Barbershop: The Racial Discrimination Lawsuit Against Harvard University NPR's Michel Martin speaks with Yukong Zhao, Jeannie Park and Jane Mayer about the Department of Justice taking a position in a racial discrimination case against Harvard University.

Barbershop: The Racial Discrimination Lawsuit Against Harvard University

Barbershop: The Racial Discrimination Lawsuit Against Harvard University

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NPR's Michel Martin speaks with Yukong Zhao, Jeannie Park and Jane Mayer about the Department of Justice taking a position in a racial discrimination case against Harvard University.


Now it's time for the Barbershop. That's where we talk to interesting people about what's in the news and what's on their minds. And today, we're going to talk about a lawsuit against Harvard University claiming that Harvard's admissions policies illegally discriminate against Asian applicants.

The lawsuit had been filed some time ago, but, this week, the U.S. Department of Justice filed a statement of interest in federal court in support of the complaint and urging Harvard and other schools to adopt so-called race-blind policies. On the other side, a number of other organizations, including Harvard's Asian American Alumni Alliance and the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, filed briefs or statements supporting Harvard and opposing the lawsuit.

We wanted to talk more about this. Now, this lawsuit has its own unique facts, of course, but it's also part of a much longer political and legal fight about diversity and race going back many years. So, to talk about this, we've called Jane Mayer. She's a staff writer for The New Yorker.

Jane, welcome back. Thanks so much for joining us.

JANE MAYER: Great to be with you.

MARTIN: Jeannie Park is president of the Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance.

Jeannie, welcome to you. Thank you for joining us.

JEANNIE PARK: Thank you for having me here.

MARTIN: And Yukong Zhao is president of the Asian American Coalition for Education. That is a group backing the lawsuit.

Mr. Zhao, welcome to you as well.

YUKONG ZHAO: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: And, Mr. Zhao, I'm going to start with you. Forty thousand people applied to Harvard last year. Roughly 2,000 are admitted. That means 38,000 people are going to be disappointed. Now, the class of 2021 was 22.2 percent Asian, which is far above the percentage of Asians in the U.S. population. So what is your argument - what's your best argument, as briefly as you can, for why you believe that Asians are being discriminated against?

ZHAO: Number one, Harvard University illegally apply racial quota to limit enrollment of Asian-American children. Number two, they put the Asian-American to the highest admission standard. Number three, they use the racial stereotype, intentionally discriminating against Asian-Americans in order to achieve their racial balancing goal.

MARTIN: Jeannie Park, you represent Asian-American students and alumni at Harvard, but you disagree. Why?

PARK: Well, I think what's important to look at here is who's bringing this lawsuit. I understand that Yukong Zhao is involved, but, ultimately, this lawsuit was started by a white anti-civil rights activist named Edward Blum who has been trying to end various civil rights protections in American society for years now, and he's currently been fixated on ending the consideration of race in inclusive admissions practices. He's been suing various colleges. He's sued the University of Texas twice. It went to the Supreme Court twice. He lost twice. And then he went and decided he needed more sympathetic plaintiffs. And so he advertised for Asian-American plaintiffs.

So he didn't start this lawsuit out of a concern for Asian-Americans. He basically went and found Asian-Americans to serve his ultimate goal, which is to end a system that is designed and has proven successful in increasing fairness, increasing opportunity, creating more diversity and a better educational environment that is good for everyone...

MARTIN: So you're...

PARK: ...Including Asian-Americans.

MARTIN: So, Jeannie, you're stealing a little bit of Jane Mayer's thunder here because this is actually a subject that she has deeply reported. If you were sort of wondering why she's part of this conversation, it's because, in fact, she has reported on this. So I'm going to ask her to pick up the thread there. Jane Mayer, tell us a little bit more about this group. And no disrespect to Mr. Zhao and the other people who support, you know, his position, but where did this come from? And how does this fit into other lawsuits that you've seen?

MAYER: Well, so...

ZHAO: I think what Jeannie...

MARTIN: Hold on.

ZHAO: I'm sorry.

MARTIN: I'm going to ask you - I'm going to go to Jane Mayer on this first - Jane and...

MAYER: Hi. So Mr. Blum is a conservative activist who is - has long tried to oppose policies that promote racial diversity in America. And, in order to do so, he's founded a group called Students for Fair Admissions. And what's interesting about it is when NPR last week was looking for the students who were part of it, they couldn't find students who were part of Students for Fair Admissions.

In fact, the organization says it's a membership group, but it's - it has very few actual members from what we're able to tell. Most of the money it gets is dark money. It's undisclosed. But members are supposed to pay $10 apiece when they join. In the 2016 year, it had $300 from its members, meaning there were 30 members. And so where's the rest of its money coming from?

MARTIN: But you can't deny, though, that, obviously, you know, Mr. Zhao does exist, and he obviously does believe that this is - that Asian-Americans have been treated unfairly and that they are subjected to a higher standard than other students of - students of other backgrounds. And so what's the argument there?

PARK: I think...

MARTIN: Jane is going to answer that, and then, Jeannie, I'll come back to you.


MAYER: I think when you look closely at the organization that he represents, which was filled with money that comes from DonorsTrust, a right-wing organization that's basically built to screen who the donors really are, what you see is this is an ideological play not so much on behalf of Asian-American students, of whom we're still having trouble finding any who are harmed by these policies, but actually on behalf of white conservative activists. It doesn't mean it's illegitimate. It just means it's a different creature than it is purporting to be.

MARTIN: So, Jeannie Park, what about Mr. Zhao's argument that Asian-American students, Asian-American applicants are subjected to higher standards than members of other groups? What's your argument to that? Presumably because you're close to Harvard, that you will have looked at this, and what do you say?

PARK: Right. And 25 organizations of Harvard alumni and students this week filed an amicus brief supporting the limited use of race, which is legal, to be considered in a holistic admissions process. And the reason is that we all know the value of diversity. But we also know what Edward Blum has asked for as a remedy in this is for race - for - I'm sorry, admissions to be completely race-blind. He's on the record as saying he doesn't think admissions should even know a student's name.

Now, in a process that is trying to get to know the students as fully as possible, it is ludicrous to try to have a race-blind process. That means that you're not going to have students be able to talk about their family backgrounds, their - maybe their immigration history, leadership positions within community organizations they work for. And, you know, what does that tell students about the importance of their identity and their culture?

And the other disconnect for us is that if there is any discrimination - and, certainly, the admissions office needs to be highly aware of potential implicit bias that might come in, say, from a teacher recommendation or for - from an interviewer - the only way that you can address that is to be aware of race. If you're blind of race, then you have no idea what, you know, is coming in and how to evaluate the different pieces of a student's application. So this is not the remedy.

MARTIN: Mr. Zhao, I still want to ask you what evidence you have that this illegal discrimination is going on other than the fact that a lot of people would like to go to Harvard, and a lot of people are going to be disappointed?

ZHAO: I want to first make a point, OK?


ZHAO: Asian-American already stood up a fight against this racial - race-based college admission ever since 1990. And also, in 2014, February 2014, myself and many member of Asian-American - my organization already joined California's movement, grassroots movement, against (unintelligible). So to just categorize this as only Mr. Edward Blum's legal fight is untrue. Asian-American are fully behind that.

Just last month, end of last month, more than 150 organizations joined my organization. We filed amicus brief in support of Students for Fair Admission against Harvard. So the history's on our side. According to 2016 Gallup poll, 70 percent of Americans support merit-based college admission going back to the - you know, to the evidence. Number one...

MARTIN: But what constitutes merit is the question, isn't it? I mean, what constitutes merit?

ZHAO: Yes.


ZHAO: Can I finish my sentence?

MARTIN: But we only have two minutes left. We're trying to get a lot here, so can you kind of - can you hone it down for me?

ZHAO: Yes. The merit should be - include the academic and a non-academic, including like leadership, volunteer and many other, you know, criteria as long as it is relevant to the educational purpose. So I would support that kind of comprehensive review. But you need to be objective and transparent.

MARTIN: Jeannie, what - Jane Mayer, go ahead.

MAYER: I was just going to say that, according to that same Gallup poll, two thirds of Asian-Americans indicated support for consideration of race in admission.

ZHAO: No true - untrue. Untrue. It's totally baseless. There's no study like this.

MAYER: There...


MAYER: Well, we - let's not get into a (laughter)...

PARK: I've seen that study...

MAYER: ...A yes-no...

PARK: ...As well, yes.

MAYER: But it does exist, and so what you've really got here is a position that's quite extreme being pushed that's not - does not reflect the broad thinking in America. Seventy one percent of Americans, according to a recent Pew poll, embrace the idea of racial diversity in admissions. So it's - this is something that the country has come to accept.

MARTIN: Well, can I - Jeannie, can I ask you this? I mean, this is something that you referred to earlier. I mean, this administration has shown very little interest in demonstrated racial disparities in other realms. I mean, the president and his supporters have vilified black athletes speaking up about police violence. He's spoken about Mexican immigrants in demeaning terms. Why do you think there's this interest in this particular case? And we only have a couple of seconds left, so what is your...

PARK: I think it's clear.

MARTIN: What is your theory on it?

PARK: I mean, the Trump DOJ entering the case is just another sign of what this is about. I mean, the administration already rescinded guidelines that had been put in place from the Obama administration that had encouraged schools...

ZHAO: This is (unintelligible)...

PARK: ...To use race...

MARTIN: Mr. Zhao, please stop interrupting.

ZHAO: ...Asian-Americans...

PARK: ...To create...

MARTIN: Mr....


PARK: ...So...

MARTIN: Mr. Zhao, I'm so sorry. It is very - I'm sorry. I believe everyone should have an opportunity to speak, and no one interrupted you. So could you kindly let Ms. Park finish her thought? We're down to our last couple of seconds.

PARK: So, in other words, it's very clear what this case is about. And Trump's entering it just reinforces that. It is anti-civil rights protections. It's anti-diversity. It's keeping power where power has long been - with the privileged.

MARTIN: That is Jeannie Park. She's president of the Harvard Asian American Alumni Alliance. We were also joined by Jane Mayer, staff writer for The New Yorker, and Yukong Zhao, president of the Asian American Coalition for Education. I'm sorry we have so little time. Thank you all so much for joining us.

ZHAO: Oh, yes. Thank you for having me.

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