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UNC-Chapel Hill students formed UNC for Affirmative Action — and it's led by Asian Americans

Liz Schlemmer

Students pass through the heart of UNC-Chapel Hill’s campus on their way to class. Sophomore Adela Zhang calls a few over to a booth she's tabling.

“Have you all heard about affirmative action?” she asks. “Have you all heard about the upcoming Supreme Court case that's going on?”

On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear a case challenging affirmative action at UNC-Chapel Hill. The advocacy group suing the university argues its consideration of race in admissions disadvantages white and Asian American applicants.

The case could have far-reaching consequences for college admissions across the country.

On Chapel Hill’s campus, a new student group has formed to show support for affirmative action — and it's led by Asian American students.

Adela Zhang, Sarah Zhang, Joy Jiang and Christina Huang are co-directors of UNC for Affirmative Action. They're holding events on campus this week to spread the word about the upcoming case.

“I knew that UNC was one of two schools being sued in the lawsuit, but we hadn't really heard anything about it at all on campus,” Sarah Zhang said. “And I was like, okay, something needs to be done about this.”

Liz Schlemmer

Jiang says she wants to cut through some of the confusion surrounding the lawsuit.

“I've talked to my friends, and so many of them are like, ‘Wait, why are we suing UNC?’ And it's not UNC students versus UNC,” Jiang said. “I think that's the biggest misconception, because it is not that, it’s very much not that.”

No students or applicants to the university are suing UNC-Chapel Hill because they believe they were personally discriminated against. Instead, the plaintiff — Students For Fair Admissions, led by anti-affirmative action advocate Edward Blum — argues UNC-Chapel Hill's admissions practices result in unfair outcomes for white and Asian American applicants in general. The group bases its claim on a comparison of applicants’ SAT scores and grade point averages.

Blum says the practice of affirmative action is “divisive” and unfair. It’s been the organization’s mission to eliminate the use of race and ethnicity in college admissions nationwide by bringing lawsuits to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Student Christina Huang says she feels it's important to speak up because, as an Asian American, she disagrees with Blum’s arguments.

“It tries to use, I guess, Asian Americans as a racial wedge to put us against other racial groups,” Huang said. “It's almost like using pawns to get to your end game.”

Jiang described how she thinks of a “racial wedge”: “Well you know what a wedge is, you shove it in there, and it causes a split, a tension.”

She says cases like this can pit Asian American students against Black and Latino students who are the primary benefactors of affirmative action. Instead, this group aims to build a coalition across students of color.

Erika Munguia is co-president of Mi Pueblo, a Latinx student group that is working with UNC for Affirmative Action.

“I think it shows unity, and I think it shows that [at] UNC we want to be diverse,” Munguia said.

Liz Schlemmer

Jorren Biggs is vice president of the Black Student Movement on campus, which is also advocating for affirmative action alongside other student groups. He says he appreciates that Asian American students are at the frontline of organizing for this cause.

“I think the work that the Affirmative Action for UNC group is doing is necessary to sort of counter that narrative, and make sure UNC students can build some solidarity in the midst of all this,” Biggs said.

Huang says the ability to work and learn with students of all backgrounds is exactly why it's important to uphold diversity on campus.

“College is not only about your academics and getting your degree. You're building social skills, you're learning about different cultures, you're learning how to become a functioning member of society,” Huang said. “It's so important that we have that accurate representation of what the world actually looks like."

Black, Latino and Native American students are under-represented in UNC-Chapel Hill’s student body, compared to the overall state population. The university is required to admit more than 80%of its first-year undergraduate students from within the state.

UNC-Chapel Hill admissions officers have testified that they don’t have racial quotas or award points to applicants based on race. The Supreme Court will consider — when deciding who to admit — should public universities consider a student's race at all?

Student activists say they worry if the court overturns precedent, diversity at colleges will decline, as it has in states like California that have banned affirmative action.

The last time a case challenging affirmative action came before the U.S. Supreme Court against the University of Texas at Austin, the court sided with the university and upheld the limited use of race in admissions decisions. The makeup of the court has changed since that decision.

“It's like very up in the air right now, especially with the way that the Supreme Court is, like the seating of the Supreme Court. It could go not the way we want,” Jiang said.

Huang says that's why student activists are building a coalition now, to be ready to hold admissions officers accountable to admit a diverse class, no matter the outcome of the case.

“Even if it's overturned, we're not stepping down and we're still going to push forward and you're still going to hear from us,” Huang said.

She will join other students from UNC-Chapel Hill to protest on the steps of the Supreme Court Monday as the justices hear the case.

Copyright 2022 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.

Liz Schlemmer is WUNC's Education Policy Reporter, a fellowship position supported by the A.J. Fletcher Foundation. She has an M.A. from the UNC Chapel Hill School of Media & Journalism and a B.A. in history and anthropology from Indiana University.