In 2015, when 64 Asian American groups filed a complaint with the Department of Justice alleging that Harvard University illegally discriminated against Asian students in admissions, Joe Zhou had little hope it would go anywhere.
He had made the same allegation against Harvard in a lawsuit on behalf of his son, who had been denied admission despite near-perfect ACT and SAT scores, a 4.44 grade-point average, being named class valedictorian, and a resume that included teaching English in China and serving as captain of the varsity tennis team.
So when the Trump administration announced Wednesday that it planned to investigate racial discrimination against Asians in college admissions, Zhou was thrilled.
“Maybe now people will finally pay attention to something we Asian Americans have been talking about for so long,” he said.
His lawsuit is making its way through a Massachusetts federal district court. His son, who is listed an an anonymous plaintiff in the lawsuit and who did not want his name used in this story, currently attends UC Berkeley.
The broader Asian American community is divided on the issue, with several groups criticizing the administration’s announcement.
“Affirmative action benefits everyone, including Asian Americans,” said Nicole Gon Ochi, an attorney for the civil rights group Asian Americans Advancing Justice, which has filed arguments in the Zhou case backing Harvard’s admission policies. “It especially helps traditionally disadvantaged Asian American students, like Southeast Asian university students and low-income Asian students.”
The group helped sponsor a 2016 poll that found that 64% of Asian American voters supported “affirmative action programs designed to help blacks, women, and other minorities get better access to higher education.”
About 25% of Asians surveyed opposed affirmative action. Among those of Indian, Chinese, Philippine, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese descent who responded, support was lowest among Chinese, at 41%.
Zhou, who is Chinese American, said he’s frequently heard complaints about admissions procedures from friends and families in his community.
“This will not help my son, who will graduate soon, but it could help Asian Americans for the next 200 years,” said Zhou, who is a board member of Students for Fair Admissions, a conservative group that recruits plaintiffs for lawsuits against affirmative action at universities.
It supported a white student’s case against the University of Texas at Austin that was decided last year by the Supreme Court, which said race could be considered in admissions.
In its Wednesday announcement, the Trump administration did not mention Harvard specifically but said the Justice Department would investigate a complaint lodged by 64 Asian groups about discrimination at a university.
The complaint also argues that Harvard’s use of “holistic” admissions — which take into account a wide range of factors beyond academic performance — is really a way “to disguise the fact that it holds Asian Americans to a far higher standard than other students and essentially forces them to compete against each other for admission.”
Many of the groups that filed the Harvard complaint are small, suburban cultural or educational associations, such as the Great Neck Chinese Assn. on New York’s Long Island or the 1441 Manufactured-Home Residents Assn., which represents residents of a mobile home community in Rowland Heights, Calif.
Affirmative action opponents often cite a 2009 study that found Asian Americans had to score 140 points higher on SAT exams in order to be on equal footing with whites in private university admissions — a difference they sometimes call the “Asian tax.”
Sarah Isgur Flores, a spokeswoman for the Justice Department, said it “is committed to protecting all Americans from all forms of illegal race-based discrimination.”
At Harvard, which has argued in a Supreme Court brief that not considering race would hurt its “excellence” as a school, the incoming class of freshmen is 22.2% Asian American, 14.6% African American, 11.6% Latino, 2.5% Native American or Pacific Islander, and 49.1% white.
By comparison, the U.S. population is 5.7% Asian American, 13.3% African American, 17.8% Latino, 1.3% Native American or Alaska Native, 0.02% Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, and 61.3% white, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Shien Biau Woo, a former lieutenant governor of Delaware, said perceptions of admission disparities spurred the get-out-the-Asian vote group he founded, called the 80-20 Initiative, to sign on to the Department of Justice complaint.
“We didn’t get anywhere on this for a while because we were in a Democratic administration, and politicians serve their party’s interest,” said Woo, a political independent and former Democrat.
But groups on the other side of the issue say enrollment statistics alone don’t tell the full story.
“Most opponents of affirmative action from Asian American communities believe Asians who have higher test scores are missing out on the opportunity to go to elite schools,” Ochi said. “But the test score phenomenon exists regardless of whether the university considers race in its admission. So there is something else happening.”
Kim Forde-Mazrui, a University of Virginia law professor who specializes in race, said that the focus on university admissions is misguided — and that the Trump administration is taking up the complaint by Asians largely because their interests align with those of many whites.
“This is primarily about conservative leaders protecting the privilege of access to society’s resources and opportunities for certain white constituents,” he said. “Such leaders’ purported concern for discrimination against Asian Americans is politically opportunistic.
“I don’t see many of them concerned about discrimination against Asian Americans in other contexts,” he added, “such as the ‘bamboo ceiling’ in corporate America, where such discrimination does not harm white interests.”