#IAmNotYourWedge: Asian American Students Rally Against Anti-Affirmative Action Lawsuits

By Tara Yarlagadda, Field Associate

On November 17, 2014, Students for Fair Admissions, Inc., an advocacy group opposed to affirmative action, launched lawsuits against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC-Chapel Hill). Students for Fair Admissions is the offspring of the Project for Fair Representation, headed by Edward Blum, the driving force behind the controversial U.S. Supreme Court case, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin.

In Fisher, Blum sought out a White candidate – Abigail Fisher – who had been denied admission to a highly accredited university. Fisher challenged the constitutionality of the University of Texas at Austin’s (UT-Austin) admissions policies, which considers race as one factor out of many to create a highly qualified and diverse student body. The Supreme Court did not rule on the use of race in admissions but ordered the lower courts to reconsider UT-Austin’s policy to make sure that its consideration of race as a factor was “narrowly tailored.” In July, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled in favor of UT-Austin.

The lawsuits against Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill allege that applicants, particularly Asian students, are being denied admission to universities on the basis of their race or ethnicity due to affirmative action policies requiring stronger qualifications from Asian Americans than other minority groups. Those initiating the lawsuit claim to speak for the entire Asian American demographic, even though Asian Americans constitute a diverse group of individuals from all walks of life. In fact, the majority of Asian Americans favor admissions policies that expand diversity in universities.

In similar news, a small, but vocal group of Asian Americans recently succeeded in blocking State Constitutional Amendment 5 (SCA-5) – a measure intended to restore affirmative action in higher education in California – believing the proposed referendum would adversely affect all Asian American students.

But such efforts have not gone unnoticed by the Asian American community. Asian American students and civil rights groups are fighting back in full force. The UNC Asian American Students Association (ASA) recently issued a statement opposing Students for Fair Admissions’ claims, stating that “UNC ASA favors admission policies that ensure diversity, which is integral for the learning experience on college campuses. … Additionally, the filing fails to present a holistic portrayal of UNC’s Asian student community, which is comprised of diverse ethnicities and spans an array of socio-economic backgrounds.” In response to the Fisher case, Asian Americans Advancing Justice | AAJC and 70 other Asian American and Pacific Islander organizations filed a legal brief in 2012 to voice their support of UT-Austin’s admissions policies.

Furthermore, the hashtag #IAmNotYourWedge has gone viral as Asian Americans, frustrated with their community being co-opted by the mainstream media and other prominent figures, are speaking out.

The University of Wisconsin-Madison could be the next target of Students for Fair Admissions’ strategy. With such a barrage of attacks on access to higher education, we need a solid show of support from all groups to weather these attacks and come out stronger in the campaign for equal opportunity and diversity in colleges across the United States.

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In Absence of Senate Ratification, CEDAW Progress Moves to Local Level

On December 18, 1979, the United Nations adopted the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, or CEDAW. But today, 35 years later, the United States is one of only seven countries that hasn’t ratified the treaty.

CEDAW has been ratified by 188 countries and is an international standard for protecting and promoting women’s rights. It is the only international agreement that comprehensively addresses women’s political, civil, cultural, economic, and social rights, and has been instrumental in expanding educational opportunities and voting rights and decreasing domestic violence and sex trafficking in ratifying countries.

President Jimmy Carter signed the treaty 34 years ago, but the United States remains the only Western and industrialized democracy not to have ratified it. Sudan, South Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Palau, and Tonga haven’t taken that step, either.

The U.S. Senate has never even held a floor vote on the treaty, but several city and state governments have taken action and passed local CEDAW resolutions. In 1998, San Francisco became the first city to adopt an ordinance reflecting the principles of CEDAW. Most recently, the city of Louisville, Ky., approved a resolution in November that will use CEDAW as a framework for all future policy aimed toward ending gender-based discrimination.

Ratifying CEDAW would affirm the United States as a leader and model in protecting the rights of women and girls worldwide. At a Senate hearing on combatting violence and discrimination against women in June, Hauwa Ibrahim, a Nigerian attorney, emphasized how the U.S. ratification of CEDAW would strengthen efforts to expand opportunities for women worldwide, stating, “You are indeed a beacon of hope, and a city on a hill. The passing of IVAWA and CEDAW would lighten our load.”

The hearing featured a panel of seven women senators, who shared instances of violence against women across the globe and detailed the role the U.S. should take in protecting women. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D., Mass., said, “The U.S. must be committed to protecting the rights of women and girls, committed to preventing violence and discrimination against women across the globe.” Warren also urged, “Investing in women and girls means investing in the future. It is prosperous, secure, just, and peaceful for all and it’s time for Congress to carry this fight forward.”

Without ratification, grassroots efforts like Cities for CEDAW, a campaign created last year to empower local women’s groups to push for CEDAW initiatives, are aiming to build momentum for a fix to our nation’s still imperfect commitment to promoting women’s rights – a commitment the world will only notice with the ratification of CEDAW.

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One Way We Can Help Narrow the Expanding Racial Wealth Gap

On Friday, Pew Research Center released data showing that, since the end of the Great Recession, the racial wealth gap has only gotten larger. In 2013, White households had 13 times the median wealth of Black households and 10 times the median wealth of Hispanic households – both which are higher than 2010 levels.

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As Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, noted earlier this year writing for Spotlight on Poverty, payday lending regulation can contribute to narrowing that gap. According to Henderson,

“This broadening wealth gap can be attributed in no small part to predatory payday lending activity that disproportionately – and aggressively – targets minority communities. Payday loans alluringly, and often deceptively, provide a quick route to credit for consumers who might not qualify otherwise. However, they must be fully repaid in a very short period of time – often on the borrower’s next payday. This repayment structure and the lack of underwriting for affordability for the loan contributes to a hopeless cycle of indebtedness, causing borrowers to pay more in fees alone than the amount they borrowed and forcing them into even more dire financial situations. In turn, many payday loan borrowers struggle to afford necessities like food, healthcare, and education – leaving them at risk of bankruptcy and deeper levels of poverty.”

The Leadership Conference at its annual meeting in December 2013 unanimously approved a resolution urging states, Congress, and federal agencies to increase regulatory oversight and enforcement of payday lenders, and in October 2014 signed on to a letter with more than 450 other groups urging the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) to stop the payday loan debt trap.

As the letter states, “Beyond the research, all one needs to do is travel a street in a low-income community or community of color to witness the strikingly high concentration of payday and high-cost lenders. Additionally, these loans are particularly devastating to individuals with a fixed-income, such as seniors on retirement or Social Security Income.”

The CFPB’s upcoming payday lending rule, expected in early 2015, could stop this debt trap and – in the process – help to narrow our nation’s already alarming, but still expanding racial wealth gap.

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Senate Hearing on Civil and Human Rights Highlights Discrimination in Justice System

On Tuesday, December 9, lawmakers and civil rights leaders testified before the Senate Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights on the current state of civil and human rights in the United States.

The hearing came on the heels of grand jury decisions in Ferguson, Mo., and Staten Island, N.Y., that failed to indict White police officers in the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, unarmed Black men, and focused heavily on the need for reforms to end the harmful biases against people of color in our justice system.

During the hearing’s first panel, Sen. Cory Booker, D., N.J., and Reps. Luis Gutierrez, D. Ill., and Keith Ellison, D. Minn., gave testimony on the discrimination minority communities face when dealing with law enforcement, and called for an end to racial profiling. Gutierrez shared how he was profiled while entering the U.S. Capitol in 1996 when he was told by police that he did not look like a congressman.

Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, testified during the second panel, and discussed how people of color are falling behind according to nearly every measure of progress in the United States – including in education, unemployment, voting rights, and incarceration rates.

“Our justice system is in crisis. Racial and ethnic bias persist at every stage, from policing to trial to sentencing and, finally, to re-entry,” Henderson said. To combat such discrimination, Henderson called for commonsense reforms to prohibit discriminatory profiling, demilitarize local police, and establish police accountability.

Cedric Alexander, president of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, and Laura Murphy, director of the ACLU’s Washington legislative office, also testified during the second panel (read their testimony here).

While our country should celebrate how far we’ve come, we must acknowledge that, as Henderson noted, “stubborn obstacles to full inclusion and opportunity remain for our communities, and we’ve failed to establish the justice and equality that we all seek.”

Watch a video of Henderson testifying below:

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Come See the Documentary, “Commonwealth”

In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania’s oldest city, Philadelphia, schools are shut down as prisons are being built. The film “Commonwealth” documents what happens to communities like Philadelphia when states invest in prisons while at the same time slashing public education funding. “Commonwealth” is an in-depth look at whether life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are possible in the gritty birthplace of American democracy, as told by the students, advocates, and people of Philadelphia.

The documentary, partly inspired by this op-ed by Wade Henderson, will be shown this Sunday, December 14, at National Geographic in Washington, D.C. The Leadership Conference Education Fund along with DIRECTV will host the screening, which will be followed by a panel discussion and reception with the director and education activists working toward education equity. The film is an original DIRECTV documentary.

Join us for the screening and important discussion on Sunday, December 14.

Click here to RSVP.

Link to our Facebook Invite.

Watch the trailer below.

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What Leadership Conference Interns are doing to Broaden Discussions about Profiling

By Angela Pavao, a Fall 2014 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

On Tuesday, December 2, The Leadership Conference Education Fund interns hosted the final segment of our Faces of Profiling discussion series on discriminatory profiling in the United States. We designed the series to spark a wider dialogue about profiling and consider solutions through both policy-based and societal perspectives.

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During the first discussion on November 6, Jennifer Bellamy of the American Civil Liberties Union and Sarah Reece of the National LGBTQ Task Force discussed street-level profiling, highlighting its pervasiveness and explaining that many manifestations of profiling are vastly under-acknowledged – both in law and in conversation on the issue. The second event on November 13, which focused on counterterrorism profiling, featured Jasbir Bawa from the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) and Jumana Musa from the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. The discussion revealed a culture of fear and misperception that permeates into law, giving law enforcement a blank check to discriminate and violating the rights of countless individuals. Finally, Laura Vazquez from the National Council of La Raza and Jheanelle Wilkins from The Leadership Conference joined us for the third discussion examining profiling in immigration enforcement. Participants came to see how national, state-level, and agency-specific policies all play a role in discrimination, though Laura noted a slow, positive shift away from strategies aimed at self-deportation and towards those involving societal integration.

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Attendees of the three discussions came from a diverse array of organizations. Some are already directly involved in profiling work. Many, however, came in with broader or varied lenses, such as drug policy, LGBTQ rights, and even veterans affairs. Despite their different backgrounds, everyone seemed to recognize that the systemic problem of profiling intersects with a wide range of other issues and requires a response from all segments of our population, not just those directly affected by it.

Gaps in current policy play a significant role in the prevalence of discriminatory profiling and, therefore, were one of the main points of conversation over the course of the series. In the end, however, discussions reflected the complex reality that solutions must extend beyond legislation. For example, the speakers in our first discussion cited egregious cases of intentional and targeted profiling, but also discussed the role of unconscious, implicit bias and mistrust. The counterterrorism discussion started with gaps in executive guidance and law, but veered into the topic of stereotypes and the portrayal of certain ethnic groups in popular media. Finally, the immigration talk covered the implications of President Obama’s recent executive action, but also made a connection to recent calls for community-policing programs and their relevance to Latino populations.

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We hope that these discussions informed, expanded dialogue, and sparked a passion for learning more about these issues – and will ultimately encourage those who attended to take action.

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Another Way American Schools are Failing Native Youth

As part of the White House Tribal Nations Conference on December 3, President Obama launched an initiative to bolster opportunities and strengthen conditions for American Indian youth.

The White House also released the 2014 Native Youth Report, which reveals that schools lack “culturally relevant curriculum and culturally competent staff that understand how to reach Native youth” – even though 92 percent of Native American students go to public schools.

According to the Center for Native American Youth at the Aspen Institute, American Indian and Alaska Native (AI/AN) students graduate from high school at lower rates than other racial or ethnic groups and are much less likely to have an undergraduate degree. They also have less access to high-level courses in high school, and most aren’t proficient in reading or math by eighth grade.

One way schools are failing AI/AN youth that isn’t mentioned in the Native Youth Report is the continued, troubling use of native mascots – an issue that has gained attention on a national level not because of a school mascot, but because of the mascot of the professional football team located in Washington, D.C.

In a report released in July on native mascots, the Center for American Progress says the football team’s name is more than just racist: it has real effects on AI/AN youth every day.

The report, “Missing the Point: The Real Impact of Native Mascots and Team Names on American Indian and Alaska Native Youth,” reveals that offensive mascot names can foster hostile learning environments for AI/AN students, result in lower self-esteem and mental health, and lead to the development of cultural prejudices since the stereotypical depictions are often understood to be true.

AI/AN youth, according to the report, have a suicide rate that is 2.5 times higher than the national average. Native mascots not only misrepresent the AI/AN community – they mask an enduring affliction that is felt every day.

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