When Siddarth Shankar applied to Yale in 2017, he did not hesitate to identify himself as Asian-American, and wrote about how visiting family members in conflict-ridden Kashmir had shaped his worldview.
He did not expect to get in, because he knew he had tough competition as a student at a public high school in the affluent Washington suburb of McLean, Va., where most students were either white or, like him, Asian-American, and many apply to the Ivy League. But he was admitted.
Now he sees the Trump administration’s accusation that Yale discriminated against Asian-American and white applicants, leveled against the university by the Justice Department’s civil rights division on Thursday, as unfathomable and divisive.
“I think this is the oldest tactic in the book, to pit minority groups against each other,” Mr. Shankar, 20, now a junior majoring in economics, said on Friday.
Yale students widely criticized the administration’s finding, which came two years after a complaint was filed against the university by a group called the Asian American Coalition for Education. Most said the administration had lost credibility on racial matters long ago, undermining any analysis it might produce on the use of race and ethnicity in college admissions.
“When I talk to my Asian-American friends, this is not what we wanted,” said Alec Dai, a Yale senior from New York City whose parents immigrated from Guangzhou, China. “It’s not like people on campus were asking for this kind of justice that doesn’t exist.”
The Justice Department accused Yale of violating federal civil rights law by using race and ethnicity as a determining factor when sifting through the roughly 35,000 applications it reviews each year to admit about 2,300 students. About half of the students in last year’s freshman class identified themselves as white and a quarter as Asian-American, with African-American students making up 12 percent and Latino students 15 percent.
“For the great majority of applicants, Asian-American and white applicants have only one-tenth to one-fourth of the likelihood of admission as African-American applicants with comparable academic credentials,” the department said.
The government demanded that Yale stop using race and national origin as factors in admission. Yale has refused, saying its admissions process adheres to both federal law and Supreme Court rulings that have generally supported affirmative action — triggering a possible lawsuit by the Justice Department, which lacks the authority to enforce the demand on its own.
Legal experts saw the finding as an extension of conservative legal efforts to end race-based college admissions policies, a battle that is expected to eventually reach a Supreme Court that leans more conservative after two appointments by President Trump.
Several challenges to admissions practices, including at Harvard, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and a newly filed case against the University of Texas at Austin, have been orchestrated by Students for Fair Admissions, a group that opposes affirmative action, and are making their way through the federal courts. A federal judge ruled in Harvard’s favor last year, but an appeal in the case will be heard next month, with the federal government supporting the plaintiffs.
Samuel Bagenstos, a law professor at the University of Michigan, suggested that the Yale finding was motivated by “the almost certain fear by Trump administration officials that there’s at least a substantial likelihood that come January, they won’t be here. So they want to put facts on the ground, to try them in a potential Biden administration.”
Mr. Bagenstos was a career attorney in the civil rights division in the 1990s and deputy assistant attorney general for civil rights in the Obama administration. He said that Thursday’s finding, which was only four pages long, seemed rushed — unlike the pages and pages of extensive discussions of the facts that usually characterize such letters.
“It’s a very thin demand letter,” he said, “which suggests they’re really rushing in order to get in ahead of the election.”
Three Asian-American students who were involved in the legal actions against Ivy League schools — one who was rejected by Harvard and two others by Harvard and Yale, despite strong academics — were reluctant to speak on Friday. They said they agreed with the Justice Department ruling but were afraid of being savaged on social media for their views.
Zuri Goodman, 20, a Yale junior, said he had misgivings about whether the university’s admissions process was fair to everyone.
“Race shouldn’t necessarily be discarded, it should just be perhaps weighted less,” said Mr. Goodman, who is biracial, the child of an Indian-born mother and a white father. “And I think what should be weighted in its place is class and wealth and the access that they allow.”
Kahlil Greene, a senior who last year was the first Black student elected as Yale’s student body president, said he had considered his race “part of my identity, not a plus or a minus.” To ignore it, he said, would be “strange.”
“It’s like taking a plot point or character out of a story, like a weird omission,” he said.
He was hurt by beliefs expressed on social media over the last day that “Black students have a much easier time getting in” to Yale because of their race. The Justice Department finding has inflamed those resentments, he said.
As a beneficiary of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, Cinthia Zavala Ramos, a Yale senior who was born in Honduras but whose family moved to the United States when she was 6, has been dealing with the Trump administration for four years, she said, as the president has threatened to end the program that allows her to stay. The tension between the administration and the university feels familiar to her.
The experience for her white classmates seems very different, she said. Some have parents or grandparents who also attended the university.
“For them, Yale was a rite of passage,” Ms. Zavala Ramos said. “There’s always these sentiments of, like, this institution wasn’t meant for us, and there’s people who have been here for generations that feel the same way when they see us.”
Mary Chen, 20, a junior, said she had experienced discrimination against Asian-Americans. She recalled being taunted by classmates in the seventh grade in her hometown, Columbus, Ga. But she did not believe Yale was discriminating against Asian applicants, and regardless, she said, the racism she had experienced did not compare to anti-Black racism in America.
“Anti-Blackness and systematic racism and oppression, especially for Black Americans, is the more pervasive and the most important thing that we need to focus on right now,” she said.
She noted that the Justice Department had ignored Yale’s tradition of legacy and athletic admissions, which favor wealthier white students.
“That’s not something that is considered in discussions about affirmative action,” she said. “It’s always continuing the demonization of Black and Latinx students, as taking a spot from a deserving white or Asian student.”
Reporting was contributed by Serena Puang.
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