Edward Blum, Harvard and the (Asian) Race Case: Affirmative Action...or Inaction?

Edward Blum, Harvard and the (Asian) Race Case: Affirmative Action...or Inaction?
SFFA Supporters Photo courtesy of Kayana Szymczak from the New York Times

Asian America by Christina Liu, TruthDAO opinion columnist

Edward Blum and his organization, Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), is on a mission to reform college admissions. SFFA accuses Harvard University, in a lawsuit now before the Supreme Court of the U.S., of racial discrimination against Asian American applicants and decries favoritism in the selection process.

Blum hired Duke Professor Peter Arcidiacono to study six years of Harvard admissions data. Among SFFA’s  46 page filing, Arcidiancono claims the university’s “holistic” admissions process concealed racially motivated rejections of Asian-American applicants.

“Harvard scores applicants on a scale of 1 to 6 (with 1 being the best) … Each applicant is given four component ratings and an overall score by the Admissions Office: (1) academic; (2) extracurricular; (3) athletic; (4) personal; and (5) overall.”

Arcidiacono found that Asian American students scored lower than other applicants in the “personal” and “overall” categories. Beyond that, Blum and his expert also point to the special consideration for select groups. Harvard’s student paper, The Crimson, details this group, called the “Dean’s Interest List.” Allowances and special favors are called in for students whose parents can offer a building or ones who can offer athletic glory. It’s hard to deny all of this undermines equality and meritocracy.

If the aim is to address inequality, there are clear options. Removing the special interest lists would open up slots of students who didn’t attend expensive prep schools or have families with open checkbooks. There are plenty of resources to support the economically disadvantaged. However, Blum doesn’t push for any of that. As the SFFA’s website notes, it’s not about the fairness of the process, it’s that “racial classifications and preferences in college admissions are unfair”.

Racial legislation has long been a thorn in Blum’s side. After a failed congressional campaign in the 1990s, he crusaded against continuing application of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, requiring federal approval for Southern states to enact electoral changes. Then came affirmative action. Blum’s first admissions suit targeted the University of Texas. After a three-year search for a marketable face, he found Abigail Fisher, cellist, athlete, academic star and daughter of a long-time friend and rejected applicant. Blum hired a production company to produce a video pushing Fisher as a doe-eyed victim. When that case failed, Blum calculated that Asian-American plaintiffs would be more effective.

Once again, Blum campaigned nationwide for Asian American students to bolster his cause but ultimately doesn’t list any in his complaint. There’s no camera-friendly young face--a stark difference from the Fisher suit. He and SFFA are the plaintiffs. As the name suggests, SFFA is supposed to represent all students and in this case, all Asian-American students. Part of his argument is that “African Americans are not interchangeable with one another. Whites are not interchangeable…not as a representative of his or her racial or ethnic population.” However, most support for SFFA is Chinese-American and according to various sources, well off. Undereducated groups like the Hmong support affirmative action, but you won’t hear about that from the man behind the curtain.

Blum reminds us that “the sole mission, is to end the use of race and ethnicity in college admissions.”

Blum’s expert notes that if Harvard lost its questionable “personality” score, more Asian American students would be admitted. Does this mean he wants to remove race to increase diversity? When asked, he clarifies “I also don’t want people to think that…that only having racial diversity will lead to a fulsome educational experience.” So, diversity isn’t a priority and a win for SFFA may or may not help on that front. The court can say no to a “race box” but Harvard could still give a black applicant a 5 in “personality.” It’s not your race but your accent that makes you unfriendly. It’s not your race but the texture of your hair that makes you unlikeable. And who gets to decide: People churned out by a system built for and by white men. There’s no guarantee anything changes.

Blum admitted he has no idea how a victory would improve equality in education. He touches on special treatment for legacies or donor relations but he appears unmotivated to tackle anything other than race. Last year when asked what’s next, he said, "I don't have anything planned. I'm 70 years old...I'm getting near the end of my tether.” It appears the race factor is his end game. Despite his own claim, he’s already started another organization to tackle race in corporate hiring.

Drenched in SFFA’s sauce of racial injustice are cynical questions about education and success. Even the well-connected want brand-name degrees because of their prestige and their validation. Patrick Strawbridge, attorney for SFFA, argues that “separate but equal has no place in education.” It’s a noble sentiment but the case behind it doesn’t appear to improve education in a tangible way. SFFA claims to represent all individuals against racial discrimination and yet its study lumps all Asian Americans together, be they children of destitute boat people, peasants or millionaire scions. Blum argues there’s no place for race by building a case around race. If someone protests injustice and then takes a sharp turn off the road, what would your reaction be? I know what mine is.