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EP03 Xin Sheng Time | SFFA v. Harvard and Why I am Supporting Affirmative Action

Host and Producer: Yi Ding

Guests: Sabrina Lin

Chinese translator: Jing

Chinese editor: Jiangnan

English translator: JiJi Wong

Translator’s note: This piece was originally written as a Mandarin podcast script, published by our WeChat publishing partner New York Time on 8/5/22. The following is an English translation of the script.

Before the program starts, I want to share a piece of good news Xin Sheng Time has just received a $10K fund from NCAPA (National Council of Asian Pacific Americans) that focuses on combating misinformation. I look forward to leading the team to bring you richer analysis of political issues and combating rumors. Listeners and readers are welcome to provide leads and suggestions.

In the past few months, American public opinion has been torn apart by a shocking series of precedents overturned by the Supreme Court, making everyone wonder, who will be threatened next?

The US Congress, the media, and the general public have focused on same-sex marriage and contraceptive rights because of Justice Thomas' shocking remarks in overturning the Roe v. Wade decision. However, one important case that is uniquely relevant to our Chinese-American community is Students for Fair Admissions Inc. v. President & Fellows of Harvard College, or SFFA v. Harvard.

To clarify here, Affirmative Action’s colloquial Chinese translation of 平权法案 is actually quite misleading. The purpose of Affirmative Action is not to treat different ethnic groups literally and equally. For details, see my work “Sorry, Equal Treatment ≠ Fairness”. This misleading translation causes many Chinese to misunderstand that there are racial quotas in American college admissions. The literal Chinese translation of Affirmative Action and the more accurate name in the academic circle is 肯定性行动, which is abbreviated as AA for the sake of clarity. Many scholars have found that AA is the most discussed political topic among Chinese groups on WeChat. WeChat is called by many mainstream media organizations as a key anti-affirmative action tool for Asian Americans, so understanding SFFA v. Harvard is the best way to frame our reflection of Chinese political participation.

SFFA claims that Harvard's undergraduate admissions discriminates against Asian-American applicants and is appealing to the Supreme Court's mid-2003 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger to overturn the inclusion of race as a factor in admissions. It means denying the importance of equality and the constitutional value of diversity in higher education, which has been repeatedly identified in the Supreme Court cases for more than 40 years. AA is a topic on which Xin Sheng Project often expresses its opinions. For example, Di Hua, a Yale graduate, wrote a 10,000-character essay: "Chinese parents are obsessed with Harvard and Yale, but they don't understand what they really represent." This time, we [Xin Sheng Project] joined more than 120 Asian-American organizations to submit an amicus brief to the Supreme Court to explicitly refute SFFA's data logic loopholes and basic position flaws.

I will use more than one episode to present the complexity of this topic. This episode focuses on individual experiences and invites Sabrina, a second generation Chinese American, to tell her own story. Many people in the WeChat field will scold the second generation as being brainwashed by the white left, and standing on the moral commanding heights with an unrealistic naivete, but in reality? Sabrina graduated from Amherst College and just finished a one-year Fulbright Scholarship in Taiwan. She experienced the trial of the SFFA v. Harvard case in Boston. She specializes in AA research and produced an entire related English podcast "Veritas: Asian Americans & Affirmative Action", and wrote a letter to her family a few years ago (the original was first published on Chinese Americans as "I Talked With My Family About ACA-5", which has since been deleted. This podcast episode is based on the latest adaptation of SFFA v. Harvard, and the author's self-reported version). The following is Sabrina's own account adapted from this sincere letter, where Affirmative Action is translated in Chinese as 平权法案. Referring to the purpose of writing this letter, Sabrina said, “When I started reflecting on our conversation, I did not intend on pouring out an entire manifesto on affirmative action and America’s racial history. What motivated me to write an entire essay that I will never receive a grade for, when I could have just shut up and never talk about politics with family again? Maybe it’s because I grew up my whole life desperately wishing I were white, or wondering why a random white boy jeered Konnichiwa at me in the park, or feeling indescribably sad when my mom told me about all the times people have screamed at her Chinese American colleagues to ‘go back to where you came from.’”

So, will Sabrina, who had low self-esteem about being Asian, support the litigant in the SFFA v. Harvard case against Harvard's consideration of ethnicity for admission?

“I think the immediate question that many Chinese Americans are concerned with is: Does ACA-5/Prop 16 mean that my child will be less likely to get into college or university? Here are some of the more specific concerns that I’ve heard:

  1. ‘The educational obstacles that students may face (i.e. not being able to afford extra tutoring, having to work a part-time job after school instead of studying, etc.) is a class issue. Therefore, considering race is unnecessary.’

  2. ‘Isn’t race-based affirmative action just a band aid solution for educational inequalities that exist way before students apply to college?’

“These are valid concerns! However, they do not quite capture the full extent of the situation. Let’s look at the first concern:

“If we hypothetically compare a poor white student and a poor Asian American student—and for the sake of argument, let’s say everything about their socioeconomic status is exactly the same—we know that both students will face hardships as they grow up. Maybe they both had to work two jobs and take care of a sick relative growing up, and they both couldn’t afford SAT tutoring.

“But the poor white student did not grow up being teased about his mom’s funny accent, and did not grow up getting mistaken for every other white boy in his class. The poor white student never had to bear the burden of becoming the family’s translator and learn how to navigate bills and tax laws in middle school, as is this case for many second generation Asian Americans. That poor white student (God forbid) will be more likely to die of an unintentional injury, unlike Asian Americans, whose leading cause of death among ages 15-24 is suicide. Class cannot explain away anti-Asian hate crimes. No matter how many Teslas I own, PhDs I earn, or houses I buy, if a racist person sees my face, they will scream at me for being a dirty bat-eater from China.

“By the same token, if we replace the Asian American student with a Black American student, that poor white student did not grow up watching people clutch their bags in fear every time they walked past someone. That poor white student, just by virtue of having a white-sounding name, will be more likely to get a job interview. That poor white student will be encouraged by his teachers to take advanced classes, unlike his Black classmates. That poor white student will not be shot by a police officer for playing with a toy gun. There are realities in this country that exist beyond class, and they have real impacts on people’s mental and physical health. The science backs it up.

“The extra consideration of race in the college application process is just an attempt to confront the fact that we still live in the shadow of racism in America. Race inevitably affects everyone's life: white, Asian, black, Latino or Native American, or any combination thereof.”

Hearing this, some people may say that affirmative action is a good starting point, but isn't it difficult to ensure absolute fairness in practice? For example, is it actually detrimental for Asians, taking into account that the advantage of whites is statistical (proportionally, a larger proportion of whites get more resources and privileges than Black people), so shouldn’t we analyze specific issues on an individual basis? This involves a core premise of supporting AA: Harvard and other university admissions must be comprehensively evaluated in combination with ethnicity and other factors.

The admission brought by AA is not only directly beneficial for Asian Americans to be admitted, but the diverse campus formed also has educational value for all ethnic groups. Specifically in the SFFA v. Harvard case, the amicus curiae signed by Xin Sheng Project shows that Harvard's admissions policy that considers race is designed to provide an environment of diversity; this is not limited to only racial diversity, nor limited to Black and/or Latine applicants. Such an admission method may be difficult for us Chinese to understand when we come from an environment where only the yearly Gaokao is used as the sole university admission standard.

But let's take the Harvard class of 2019 as an example. There were a total of 35,000 applicants, of which 2,700 have perfect SAT reading scores, 3,400 have perfect SAT math scores, and more than 8,000 have a GPA of 4.0 or above, yet only 2,000 of them are admitted. Harvard actively recruits minority students, including Asian American, the economically disadvantaged, and first-generation college students through the Harvard Financial Aid Initiative ("HFAI") and the Undergraduate Minority Recruitment Program ("UMRP"). During the interview session, the interviewer’s handbook clearly states that “ratings are not assigned to applicants based on race or ethnicity” and that “considerations of race or ethnicity may be considered only one of many factors.” Additionally, for the entire duration of the admissions decision process — from initial assessment to final decision — there are multiple tiers with checks and balances to ensure all applicants are considered in a fair and non-discriminatory manner. Substantial evidence at the trial showed that the admissions process, including personal ratings criticized by SFFA, did not discriminate against Asian-American applicants.

But is AA the long-term solution? Sabrina offers some dialectically powerful explanations.

“We can all agree that people born into money, white people, and men usually have it easier in life—not necessarily through any fault of their own, but because of the way our society is. Affirmative action recognizes that and is therefore trying to account for these different experiences. We did not start with a level playing field and arbitrarily decide to pick one group to elevate above everyone else. The playing field was not level to begin with.

“Affirmative action is absolutely a band-aid attempt. These inequalities in education show up long before students apply to college, and if anyone truly believes that affirmative action will cure racism, I would be the first person to vehemently disagree with them. Wouldn’t it be better if we could fix racial inequalities from the beginning and judge people purely based on their merits? Of course. Yes! A million times yes. But we cannot solve centuries of racism by suddenly deciding to not see race. We have to recognize that the Black, Asian, Latino, and Native American students who are applying to college right now have had their lives shaped by race. In other words, when we mark our racial identity on our college applications or public employment applications, we are simply providing a fuller, more accurate picture of our lives in which race is one of many, many factors that has had an effect.

“At the same time, of course, we have to do the best we can to remove these inequalities from the very beginning—we can have affirmative action and we can vote to fund schools better. Both are moving towards the same goal.

To me, it is unproductive to point fingers and tear down other racial groups, when what we really should be focusing on is changing the system that made us all lower-class citizens in this country in the first place.”

Indeed, the root cause of unfair admissions at the university level may be the systemic failure of public primary and secondary education (K12) and other more profound racial, economic and other reasons, and many people who support AA, such as Sabrina, also clearly understand that AA is not the final solution in the long run.

“I’m also painfully aware that my life experience may be radically different than yours. I was born and raised in America for 21 years, but many members of our family immigrated to America long before I was alive. And as I wrote in the beginning, many members of our family have surely made great sacrifices for my well-being. While I was at college making new friends and reading about critical race theory for the first time, both of my parents were back in California, going to work everyday to make sure that we could keep affording my tuition. It is a luxury that I didn’t have to worry about any of this and only focus on studying what I liked, and I am only hoping to share the knowledge I have been lucky enough to gain as a result of my family’s hard work.

And finally, to wrap up this long letter, please know that I am more than happy to further discuss anything I’ve written here, or anything marginally relevant to these topics. E-mail me. Text me. Send me back your own dissertation. Talk to me. We’re the only family we’ve got.




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