The DOJ is suing Yale, accusing it of discriminating against Asian American and white applicants. Their claims are ‘leveraging the model minority myth’ to pit racial groups against each other, scholars say.

Yale university in New Haven, CT. Associated Press/Beth J. Harpaz
  • On Thursday, the Justice Department sued Yale University, accusing it of race-based discrimination on “most Asian and White applicants” after alleging in August that Yale discriminated against Asian American and white applicants based on a two-year federal investigation.

  • Scholars of the Asian American and Pacific Islanders community are criticizing the DOJ’s accusation, saying it’s part of a larger attempt to pit racial minorities against each other.

  • The DOJ is “leveraging the model minority myth to undermine the opportunity to build a multiracial coalition in this country to dismantle racism,” a former board member of the Korean American Association told Insider in August.

  • Meanwhile, students and faculty have criticized legacy status as a factor of admissions that favors white applicants.

  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

The Department of Justice sued Yale University on Thursday, accusing it of discriminating against Asian and white applicants.

The lawsuit comes months after the DOJ in August accused Yale of imposing undue and unlawful penalties on racially-disfavored applicants, including Asian American and white applicants in particular. Their notice followed a two-year investigation following complaints about admissions at Ivy League colleges. Yale President Peter Salovey denounced the allegation at the time as “baseless.”

In a statement issued Thursday, Salovey doubled down on the university’s belief that the DOJ’s “allegation is based on inaccurate statistics and unfounded conclusions.”

“I want to be clear: Yale does not discriminate against applicants of any race or ethnicity. Our admissions practices are completely fair and lawful,” he said. “Yale’s admissions policies will not change as a result of the filing of this baseless lawsuit. We look forward to defending these policies in court.”

Connecticut Attorney General William Tong also criticized the DOJ’s allegations and said: “this lawsuit is as baseless as it is offensive, and every aspect of it demonstrates complete and utter overreach. My office is exploring all legal avenues to support Yale University and its students. The Department of Justice action deviates starkly from decades of well-established legal precedent and threatens to disrupt admissions practices at hundreds of universities nationwide.”

The DOJ’s claim is messaging stoking ‘white resentment,’ scholars say

Scholars of the Asian American and Pacific Islanders community criticized the Justice Department’s accusation in August that Yale discriminates against Asian American and white applicants, pointing out the move just pits racial minorities against each other while ignoring the larger problem of legacy admissions.

“It’s leveraging the model minority myth to undermine the opportunity to build a multiracial coalition in this country to dismantle racism,” Dona Kim Murphey, a former board member of the Korean American Association, told Insider in August.

According to Michael Li, senior counsel at The Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan public policy center that focuses on equal representation in government, the DOJ’s accusation is ultimately “messaging for white people.”

“It’s like ‘Hey if you’re stuck at a job or not moving up the economic ladder, your income hasn’t increased for decades — you can blame people of color and elites for keeping you out of schools like Yale,'” Li told Insider in August. “That’s just political messaging for November.”

Li added that this messaging was in line with the Trump campaign stoking “white resentment for people taking jobs and spots in schools.” He said that, in addition to targeting white working-class resentment, the campaign seeks to promote white suburbanite resentment by talking about “what schools children of white suburbanites get to go to.”

“The message that this sends to the AAPI community is that the DOJ is very interested in dismantling policies that create diversity and increase access to those who have been excluded to places like Yale,” Janelle Wong, a professor of American Studies and Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland, told Insider in August. Wong received her doctorate at Yale.

harvard campus
Last year, a federal judge rejected Students for Fair Admissions’ lawsuit that claimed Harvard discriminated against Asian-Americans. Brooks Kraft/Corbis via Getty Images

Many selective private colleges use a holistic admissions process that accounts for each applicant’s background, including their race. They also take into consideration a number of other factors, like legacy status.

At Yale, only 5.8% of the entire student population identifies as Black. Fewer than 10% are Hispanic, and under 15% are Asian. Nearly 43% of the student body is white.

The Justice Department’s action against Yale resembles a recent case against Harvard University that also took aim at affirmative action policies. Last year, a federal judge ruled against plaintiffs in a lawsuit that claimed Harvard discriminated against Asian-Americans. The lawsuit was filed by Students for Fair Admissions, which is led by Edward Blum, a white politically conservative legal strategist. In February, the Justice Department threw its support behind the lawsuit when it was sent to an appeals court.

“There’s been a movement to dismantle affirmative action policies for decades at this point,” Kim Murphey, a Harvard alumna, told Insider in August. “It’s very misguided and the fact that they’re drawing Asian Americans into that is exceedingly problematic.”

Yale University
Yale University. Michelle McLoughlin/Reuters

Jennifer Lee, a professor of sociology at Columbia University, told Insider by email in August that the DOJ’s accusation is another example of “a full-throttle attack on affirmative action, fueled by the false equivalency of race and minoritized status.”

She said that, in reality, “affirmative action is not negative action against Asian Americans” — and most voters recognize that. A 2016 AAPI data survey of Asian American attitudes shows that nearly two-thirds of Asian Americans support affirmative action.

“There’s so much evidence that these policies create the learning environment these students thrive in,” Wong said, adding that affirmative actions do not harm but benefit the AAPI community.

The Department of Justice did not respond to Insider’s request to comment in August.

Meanwhile, students and faculty call the end of legacy status

Admissions processes have been known to favor applicants with legacy status, meaning they’re members of families who attended or donated to the respective university.

In a 2005 article published in Yale’s student newspaper, the dean of undergraduate admissions, Richard Shaw, said legacy “gives a slight edge, and we have no qualms about that.”

But there is little data or investigation into how tangibly the status affects applicant status. According to The New York Times, Harvard places children whose parents attended the college — who often donate money as alumni — on a “Z-list,” where they are admitted after a gap year.

A survey conducted by the Harvard student newspaper showed that over a third of the Harvard Class of 2022 were legacy admits. A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research published in 2019 showed that over 43% of white admitted students were “recruited athletes, legacies, those on the dean’s interest list, and children of faculty and staff.” Fewer than 16% of African American, Asian American, and Hispanic admitted students, respectively, fit that category.

Harvard Mask Statue
Collin Binkley/AP Photo

But data on legacy admissions released from the university are largely unavailable. A spokesperson for Harvard told Insider in an August statement that “we do not publicly release this type of data, as it is not part of the IPEDS data set, required by the federal government.” Yale publicly disclosed that 12% of the Class of 2023 had a legacy affiliation.

Earlier this year, Ronald J. Daniels, the president of Johns Hopkins University, wrote an essay in The Atlantic explaining why the university chose to end legacy admissions, citing that ending “hereditary privilege in American higher education” would be a step towards accessible, equitable education. In July, students and faculty at Georgetown started signing a petition calling for the same.

“I never became reconciled to the prevalence of this form of hereditary privilege in American higher education,” Daniels wrote. “Particularly given this country’s deeply ingrained commitment to the ideals of merit and equal opportunity.”

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