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Oct 18, 2017

Al Letson Reveals: The fight to end affirmative action in higher education

Co-produced with PRX Logo

President Trump’s Department of Justice is investigating claims that Harvard is discriminating against Asian American students in its admissions program. Harvard has been accused of capping the number of Asian American students to make room for other ethnicities.

Al talks to Edward Blum about the case. Blum has made a career out of challenging race-based college admissions. And he and his group, Students for Fair Admissions, filed a lawsuit against Harvard three years ago that makes some of the same claims the Justice Department is now investigating.

Credits

Support for Reveal is provided by The Reva and David Logan Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation and Mary and Steven Swig.

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.

 

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. This is Al Letson Reveal's, an occasional podcast where I talk to people making news or behind the news. On Saturday's show we're going to investigate how access to quality public education is being denied to some people.
Today we're looking at colleges and the decades long debate over who should be able to get a college education and how to help applicants of color reach that goal. Many colleges have been using racial preferences as a part of the admissions process since the 1970s. Critics have long said those preferences discriminate against White applicants. Now a new wrinkle, Harvard is accused of discriminating against qualified Asian-American applicants. One allegation is that Harvard puts a cap on Asian-Americans to make sure there's room for students of other ethnicities. The Trump administration has jumped into the fray.
Reveal go ahold of a memo from the Department Of Justice. It calls for hiring attorneys to investigate, quote, "intentional race-based discrimination in college and university admission." The DOJ says it's only looking into a specific complaint, that Harvard is discriminating against Asian-American applicants. Edward Blum has made a career out of challenging race based college admissions. He and his group, Students for Fair Admissions, filed a lawsuit against Harvard three years ago that makes some of the same allegations the Justice Department is now investigating. He joins me now. Mr Blum, thank you for coming on.
Edward Blum: Delighted to be here Al.
Al Letson: Let's talk about your lawsuit against Harvard. Why are you suing Harvard?
Edward Blum: We are suing Harvard, and the University of North Carolina, but Harvard specifically because it is our belief that Harvard's admissions policies discriminate against Asians specifically. Much like Harvard's admissions policies many, many years ago that discriminated against Jews. While the Supreme Court has allowed the use of race and ethnicity in college admissions, the Supreme Court has also forbidden those preferences to veer into the area of quotas and racial balancing. We allege that Harvard is using both, quotas to limit the number of Asians it will accept, and racially balancing the other races and ethnicities in the process.
Al Letson: This is specifically Asians, not Whites, right?
Edward Blum: That's correct. Our allegation is that African-Americans, Hispanics and Whites are the beneficiaries of the quotas and discrimination that Asians suffer in Harvard's admissions policies.
Al Letson: In the past you focus pretty much exclusively on White students who were rejected, but why are you now changing up and looking at Asian-Americans?
Edward Blum: Well, there's only been one case in which I've been involved dealing with affirmative action in higher education. That was the Abigail Fisher case. You recall back in 2008, Abi Fisher sued the University of Texas claiming that her race was something that was considered by the University of Texas and should not have been considered by the University of Texas. I've only had one case. It was heard by the Supreme Court twice. I've only had one plaintiff, Abigail Fisher. So it's not like this is a great shift for those of us who advocate for elimination of race in higher education.
Al Letson: What you're basically fighting for, and correct me if I'm wrong, is fairness. You want an equal playing field. Am I correct in that?
Edward Blum: That's absolutely right. We think eliminating racial considerations in our public lives is a fair outcome for all Americans regardless of their race.
Al Letson: I would say though, if you look at the statistics on where we are racially in America, that there's a huge imbalance. For example, Black American's average hourly wage is $18.49, White American's is $25.22. Retirement savings, Black Americans, 40% of them have retirement savings, White Americans, 65%. Student debt, Black Americans on average have $52,000 in student debt, average White Americans $28,000. I bring those statistics up to say that when you're talking about equity and that race shouldn't be a factor, race is a factor everywhere in America.
Edward Blum: Let me address two or three points. We are a nation of individual. We have individual right, we have individual responsibilities and we produce individual outcomes. There are lots of African-Americans that make $25 an hour, there are lots of Whites and Asians that only make $18 an hour. There are lots of African-Americans, Hispanics, that have significant savings accounts. There are lots of Whites and Asians that have very small savings accounts.
Al Letson: Sure, absolutely. But when you look at it statistically across the board, the way it plays out is that on a whole African-Americans are making less. If you're looking at it from that vantage point, when you're talking about college and when you're talking about admissions, shouldn't that come into play? Shouldn't you be thinking about how do you make this country adjust in equitable place?
Edward Blum: No. You're wrong, and let me tell you why. If American race relations aren't polarized enough, introducing public policies that lower the bar for all individuals of a given race, or raise the bar for all individuals of another race, because of what happened historically, I don't know how many Americans of any race would support that. I think that would make things even worse.
Al Letson: But if you're fighting for equality and equity in America, why not champion programs that do that? You agree with me that because of the history of the United States, African-Americans, Latinos, a lot of other groups are at a disadvantage. And because your group is about equity, why isn't your group specifically looking at helping those groups of people.
Edward Blum: Okay. There are dozens, hundreds of organizations both on the left, libertarian, and those on the right that are doing multiple things to address the gaps between the races in America today. But my group, my group is only about ending race based classifications and preferences. That's the only focus that I'm engaged in.
Al Letson: You talked a little bit about lowering the bar, or maybe raising the bar, but the question is, what's the evidence that the bar was raised for Abigail Fisher? Honestly she was a mediocre student, so what's the evidence that racial preferences in admission is actually hurting Whites?
Edward Blum: Let me go back and correct an error that you just made.
Al Letson: Okay, sure please.
Edward Blum: That is that Abigail Fisher qualifications would not have qualified her to be admitted to the University of Texas. The Supreme Court looked at that twice and never made an issue of it. The only people that have made an issue of it are people who have not read the briefs, have not read the transcripts and have gone on Twitter to assert this.
Al Letson: Hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on, hold on.
Edward Blum: Let me disagree with you.
Al Letson: Mr Blum, hold on, hold on, hold on. Before we go on let's walk through this so we're on the same page. This is what I have. Court record show that she had a GPA of 3.59, she had a SAT score of 1180 out of 1600, and that 168 Black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than her also got rejected. There were more White students who were under her GPA or under her SAT scores who got in than there were people of color who got in.
Edward Blum: Look, I don't know what you're looking at. It may have been an article that appeared in a magazine. I will refer you back to the actual court records. I'm repeating myself now Al, but I'll tell you once again-
Al Letson: Sure, no, to just tell you, the place where I got these stats are from court records, so we're in the same place, but go ahead.
Edward Blum: Well, I don't have those records in front of me. I can address this more fully if I had those records in front of me. I will admit that we lost Fisher, but we lost Fisher on the theory that we brought. It wasn't ... what you're asserting was we lost because Abi wasn't qualified to go there. We didn't lose because Abi wasn't qualified. We didn't lose because Abi's SAT scores weren't high enough.
Al Letson: Mr Blum, respectfully, all I've been hearing though is anecdotes about White students not getting in. That's not proof that there's systematic discrimination against them. Do you have any proof of systematic discrimination? Because that's the key, right?
Edward Blum: No, that's not the key. The key is that legally before any university can consider race and ethnicity in their admissions policy, they must first attempt to achieve that diversity using race neutral means. That is the law of the land.
Al Letson: Let me ask you this, why not fight policies that favor legacy students? According to the Daily Princetonian, all eight Ivy League schools say they consider whether applicants have a parent who's an alumni. Why not take that battle?
Edward Blum: Hey listen, I've been asked that question a million times and I'll answer your question directly. I think legacy preferences are terrible. There are lots of things that need to end. I am working on one of those things, and that is the use of race and ethnicity in higher education.
Al Letson: But doesn't that open you up for criticism that you're racially motivated yourself?
Edward Blum: I don't understand the question.
Al Letson: The question is, if you feel like legacy is a bad thing but you're not fighting that fight, everything that you're fighting on revolves around race, and so my question is, if you're not looking at the other places where the system is unfair doesn't that open you up for criticism that you yourself are racially motivated?
Edward Blum: No. Let me disabuse you of the criticism. If people are criticizing me because I am advocating for policies that eliminate the use of racial classifications and racial preferences in higher education, then that's not a criticism. That is something I embrace. It's something I labor for. It's something I advocate for. It is something I'm involved in.
Al Letson: But there's systemic discrimination that hurts Blacks and Hispanics, and you're not working towards those.
Edward Blum: Yes I am.
Al Letson: How? Explain that to me.
Edward Blum: Look, in the past the bar was raised for African-Americans and to a lesser extent Hispanics, and the bar was lowered for Whites. We cannot fight past discrimination with new discrimination. We can't remedy past discrimination for African-Americans and Hispanics by imposing new discrimination on Asians and Whites. I think most of America agrees with that.
Al Letson: My understanding is basically what you're saying with this suit with Harvard is that you believe that Harvard has basically set up a quota, right? They have X amount of Asian-Americans that they are willing to let in. Is that what you believe?

 

Edward Blum: Yes.

 

Al Letson: So where's the evidence that that quote has to do with Latinos or African-Americans? How do you know the quota isn't set up there to make sure that more White students get into Harvard?

 

Edward Blum: Our lawsuit against Harvard asserts just that, that White students, African-American students and Hispanic students are benefiting from Harvard's quotas limiting the number of Asians. Whites are benefiting from the discrimination that Asians suffer from at Harvard.

 

Al Letson: I've heard some criticism about your movement that basically you moved over to Asians because you couldn't get anywhere in the courts with White students. How do you answer that?

 

Edward Blum: How could that be Al? We just went over the timeline. Abigail Fisher filed her lawsuit in 2008. The first opinion came down in 2013. I filed the Harvard lawsuit with Asians in 2014. Two years later the Supreme Court came down with its second opinion in Abigail Fisher. So that's illogical, it doesn't make any sense, it doesn't [crosstalk 00:13:39]

 

Al Letson: But you had already lost the Supreme court decision ... But you had already lost the Supreme court decision once when you used Harvard.

 

Edward Blum: Hold on. The criticism that I'm looking for Asians because I lost at the Supreme Court is just historically wrong. Anyone who's knowledgeable about this understands the timeline. All that that really is is a vapid accusation that has no historic basis.

 

Al Letson: let me counter that a little bit. You did an interview with Reuters. This is an exact quote from the Reuters story. "Blum said his idea to bring an Asian-American lawsuit against affirmative action emerged about two years ago, after the Supreme Court decided the Fisher case." They quoted you saying, "That was the catalyst," Blum said, adding that he was ready to take things to a higher more dramatic level. So I think the timeline that you lay out, I totally hear you, but when people read what you've said in Reuters, it feels like it goes against that.

 

Edward Blum: Look, I don't know the date of the Reuters story.

 

Al Letson: That's June 2015.

 

Edward Blum: Alright, so I will say this about taking things to a new higher standard. Let me explain that, and then I'm going to give you two more questions and then I'm on with the rest of my day and work.

 

Al Letson: Sure.

 

Edward Blum: In Harvard we made two arguments. The first argument is what we've been discussing, that Harvard is using an improper quota. Our second argument was that the use of race and ethnicity should be struck down as unconstitutional. So yes, the Supreme Court needs to reverse itself. That is, I think, what I meant by taking this to a new higher level.

 

Al Letson: Again, thank you for your time. I know we've taken up a lot of it. I just have two questions. One question that I brought up earlier but I don't think that you've been able to give me an answer to. That is, what evidence do you have that Whites are facing discrimination in college admissions? Not anecdotal but what statistics, what facts do you have that can point to that?

 

Edward Blum: That Whites or Asians are facing discrimination?

 

Al Letson: Well, Whites in Austin, Asians in Harvard.

 

Edward Blum: Okay. Let's take Harvard because that seems to be the focus that everyone is looking at right now. It is well documented that Asians admitted to Harvard, and the rest of the Ivy League, generally score about 140 points higher on their SATs than the average White student. Those Asians score about 300 points higher than the average Hispanic student admitted. They score about 450 points higher than the average African-American admitted. Now, it's pretty hard for a statistician or a social scientist to look at that data and not conclude that Asian are held to a higher standard than Whites, Hispanics and African-Americans.

 

Al Letson: What about Whites in Austin? What's interesting to me about the UT case is that it took you three years to find Abigail Fisher. I'm curious what the systemic discrimination is there if it took you three years to find someone.

 

Edward Blum: It took three years because it is a difficult thing to do to ask someone to put their name on a high profile lawsuit. I talked to dozens of kids who felt they were unfairly denied admission to UT. None of them, none of them, were willing to put their name out. None of them had the courage and tenacity that Abi Fisher did.

 

Al Letson: But Mr Blum all of that is anecdotal, what is the evidence? Saying that you had a lot of students that said they felt like they were discriminated against doesn't mean that there's systemic discrimination going on in the university. You have to have the stats. You have to have proof.

 

Edward Blum: Okay. Let's dial things back to the University of Michigan lawsuits, because the University of Michigan was sued in 2003. I can tell you, they found it in Michigan. So there is lots of ways to prove systemic discrimination against Whites in higher education because the Supreme Court did it a few years prior at Michigan. With that Al, I'm worn out. WNYC was here for an hour and the New York Times is coming tomorrow, so I'm going to say-

 

Al Letson: You're working.

 

Edward Blum: ... goodbye. Yeah

 

Al Letson: Yeah, thank-

 

Edward Blum: Good deal. You bet

 

Al Letson: Hey listen, thank you so much for your time.

 

Edward Blum: You bet, okay.

 

Al Letson: I know that this is a complicated issue. Have a good day.

 

Edward Blum: Yeah, bye.

 

Al Letson: That was my conversation with Edward Blum. Harvard has tried to get the lawsuit against the university dismissed. Earlier this year a federal judge turned them down. Meanwhile, even though Blum lost his Supreme Court case against the University of Texas at Austin, he's suing the college again, this time in Texas court.

 

Neena Satija produced today's show. Kevin Sullivan and Taki Telonidis were our editors. Our lead sound designer and engineer is Jim Briggs. They had help from Catherine [Raymando 00:18:58] and Cath [Chopnik 00:18:59]. Reveal's a production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I'm Al Letson. Remember there is always more to the story.