On July 3, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions revoked guidance documents involving affirmative action, the policies widely applied across the country to promote racial diversity.
Under the new policies, universities should not consider race or ethnicity as a factor when deciding whether to accept or reject applicants.
Affirmative action began in the 1960s as part of the civil rights movement, when the government wanted to encourage more minorities to participate in higher education and other parts of society where they were underrepresented.
But the policies have not gone without controversy. In recent years, Asian-Americans have pushed back against affirmative action, which is widely viewed as discriminating against their demographic in favor of blacks and Hispanics.
Harvard University is currently embroiled in a 2015 lawsuit in which 64 Asian-American groups say that the school’s admissions process throws out applicants of Asian ethnic backgrounds due to their race and not because of their academic qualifications. The Trump Administration is currently investigating the case.
In one 2014 case filed in Massachusetts, the plaintiffs alleged as part of their complaint that admissions staff at Harvard and Hunter College High School had failed to admit some Asian-American applicants because they looked too similar.
Currently, Asian-Americans make up about 5 percent of the U.S. population and are overrepresented in higher education. In 2013, about 18 percent of admissions to Harvard were ethnically Asian. But when compared with Caltech, which does not apply racial quotas in its admissions, Asians made up 43 percent of accepted applicants. Similar caps on Asian admissions are found across other elite American universities.
According to one study, said the Harvard Review, “in order to be admitted to certain selective institutions, Asian applicants needed to score — on the 1600 point scale of the ‘old SAT’ — 140 points higher than whites, 270 points higher than Hispanics, and 450 points higher than African Americans if other factors are held equal.”
In the summer of 2017, it was reported that Jeff Sessions had made internal statements expressing his intention to prohibit “intentional race-based discrimination.”
As late as 2016, during the Obama administration, the Supreme Court had consistently upheld affirmative action in a Texas case, and there is still much support for it among the legal and academic community.
“Affirmative action is rooted in our nation’s fundamental commitment to equality, a commitment this administration woefully lacks and has expressed hostility toward,” said Sherrilyn Ifill, president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.
In a statement made by Harvard concerning the Trump Administration’s move, the school said it would “continue to vigorously defend its right, and that of all colleges and universities, to consider race as one factor among many in college admissions, which has been upheld by the Supreme Court for more than 40 years.”
To Chinese-Americans especially, who make up the largest single ethnic group of Asians in the United States, the claimed goals of affirmative action may echo the traumatic policies many experienced during the Cultural Revolution and other Chinese communist political campaigns.
As the author of an editorial published by The Hill said: “One Chinese-American activist recently described to me with some passion how she and members of her generation had grown up in Maoist China with the ‘Five Black Categories’ and the ‘Five Red Categories.’”
“We were treated a certain way, not because of anything we did, but because of government categories we were born into,” the activists told the author. “Now we have come to America and are presented with government categories again.”