High school for Salvador Jaramillo was marked by uncertainty — there were moments when he didn’t know if he would have internet access to complete his homework, or even where his next meal would come from. While he fretted about everyday necessities for himself and his family, many of his more privileged peers at Lexington High School could simply focus on their academics.
“Where a student starts from and where they end up” is necessary context for understanding the whole person, Jaramillo says. The son of immigrants — his father is from Mexico and his mother from Korea — Jaramillo graduated from LHS and went on to Harvard University. Now in his second year at Harvard, he says he appreciates the value of diverse perspectives in the classroom from various ethnic, cultural, and socioeconomic backgrounds.
But this kind of diversity within the student body is potentially at risk. A Supreme Court decision expected next month could bring an end to race-conscious college admission practices like those Harvard and other elite colleges have utilized for years.
The court heard two cases in October of last year that challenge the practice of affirmative action in higher education. Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard University alleges that the school’s race-conscious admissions process discriminates against Asian Americans who, as a group, had higher grades and standardized test scores — but lower scores on the more subjective “personal ratings.” The same organization, founded by anti-affirmative action strategist Edward Blum, also sued the University of North Carolina over the school’s consideration of race and ethnicity in admissions decisions.
The cases have families in Lexington — known for its exceptional schools and diverse ethnic communities — pondering the prospect of a very different process for applying to elite colleges.
A student’s race can be “a heavy thumb” on admission decisions, said Helen Yang, a first-generation immigrant and current president of the Lexington Chinese-American organization, CALex. Yang emphasized that she speaks for herself and not the organization. The issue is so polarizing that many Lexington community members we reached out to were hesitant to discuss their opinions.
Yang believes the original intention of affirmative action was noble — meant to promote equality and solve disparities between racial groups. But the “unintended consequence is that there is another group that has been seriously hurt by this.”
“I don’t think [Harvard] intentionally wanted to harm Asian Americans. I just think we are the lowest priority when they have to juggle different factors,” Yang said. “We become the convenient sacrifice.”
Jason Breitkopf, a counselor at Livius Prep, a tutoring center in Lexington, argues that every student that gets into Harvard — regardless of race, background, or identity — is qualified. The first thing they look at “is some number for the SAT, ACT, GPA, number of AP classes. The second step is where they consider everything else about you.” Everyone who is accepted has to pass that first round, Breitkopf explained. Race is “only one axis, and it’s so that they have a population that represents the United States in a way that everyone has their voice at Harvard.”
Caroline Yang, president of the Korean-American Organization of Lexington, KOLex, also a first-generation immigrant, says the application process in the US was very foreign to her at first, but she has come to appreciate it.
“In Korea, you take a huge exam. It’s the exam,” Yang explained with her pointer finger up, emphasizing the importance of the single test. “If you do well, you go to the top school, and if you don’t do well, you don’t. In America, it’s not just one exam, it’s extracurriculars, essays and recommendations. I think it’s a fair way to evaluate a human being, rather than just one exam.”
“When I think about how many students from affluent towns get tutoring, SAT Prep, cello lessons — they have all this extra help and support, of course they do well,” she said. “Other students can bring something else, students that are not as lucky.” While she feels that affirmative action “is not a perfect system,” she is concerned about the decrease in minorities in higher education if it were to be overturned. (Caroline Yang also made it clear that she speaks only for herself and not her organization).
Larry Freeman, Lexington’s first Black male School Committee member, holds a similar perspective. “Right now, where you live, which zip code, dictates the level and quality of education you can receive in a public system,” Freeman said. “Education is one of the greatest equalizers in the United States and getting rid of affirmative action is a tremendous blow to Black and brown people.”
Helen Yang agrees that the root of education inequity resides in K-12 education, but says it would be better to try to solve the problem before students reach college. She believes programs like METCO are “the right way to do it. You address the root problem instead of giving people artificial fixes.”
METCO, one of the oldest and largest school desegregation programs in the country, has bused students from Boston to Lexington since it began in 1966. Students from the METCO-run African American Latinx Scholars program at Lexington High School discussed the complexities of the issue at hand.
As a Latinx, “you have to work twice as hard. Even harder than everyone in school,” said 10th grader Clare Goohs. “We have to fight for our place in this world because of our race but also our gender.”
“It’s something that not only builds the student’s application, but their life,” said Ailani Stephen, a METCO senior, who is headed to Franklin Pierce University in the fall to study pre-med.
She’s not sure that a university’s desire for a diverse student body should determine who is admitted. At the same time, “I don’t think that you shouldn’t include your experience as whatever race you are as a part of your life,” Stephen said, “so I think there’s a very fine line.”
At Harvard, Salvador Jaramillo has found that while some people there have welcomed him, others seem to feel that students like him might have gotten into the elite university solely because of their skin color.
“There are a lot of students who are selected based on their athletic ability, and another good portion of them who are selected based on where their parents went to school,” he said. “If Harvard is even going to touch affirmative action, they first have to get rid of the legacy system, which is no indication of the ability of students.”
Jonathan Feingold, a law professor at Boston University, agrees that admission processes are biased in ways that are unconnected to affirmative action, including “personal” ratings and legacy admissions, which tend to favor wealthier, white students.
The Harvard case, in Feingold’s view, does “arguably show that Asian Americans face what I think could fairly be described as some sort of racial headwind or racial barrier or burden in Harvard’s admissions process.” Feingold said. “Whether or not that racial harm is unlawful under existing law is a different question.” He emphasized the importance of understanding the difference between the “legal dimension and the narrative dimension” of the case.
“What I think is interesting is that, even with the plaintiffs telling us that white students are benefiting from this anti-Asian bias, the public narrative has been essentially an assumption that affirmative action is pitting Asian American students against other students of color,” Fiengold said.
Helen Yang rejects this narrative as well. “Many people frame it as Asian Americans against African Americans, which is absolutely not the case. In fact it’s not even Asian Americans against White Americans, or Hispanic Americans. We are just looking for a fair system. A fair system that is fair to all of us — all of us are entitled to constitutional rights.”
In the 1978 landmark case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the court found that the use of a racial quota system violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, but found the use of race as a consideration in a more holistic admissions process to be constitutional. In the 2003 case Grutter v. Bollinger, the court upheld the ruling in the Bakke case. If the court rules against affirmative action next month, it would overturn more than 40 years of precedent.
“People believe that Black people, brown people, get some kind of award or a step up that takes away from our white and Asian counterparts when it does not,” said Freeman. “All it does is add a step there, so that everyone is applying on the same level. But it’s not taking anything away from anyone. It’s really correcting the systemic wrongs that have been in place in the United States from the time of slavery.”
While Freeman does not think affirmative action has achieved its goal of providing equal educational opportunities, he does believe “affirmative action is a great step towards that goal. It’s one of the few steps that have been systematically put in place to at least start our path towards equity.”