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.

Harvard University’s Cabot House / Credit: Sam Lipoff, Wikimedia

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.” 

Join the Conversation


  1. I like many of Helen’s statements done for all

    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.”

    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.”

    I like both expressions
    My comment—
    Not admitting students to institutions of higher learning —students who have worked hard for grades and with good all over minus wealth or sports and because of race color is creating injustices to this students and wonder this is right?
    Affirmative actions are good for society but how about limiting this process for one generation and provide extra help to those who never got the opportunity to move up
    Getting special education – more support – more help at school level really becomes more important to provide opportunity to all and without creating injustices to bright students who could not get admitted for ?
    This is important issue – may be the editor should interview students who could not get in the institutions of higher learning and how do they feel

    Thank you for bringing this topic
    More than 30 years back this issue on invisible quotas for Asian Americans were discussed in Washington ( keeping affirmative actions intact) and lots of discussions in legal and now Supreme Court
    Interesting topic
    Hopefully some thing comes out
    Helen Yang is right that the Govt should focus on providing education at school level more to avoid this
    That should be the most important focus out of this dialogue going on since 1990 or even before
    Thank you for bringing this very important topic

  2. really insightful! thanks for putting information out there, I didn’t even know this was happening.

  3. Helen Yang ignores the legacy / sports bias in admissions and oversimplifies the problem. METCO doesn’t make up for the disadvantage of living in the inner city, but it’s a start. She would do better to focus on legacy admissions to increase Asian American chances. A fair system is not one where a parent’s ability to pay for tutoring and extra curricular activities determines admission.

    1. Hi Kathryn – Just saw this, and I completely agree all the points you talked about. I had a lengthy conversation with the reporter and only a few snippets were quoted due to space. Like you, I also believe that legacy should be rid of and boost for sports should be greatly reduced. Both are race-neutral measures to boost diversity. I was in the court when the SFFA attorney proposed it, and Harvard rejected it due to their impact on donations. I also agree that METCO doesn’t solve the problem for the inner city kids. The real solution is to improve K-12 for everyone. I also believe that social-economic based affirmative action is the right way to go and real holistic admission is the right thing to do. The proposal from the SFFA was to cover applicants’ names and look at whatever the school wanted to look at. Harvard rejected that as well. It was in this context that talked about having a fair system. In my mind, a fair system is social economic based affirmative action, with no legacy and much reduced athletic privilege. I further said that the right reason matters; even if the same student get the boost, whether they are rewarded for the hard work and determination to overcome difficulties, or skin color makes a big difference. I am glad that we are on the same page on these fronts. Thank you.

  4. I agree the most with Helen Yang on this issue, but she is incorrect about two critical points. First, she is unmistakably wrong about Harvard’s not intending to harm Asian American students. That was the point. Similar to Harvard and the Ivy League’s treatment of Jews a century ago, they have sought to prevent their universities from being overrun with Asians. The Jewish problem is now the Asian problem. Second, it is Asian Americans against other groups. College admission is a zero-sum game. There are a finite number of slots for admission to any particular school. And elite universities have increased enrollments only very slightly over the last few decades as the number of college-age applicants has increased greatly. And numbers of Asians at elite institutions had remained stagnant or regressed until recently. I’ll extend to her the benefit of the doubt as to why she is unable to see or, more likely, unwilling to bring herself to state the obvious conclusion that blacks and Latinos are benefiting the most while whites and Asians are being punished the most under the current race-conscious admission system prevalent at most universities.

    Jason Breitkopf appears completely ignorant of the facts. All one has to do is check to see the GPAs, SATs of recruited, accepted and admitted students broken down by race at Harvard and other elite universities.

    Caroline Yang completely misses the point. This (race-conscious admission) isn’t one more achievement or accomplishment that a student has attained through time, focus, effort and talent. It is either a credit or a demerit applied to a child by dint of the immutable characteristic of his/her race. Being black or Latino is not an accomplishment, and being white or Asian is not a deficiency.
    Caroline’s second concern, that there will be a decrease in minorities pursuing higher education, is untrue. In fact, it is likely to help minority students who would otherwise be admitted to elite universities at which they do not meet the average admission criteria. College-student mismatch can have very detrimental effects, when students who are incapable of keeping up with the content or pace of university-level classes are admitted to schools at which they do not belong based solely on the educational credentials of other high-achieving students who were not admitted due to racial preferences. This is not to say that the students are incapable of college-level work or succeeding in their chosen major. But students placed in schools in which they are incapable of meeting the higher standards and pace are at greater risk of failure, feelings of lowered self-esteem, dropping out or changing to a less-taxing course of studies. Whereas, if they are admitted to a school in which their numbers fall solidly within the average student’s, they stand a much greater chance of succeeding at their major, higher self-esteem and feelings of accomplishment.

    The Latina student made an unfounded and, quite frankly, bigoted comment stating that Latinos have to work harder than anyone else at school. And then stating that females and Latinos have to fight for their place in the world? She appears to have bought-in fully to the anti-racist, social justice, far-left, activist teaching of the LPS school system.

    As for Salvador Jaramillo, I completely agree that legacy admissions should be done away with. All accepted students should meet the same rigorous standards. But he must realize that it is understandable why fellow students would question his presence when the desire for racial diversity is so great and sought after by admissions committees that SAT scores and GPAs of black and Latino students granted admission are so incongruent with those of whites and Asians (or the white-adjacent). That is one of the harms of the practice of race-biased admissions. I am sure he was aware of this when he was applying.

    Larry Freeman couldn’t be more wrong when he states that black and brown peoples being admitted with far lesser credentials doesn’t take away slots from white and Asian students. That is the core complaint. It is absolutely happening. Again, the numbers are unassailable.

    As for the reporter, she should have interviewed a broader range of people (conservatives, those Asian and white students denied admission despite having glowing high school resumes, those admitted who washed out or were forced to switch programs)
    She also should have included some real-life data—which is plentiful and easily obtainable.

    And yes, as Dr. Patel has stated, this battle has been going on for four decades. The numbers are irrefutable. It is blatant racism. If only the activists within the Asian American community had been so vocal about this issue instead of being good allies in progressive causes, such as this one, that are self-injurious.

    Asians, for the moment, are victims of their own success; while blacks and Latinos are beneficiaries of failure. How much failure one wants to attribute to personal responsibility and cultural choices or to the educational system is a good discussion to have.

    Back in 1999, I read Dinesh D’ Souza’s book Illiberal Education which gave several anecdotes relating to this topic. But anybody can, and should, do a basic search and come up with thousands of results talking about this very issue.

  5. Wow this has so much insight into the systemic problems our educational systems have faced. Impressive research.

  6. It is noteworthy that approximately 20% of the student body at Harvard is Asian, same as it was 20+ years ago, although the number of Asians applying to Harvard has dramatically increased.

  7. It is a great time to be Black or Latino and applying to prestigious schools! By any objective measure this demographic is nowhere near the scholastic level of Asians who are being rejected – not only at the top schools, but also second tier schools. In this case superior candidates are being rejected exclusively, and exhaustively based on their race. That is the purest definition of racism, and we accept it, well, because it is acceptable to be racist towards those we believe to be “permanent foreigners”. The Ivies used to impose quotas on Jews by applying an identical rationale. It seems nothing has changed in a hundred years. I do not begrudge the Black and Latino population. Persons in these demographics should make the most of the racist practices that have delivered their golden lottery ticket. Just don’t claim there is an equal academic standing. In the meantime, I am going to insist that the Patriots start me at quarterback, because they ‘just don’t have enough Indian Americans on the team.’ After all, merit doesn’t seem to matter.

    Separate issue (to Larry Freeman et al): If you want to legitimize the academic capabilities of Black and Hispanic persons, cultivate a culture of learning and hard work at the early elementary levels. Start creating equal opportunities for success in the elementary school years, and stop trying to engineer equal outcomes in the high school years. You won’t get the same political bang, but you will begin the long process of solving the underlying structural problem – without resorting to policies that align with the current racist college admissions practices.

    1. This shows such a lack of historical understanding of offenses done to Blacks in this country I don’t know quite where to begin. Should we now begrudge native people the income from casinos after having forcibly taken their lands as our own? Should we now begrudge a slight advantage given to the grandchildren of those who were kidnapped and forced to do unpaid work for generations, having mightily disadvantaged their ancestors? I would HARDLY refer to this as a “golden ticket”.

      1. “Golden Ticket” refers to a rare situation where certain individuals who do not show the same level of competence as others, using an objective standard, are given extraordinary opportunities to the detriment of those who show higher level of competence. Again, using objective measures. The rest of Ms. MacDonald’s post represents a misunderstanding and mischaracterization of my post, which through a conflation of unrelated idealogical issues serves only to confuse and detract from my central point: Create an early stage environment for equal opportunity; don’t try to engineer late stage equal outcomes.

          1. Nico. When I read Umesh’s post I was both surprised and hurt. I was surprised that I had to read this biased and uninformed post in my local newspaper. I was hurt to see such racism directed towards me, as a black man, so blatantly. I am sure that Umesh doesn’t think he is a racist. You probably don’t think you are a racist. This post was 100% racist! My intent is dialogue. I am hopeful that with true conversations growth, acceptance and understanding begin to happen.

          2. Charles James. Sir, I don’t think our opinions on the matter are dissimilar. But that wasn’t the point. My point is: the person in question has a right to answer if he wants to and you were not necessarily offering him that opportunity by posting his comment and inviting him for a chat on Facebook. I wish you guys get to talk if that’s what you still intend to do. Best.

          3. Thank you Nico, for bringing this to my attention. I am not a member of this Facebook group, and cannot see the post. I am sure Charles did not mean to misrepresent my comment by posting it to a closed Facebook group to which I cannot respond, so I will chalk it up to an error in judgement. I would be delighted to meet with Charles for coffee.

  8. This entire piece belongs on an editorial page – it misses so many nuances related to this issue, pits various groups against each other and seems amateurish. I had high hopes for the Lexington Observer but now realize that it peddles in stereotypes and sowing seeds of divisiveness just as much as other news outlets. Our town deserves better.

  9. Hi Umesh ,
    Are you implying that President Obama , First Lady Michelle Obama , Supreme Court judge Ketanji Brown , Supreme Court judge Sonia Sotomayor do not have the scholastic competence that top and second tier schools are looking for ?
    Can you please explain to me what you mean by “the Black or Latino demographic is no where near the scholastic level of Asians ?

  10. To imply (some have outright stated) that Black & Latino students admitted to elite colleges are not qualified to be there is not only completely false, it’s extremely biased (yes, racists). There simply no evidence to support such nonsense, nor does it make any logical sense.
    College admissions have never been based solely on test scores and academic class rankings – nor is anything else in life. The world is a big and very diverse place and I’m grateful our colleges and universities work to bring a diverse array of students, each with unique lived experiences, talents and character to campus. That makes for a much richer learning environment – academically and socially — and better prepares our young people for the world.
    I get it, the competition to get into a ‘good college’ is incredibly fierce these days and often unpredictable. There’s systemic issues for sure, but let’s not turn on each other — feeling superior ourselves while throwing shade on others. All of the students who are fortunate enough to gain admission to the “good colleges” have worked extremely hard and earned their place — for even the most privileged among them, a fair amount of luck is usually involved too. Let’s not take their accomplishments away from them and discredit their hard work.

  11. The atrocities and injustices historically committed against Blacks are numerous and well known, perhaps, comparable only to those perpetrated against the Native Americans. It is remarkably abhorrent that the United States deliberately and methodically set upon a course to exploit the humanity of the first, and decimate that of the second. But that is not the issue, here.

    The issue before the Supreme Court is whether Harvard and UNC are discriminating against Asians – based solely on race. As I stated in my posts (TWICE!), objective standards of measurement must be used to gauge comparative competence, much in the same way competence in sports is measured. Why? Setting aside that racism is morally wrong, it prevents us, as a society, from reaching our best and full potential as a society.

    If critics of my posts, feel that it was racist to exclude Blacks from professional baseball (until 1947), not because of lack of desire or competence, but solely because of their race, then why isn’t it racist to exclude Asians when it comes to admission to selective schools? Cassandra Hetherington (above) answers better than I: “Asians, for the moment, are victims of their own success; while blacks and Latinos are beneficiaries of failure. How much failure one wants to attribute to personal responsibility and cultural choices or to the educational system is a good discussion to have.”

    Have a good weekend, all.

  12. I agree with Larry Freeman, the resources a public school system can deploy are a function of the district’s affluence and will greatly influence student outcomes. Complex socio-economic forces thus affect individual students. As a result, for example: Students in other less fortunate districts struggled during the Covid lockdown period without access to internet or school provided computers, or quiet places to study, or attend a zoom class (if available).

    Even without the pandemic as a factor, students from less affluent districts may have to overcome far more to get the same GPA/SAT/other credential. These children are not ‘slacking/getting an easy ride due to their race or ethnicity’ but are working harder on day to day achievements which don’t even feature as challenges to the more affluent. Meanwhile, such effort does not show up on a high school transcript. Then they have to be able to write about these life experiences in a way to convince an admissions officer. It can be a tall order.

    Meanwhile students from overseas also look to the US college system with hope. The demographics of any class at any college can be a mix of domestic and international students. The students from abroad may have overcome even more to get to that college. Not being admissions officers, we do not know how a class cohort is created. However, to assume that any one student or group is being given admission routinely, and unfairly, would be to negate their hard work and grit to get there.

    I once asked staff of two prestigious universities, why didn’t they increase their incoming freshman class size? Clearly there is a demand and a world need. I was told (1) we don’t have space to house them (2) there is a certain cachet to the current size, with the teacher-student ratios, resources etc etc. These seem like solvable problems, with one (already available) solution being the increase in free online offerings. But its not enough.

    Lets also not forget that many of our renowned universities are sited in high need neighborhoods, and have extremely low numbers of native americans and indigenous peoples as students.

    And of course, we too, living in Lexington, have privilege.
    (My views: expressed as an individual)

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