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By now, we know that we all learn better, and even think better, in diverse educational environments. That’s why it’s deeply disturbing that law professor Richard H. Sander filed suit two weeks ago to compel the University of California to provide access to its admissions documents, in the process accusing the system of violating state law banning the consideration of race and ethnicity in admission. Recent challenges to race-conscious affirmative action like this one are at best mistaken and at worst malicious.

Here’s how they are mistaken.

Sander supports the lawsuit against Harvard University, brought by Students for Fair Admissions, alleging that discriminatory negative action -- where race counts against an applicant -- is being used against Asian American applicants and that race-conscious affirmative action is to blame. It goes without saying that highly selective colleges should not discriminate against Asian American applicants. But what Students for Fair Admissions -- and now Sander -- are missing is that Asian American students who feel wronged by admissions processes should not scapegoat race-conscious affirmative action for any negative action that may be part of selective college admissions processes. There are widespread misconceptions about affirmative action and its relationship to merit and discrimination.

The statistics often cited to “prove” that Asian Americans are discriminated against in highly selective college admissions mischaracterize research. The complaint against Harvard cites research from 2009, finding Asian American applicants accepted at selective colleges had higher standardized test scores than other accepted students. However, the “holistic” admissions processes the U.S. Supreme Court endorsed in its 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision acknowledged that test scores are not the only, nor the primary, criterion for admission. “Holistic” review takes many relevant factors into account -- not only academic achievement but also factors like public service, overcoming difficult life circumstances, achievements in the arts or athletics, and leadership qualities. Here, Asian Americans are being exploited as a “model minority” whose high test scores are used to uphold a narrow definition of “merit.”

And here’s how the recent challenges to affirmative action may be malicious.

Affirmative action is not the reason some academically accomplished Asian American applicants are rejected from highly selective universities like Harvard or the University of California, Los Angeles. Although Students for Fair Admissions claims to champion wronged Asian American applicants, in actuality, they recruited Asian American plaintiffs to foster resentment among different groups of people of color. Blaming affirmative action plays into a divisive politics that serves to deflect from Students for Fair Admissions’ or Sander’s primary aim of dismantling affirmative action so as to protect elite college and university spots for students who are already advantaged.

The bottom line is that critics like Sander and Students for Fair Admissions are using racial politics to pit racial groups against each other. Their attention to possible negative action against Asian American applicants wrongly targets affirmative action, overshadowing the real issue of inequality of access and opportunity in higher education: historical preferences that selective colleges and universities have displayed for legacy applicants, affluent applicants and urban/suburban white applicants. Those are the groups whose advantages have compounded over the years in K-12 schools, college entrance examinations, leadership and community service opportunities, and special “talents.” Institutions of higher education can then incorrectly point to those students’ “merit” to justify racial and ethnic disparities in admission and retention -- and to challenge the fairness of affirmative action policies.

Yet affirmative action is one modest policy that promotes equality of opportunity. Because selective institutions of higher education have a social mission to educate professionals, artists and leaders in a multicultural society, students need to be educated in diverse, integrated contexts. Research on the educational benefits of diversity provides strong evidence that we generate ideas and knowledge, solve problems, and think critically much better when we learn in environments rich in diversity. Research also shows that without race-conscious affirmative action, selective colleges and universities are much more segregated. Race-conscious affirmative action is crucial for higher education to be able to fulfill its social mission in an increasingly divided nation.

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