The Biden administration has gone to great lengths to demonstrate that it takes discrimination against Asian-Americans seriously. In May 2021, for example, President Biden, in response to the surge in violence against Asian-Americans during the pandemic, signed into law the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act, which seeks to improve the reporting and handling of hate crimes at the local, state, and federal levels. He later signed an executive order reestablishing the White House Initiative on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders, which aims to expand educational, economic, and civic opportunities for people from these backgrounds.
Few would argue that these efforts were made in bad faith—but they are in tension with the administration’s casual dismissal of allegations of discrimination against Asian-American applicants in undergraduate admissions. Observers have noted since the early- to mid-2010s that the use of race as a factor in college and university admissions effectively works against Asian-Americans. The nonprofit Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) shed further light on the issue when it filed suit against Harvard in 2014, arguing that Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policy penalizes Asian-American applicants—in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits private universities receiving federal funds from discriminating on the basis of race, color, or national origin. The Supreme Court will hear this case, along with SFFA’s challenge to the University of North Carolina’s race-conscious admissions policy, in October.
Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono, SFFA’s expert witness throughout this process, has found that in undergraduate admissions at Harvard, Asian-American applicants face a penalty not experienced by applicants from any of the other main ethnic groups (African-American, Hispanic, and white) that make up Harvard’s application pool. Harvard admissions officers, Arcidiacono notes, assign each application three classes of ratings: an overall rating; a profile rating, composed of academic, extracurricular, athletic, and personal factors; and a school support rating, based on counselor and teacher evaluations. Most applicants are also interviewed by alumni and receive an alumni rating. Harvard’s criteria for evaluating things like academics and extracurriculars are straightforward and “generally coincide with what one would expect,” Arcidiacono observes. But its criteria for evaluating the personal rating, “which is meant to capture personal qualities such as likeability, courage, and kindness,” are “vague.” Among the profile ratings, the personal rating is the only one in which Harvard admissions officers take an applicant’s race into consideration.
Asian-American applicants tend to score highly on Harvard’s academic, extracurricular, school support, and alumni ratings. But they score the lowest among the four main ethnic groups, Arcidiacono finds, on the personal rating, while African-American and Hispanic applicants often score the highest. In fact, African-American applicants in the top academic decile are over twice as likely (47 percent) to receive a high score on the personal rating compared with Asian-American applicants in the top academic decile (22 percent).
Harvard’s expert witness, Berkley economist David Card, disputes the model that Arcidiacono used to estimate Harvard’s Asian-American penalty. Card suggests that the data Harvard has shared show no evidence of discrimination against Asian-American applicants. And both the district court and the First Circuit Court of Appeals found Card’s model persuasive and subsequently ruled against SFFA.
Some take this to mean that SFFA’s claims possess little merit. But, as Arcidiacono has pointed out, Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research itself formulated several admissions models in which a substantial Asian-American penalty was found, suggesting that Card’s model is, at the least, worthy of further scrutiny. Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policy may very well penalize Asian-American applicants.
Some progressives have implied that race-conscious admissions policies in higher education (and even in K-12 schools) deserve support because they have led to higher admission rates of African-American and Hispanic applicants. In a tweet published one day after the Court agreed to hear SFFA’s challenge to Harvard’s admissions policy, New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones denied that the policy was discriminatory but argued further that it is not “useful to act as if all racial groups have the same histories and face the same disadvantages.” More bluntly, bestselling author Ibram X. Kendi has declared that “the only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.”
In June 2021, the Court invited the administration to share its views on whether the justices should hear SFFA’s challenge to Harvard’s race-conscious admissions policy. Solicitor General Elizabeth Prelogar filed an amicus brief urging the Court to deny SFFA certiorari, arguing that because the lower courts ruled in favor of Harvard, Arcidiacono’s findings and SFFA’s claims should be rejected. She also argued that Harvard’s consideration of race in its admissions decisions is necessary to advance its interest in diversity, particularly racial and ethnic diversity.
This wasn’t the only instance in which the Biden administration dismissed allegations of discrimination against Asian-American applicants in undergraduate admissions. Just two weeks after taking office, Biden ended an investigation into Yale’s reliance on racial preferences initiated by the Trump administration’s Department of Justice. The DOJ had launched the investigation in 2018, after a coalition of 130 Asian-American organizations filed a complaint alleging that Yale’s consideration of race in its admissions decisions penalizes Asian-American applicants. The DOJ discovered, among other things, that Yale’s admit rates of African-Americans, Hispanics, whites, and Asian-Americans in the same academic decile vary significantly. For instance, in the top academic decile, the admit rate for African-American applicants is 60 percent; for Hispanic applicants, 34.84 percent; for white applicants, 20.18 percent; and for Asian-American applicants, 14.32 percent. The Trump administration filed suit against Yale, contending that its use of race in its admissions policy discriminates against Asian-American and white applicants, in violation of Title VI—a move Biden quickly reversed.
The Biden administration’s efforts to prove that it stands against racism and intolerance facing Asian-Americans are likely to continue, especially as election season approaches. But voters should be skeptical. The dismissal of discrimination allegations against Asian-American applicants in undergraduate admissions suggests that progressive zeal for combatting such prejudice is selective.
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