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What's Driving Some Asian-Americans To Challenge Affirmative Action?

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

What's driving some Asian-Americans to challenge affirmative action? A lawsuit is underway this week against Harvard University. It is led by a conservative activist who has in the past charged that college efforts to balance their admissions discriminate against white students. Yet the Harvard suit alleges the university is unfair to Asian applicants and should be admitting even more than it does. Some Asian-American groups support this move. Hua Hsu of The New Yorker has been talking with some of them. He's on the line. Good morning.

HUA HSU: Good morning.

INSKEEP: How widespread is Asian-American skepticism about anything that is seen as affirmative action in schools?

HSU: You know, the data shows that Asian-Americans still largely support affirmative action, but the groups I talked to represent a growing and very vocal faction and powered by social media, powered by their own diligence as organizers. They've had quite an effect, at least in affecting the popular machination of this.

INSKEEP: Well, what is the case that they make against affirmative action?

HSU: Well, they're very much into a kind of numbers-based approach to admissions, an approach to admissions that isn't actually often exercised in reality. But they view this quote-unquote "penalty" toward Asian students in categories like the personal ranking, a very subjective ranking that Harvard offers, as disadvantageous to Asian-Americans.

INSKEEP: You say numbers-based. Do you mean to say Asian-Americans, a lot of them do really well on tests, and so they think that testing should be the be-all and end-all?

HSU: Yeah. And some of the folks I talked to traced a sort of cultural explanation of this because a lot of them are kind of newer immigrants from mainland China, where testing is very much a make-or-break way of social mobility. They do believe that the test scores that Asian-Americans get should count for more than some of the soft features like leadership or personal rankings.

INSKEEP: Is this debate any different if we move away from an elite university like Harvard to a less elite university, or a workplace or housing, anything else?

HSU: You know, it's an interesting question. I think it is unfortunate in a way that the debate around affirmative action has whittled down to this question of Harvard 'cause Harvard is an unusual institution, as you're suggesting. When we look at workplace job hiring, contracting, a lot of people, Asian-Americans included, are very supportive of affirmative action. So this really provides a skewed window into the issue as a whole.

INSKEEP: OK. So there's a relatively narrow group of people with a relatively narrow objection, at least right now because they're challenging Harvard. Although this could affect affirmative action or what is seen as affirmative action across the country. I do want to ask one question about these activists, though. It is easy from the outside to get or give the impression that some Asian groups here are being used because they're teaming up with a conservative activist who is against affirmative action for other reasons, for his own reasons. Do the Asian-American opponents of affirmative action feel like they're being used?

HSU: The folks I talked to would really bristle at such an accusation. They're very conscious of what they're doing. A lot of them were involved in these fights far before linking up with Edward Blum. So, you know, they have a lot of autonomy there. They're really doing what they wanted to do all along. To be able to partner with someone like Edward Blum is sort of serendipitous for both sides.

INSKEEP: Very briefly, what does Edward Blum, the activist, give them that they wouldn't otherwise have?

HSU: You know, I think he really has a long-term vision. He's been working - he was part of the Abigail Fisher case, University of Texas. While that case was still going on, he was already plotting his next move. So I think he just has a level of strategy that they didn't quite have themselves.

INSKEEP: Hua Hsu is a staff writer at The New Yorker. Thanks very much for the time.

HSU: Thanks. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.