of admissions decisions” and that Yale rejects “scores of Asian American and White applicants each year based on their race, whom it otherwise would admit.” The announcement follows a two-year investigation into Yale undergraduate admissions that began with complaints filed by the Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE). The DOJ threatened to sue the University if it does not modify its policies for the 2020-2021 and all upcoming admissions cycles.
“There is no such thing as a nice form of race discrimination,” said Eric Dreiband, assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division, in the press release. “[D]ividing Americans into racial and ethnic blocs fosters stereotypes, bitterness, and division.”
Dreiband echoes the famous quote from Supreme Court Chief Justice Roberts, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discrimination on the basis of race.” In opposition to her colleague and in defense of affirmative action, Supreme Court Justice Sotomayor wrote, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”
Policies like race conscious affirmative action exist to remedy the “stereotypes, bitterness and division” that Dreiband, and the DOJ under the Trump administration, fail to recognize are the direct result of this country’s history of systemic racial inequity. Systemic racial discrimination cannot be remedied without present, positive, and ongoing anti-racist policies.
By singling out affirmative action policies while willfully ignoring the objectionable nature of other racist policies such as legacy admissions, the DOJ letter manipulates Asian American interests in order to position our community against other communities of color. The letter is part of an ongoing series of efforts by the Trump administration to undermine affirmative action policies in higher education.
“This announcement is pure politics,” says Anurima Bhargava, the former Chief of the Educational Opportunities Section of the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ under the Obama administration, “a signal once again that the Trump administration will take extraordinary steps to protect white privilege and resort to unfounded racial attacks.”
The DOJ is the agency responsible for enforcing federal law in the United States. It is headed by current attorney general, William Barr, who was appointed by President Trump and confirmed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The DOJ under the Trump administration has been widely criticized for becoming a political instrument that protects Trump and his allies.
Given twenty years of judicial precedent and four Supreme Court rulings in favor of affirmative action, it is unlikely that the DOJ letter has the legal basis to force Yale into compliance. In an email to the student body on Thursday evening, Yale President Peter Salovey dismissed the department’s allegations as “baseless” and upheld the University’s holistic admissions process. Salovey indicated that Yale College will not change its admissions processes in response to the letter.
The more pressing fallout from the letter, then, is how we in the Chinese-American community will allow the news to influence our personal conversations and ongoing understandings of affirmative action and other race-conscious policies. From advocating for the integration of Chinese-born students into San Francisco public schools in 1885 to continuing conversations surrounding Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, from last year’s lawsuits against reforming the special admissions process for New York City’s elite high schools to the upcoming vote on ACA-5 in California, Chinese-Americans have been vocal on both sides of the affirmative action argument.
As participants in this society, we must speak openly and candidly about race and take responsibility for confronting inequality. The spirit of the Chinese-American community response will continue to be decisive in debates for racial equity in education and elsewhere throughout our nation.
Keep an eye out for The WeChat Project’s new affirmative action series, starting with an article on ACA-5. In the meantime, revisit our previous article on Systemic Racism.
Dora is a current undergraduate student at Yale University.