We are Southeast Asian American Students, and we Support Race-Conscious Admissions at Harvard and Beyond

Luke Kertcher is an undergraduate student at the University of Pennsylvania. Trinh Truong is an undergraduate student at Yale University. This was originally posted on https://www.pivotnetwork.org, the website of the Progressive Vietnamese American Organization (PIVOT).

Like 20% of our classmates at Yale and Penn, we are Asian American students attending Ivy League schools.

One of us graduated from a public school in the rural Midwest, where only a handful of Asian Americans were enrolled. The other attended a high-needs, urban public school in upstate New York, where more than 47 languages were spoken by a student body comprised mainly of refugees and immigrants. One of us had no standardized test preparation beyond poorly resourced teachers printing past exams. The other is lucky to have been included in a limited-enrollment college preparation program for low-income students that offered test preparation. Both of us are first-generation, Vietnamese American college students receiving substantial amounts of financial aid.

Edward Blum, a conservative activist who has previously attacked the Voting Rights Act and worked to disenfranchise immigrant voters, is now claiming to be on the side of Asian American students like us. Blum’s organization, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), is suing Harvard for discrimination against Asian Americans. The anti-affirmative action plaintiffs argue that consideration of many factors, including race, in college admissions disproportionately hurts Asian American applicants. If admissions were based on academic measures alone, Blum claims, more Asian Americans would be admitted to elite colleges like Harvard, or Yale, or Penn.

Blum and SFFA perpetuate a narrative that claims schools like Harvard engage in racial bias by assigning Asian Americans lower “personal scores” than other applicants. But the personal score is not a “personality” test. More accurately, the personal score is part of a holistic review process that considers students’ personal histories and unique circumstances—aspects of a student that are not effectively captured by standardized tests. These are exactly the aspects of our lives that we sought to emphasize in our applications. The Trump administration and the Department of Justice have also expressed support for ending whole person review, instead supporting the use of metrics like test scores and GPA alone.

However, reducing applicants to purely numeric standards doesn’t help Asian American students like us. Rather, it erases our rich ethnic and racial histories—who we are as people. Expert analyses from both sides of the case show that the elimination of non-quantifiable factors in college admissions would have a devastating effect on Black and Latino students’ enrollment. Economist David Card, who is working on the Harvard case, has shown that relying on academic criteria alone benefits white students most and Asian American students negligibly.

Moreover, standardized test scores and grade points are not free from racial bias. Studies have shown that higher scores correlate with higher socioeconomic status. Data aggregation also obscures the interethnic disparities within the Asian American community, rendering our educational system blind to those facing the most systemic disadvantage.

When Blum and his supporters stereotype all Asian Americans as the same, they dehumanize us and obscure diversity within our Asian American community. While most Asian American applicants are of Chinese and Indian origin, a minority have heritage from Southeast Asian and many other Asian countries. Those from places like Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos are much more likely to identify as limited English proficient, live in poverty, come from households with lower levels of educational attainment, and confront gang violence at higher rates than other Asian Americans.

However, this history is forgotten and erased under the predominant stereotype of the model minority. Janelle Wong, a political scientist studying Asian American civic life, traces the origins of this model to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that instituted meritocratic, “selective recruitment” policies based on occupational skills, education, and family reunification that have become the cornerstones of contemporary immigration law. As a result, all Asian Americans are perceived as test-taking aces due to some innate racial quality, but this is not our story. Our immigration narrative begins not with selective economic migration, but with the Vietnam War, the Secret War in Laos, the rise of the Khmer Rouge, and the subsequent exodus of refugees from mainland Southeast Asia.

Ed Blum and SFFA don’t represent us or our interests. As two Vietnamese American students, we have benefited from holistic admission policies that considered our families’ unique immigration histories and socioeconomic backgrounds instead of just our imperfect test scores. Because of affirmative action and holistic review that considered factors like our racial and ethnic backgrounds, Yale and Penn were able to see us as more than just numbers, but as high achievers with unique experiences and perspectives capable of contributing to our campus communities.

One of us is the son of a refugee who fled South Vietnam on a boat in 1975. The other is a more recent political refugee from South Vietnam resettled in 2001. Both of us are in the United States because of the historical legacy of the Vietnam War and the mass refugee resettlement of more than three million Southeast Asian refugees that occurred in its wake. Many of these individuals–including our families–were resettled without adequate access to education, housing, and healthcare, creating generational poverty, violence, and trauma.

Students with experiences like us will be excluded if holistic admissions and affirmative action policies are eliminated.

In an era where the definition of who belongs in America and who gets access to its institutions is in flux, this case becomes about more than just Harvard University and Asian Americans. An attack on affirmative action is an attack on racial justice, social mobility, and immigrants.

More than 150 Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander Organizations Support Affirmative Action in Higher Education

The National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) and 25 of its national member organizations* stand for equal opportunity and joined an open letter of more than 150 Asian American, Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) groups to support affirmative action in higher education.

This letter is in response to recent anti-affirmative action administrative complaints filed against Brown, Dartmouth, and Yale universities. The letter emphasizes that affirmative action does not constitute quotas, limit students of any ethnic or racial backgrounds, or discriminate against Asian Americans. Rather, affirmative action promotes equal opportunity for all.

“The National Council of Asian Pacific Americans joins 25 of our members, other AANHPI groups and communities of color to support affirmative action in higher education,” said NCAPA National Director Christopher Kang. “Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders benefit from being in diverse communities, and diversity makes our nation stronger. We cannot demand equal opportunity in our boardrooms, in government, and in the media, and then turn around and oppose affirmative action in higher education. Our community will not be used as a wedge against access to higher education.”

The Supreme Court also is expected to rule soon in the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case, which is a constitutional challenge to the University of Texas at Austin’s equal opportunity admissions policy. NCAPA has joined an amicus brief in this case. On the day of the Supreme Court’s oral arguments, NCAPA urged the Supreme Court to uphold the admissions program, and Kang spoke at a National Action Network rally.

Read today’s letter, learn more about affirmative action and show your support here.

*The 25 NCAPA members who signed on are: Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum (APIAHF), Asian American Psychological Association (AAPA), Asian Americans Advancing Justice – AAJC, Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, AFL-CIO (APALA), Asian Pacific Partners for Empowerment, Advocacy and Leadership (APPEAL), Association of Asian Pacific Community Health Organizations (AAPCHO), Center for APA Women (CAPAW), Center for Asian American Media (CAAM), Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement (CNHA), Hmong National Development (HND), Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), Laotian American National Alliance (LANA), Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, Inc. (LEAP), National Asian American Pacific Islander Mental Health Association (NAAPIMHA), National Asian Pacific American Bar Association (NAPABA), National Asian Pacific American Families Against Substance Abuse (NAPAFASA), National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF), National Coalition for Asian Pacific American Community Development (National CAPACD), National Council of Asian Pacific Islander Physicians (NCAPIP), National Federation of Filipino American Associations (NaFFAA), National Korean American Service and Education Consortium (NAKASEC), National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA), OCA – Asian Pacific American Advocates, South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), and Southeast Asia Resource Action Center (SEARAC).

Based in Washington, D.C., the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans is a coalition of 35 national Asian Pacific American organizations that serves to represent the interests of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander (AANHPI) communities and to provide a national voice for our communities’ concerns. Our communities are the fastest growing racial/ethnic group in the United States, currently making up approximately six percent of the population.