A protest against affirmative action outside the US Supreme Court in Washington DC, June 29, 2023 (Photo: AP)
ASIAN AMERICANS, ESPECIALLY of Indian and Chinese descent, do well in standardised tests, so much so that if extra-academic criteria were excluded from the parameters of admission, nearly half the entrants at Harvard would be Asian Americans. That isn’t a shot in the dark but the content of a document from Harvard’s Office of Institutional Research presented to the US Supreme Court by the Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) led by anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum. And yet, Asian Americans have not been unanimous in celebrating the end of affirmative action as per the court’s ruling against Harvard and the University of North Carolina (UNC). According to a 2022 survey by AAPI data, 69 per cent of Asian Americans supported affirmative action. And according to a still more recent Pew survey published earlier this year, support for affirmative action was at 60 per cent among Indian students while it was lower at 50 per cent among Koreans and 45 per cent among Chinese. Why then is it axiomatically accepted that the end of affirmative action on the American campus will be ‘good’ for Indians? Or, that it will be unequivocally bad?
Part of the reason behind thinking the end of affirmative action is a good thing from an Indian or Indian American perspective lies, for instance, in what a 17-year-old Indian American, rejected recently by one Ivy League after another despite top scores and impressive extracurricular credentials, had to say. Here’s what he told the BBC: “The worry that myself and many other Asian Americans have is that when [the] admission officer sees Patel, when he sees a Lee, when he sees a Kim, when he sees any Asian last name, basically the image that comes up is [a] kid just sitting in his school on classes studying away math, and not doing anything that has an impact on society.” It’s not that Asian Americans, among the wealthiest and best-educated generationally of minorities, aren’t diverse enough. Their problem has been the truism that they are usually better than most on test scores. When merit alone does not sell and there are historical wrongs to right in an unequal and reputationally discriminatory society, one set of minorities tend to lose out to another.
The need to increase the numbers of Black and Hispanic as well as Native American students on campus, thereby not only adding to diversity but also practising social engineering to enforce socio-economic justice, meant taking race into consideration when evaluating the test scores: Did your ethnicity—in effect, the colour of your skin—and the geography you come from play a role in how you performed? Could it mean that if a Black student scored the same in SAT as a white student, the former would be preferred? Yes, on the assumption that the Black student battled greater odds than the white student.
Asian Americans, too, appeared to lose out to this reasoning since most of them battled far fewer odds, if any, as shown in their good test scores which were assumed to mean a certain, or a lot, of social, economic and familial security. But did it help set the wheels of social justice rolling? Not if a poor Black student scored one notch below a rich Black student but missed the bus because the admissions office only considered the fact that they were both Black and gave the ticket to the higher scorer. Think about reservations in India looking to improve the socio-economic status of the marginalised and, for a long time, the more affluent or better connected among them benefitting the most, leaving the most deprived still out of the picture.
It’s not that Asian Americans aren’t diverse enough. Their problem has been the truism that they are usually better than most on test scores. When merit alone does not sell and there are historical wrongs to right in an unequal and reputationally discriminatory society, one set of minorities tend to lose out to another
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The heart of the matter, as eloquently laid out by Chief Justice John Roberts, is: “Many universities have for too long done just the opposite [of granting admission based on an individual’s qualifications, experience, etc]. And in doing so, they have concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin. Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.” Was it just a conservative-majority court flexing its muscles in a series of judgments that began with the undoing of Roe vs Wade last year or, indeed, as Justice Roberts said, “Eliminating racial discrimination means eliminating all of it”? Nine US states had eliminated race-based admissions in state-funded institutions over the last few decades, and in the case of California, alternatives seem to have worked, as a result of which its university system has been admitting a higher percentage of Black and Hispanic students after the state’s ban on affirmative action in 1996 than before.
Of the two Black justices on the Supreme Court, Clarence Thomas, a conservative and long-term opponent of affirmative action said: “Universities’ self-proclaimed righteousness does not afford them license to discriminate on the basis of race,” while liberal Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman on the court, said, eloquently enough to rival or undo Roberts: “With let-them-eat-cake obliviousness, today, the majority pulls the ripcord and announces ‘colorblindness for all’ by legal fiat. But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.”
The court has given universitiesleewayto find othermeans. Since
the Civil Rights Act introduced affirmative action in the 1960s, its constitutionality has been questioned given that race-based quotas are deemed unconstitutional. Economic status, gender, even religious belief, will be considered by universities in pursuit of diversity and social justice. But is it anything more than an ideal?
Reality, of course, is always more complex. A 2004 study by historian and literary critic Henry Louis Gates Jr found that between two-thirds and half of Black students at Harvard were immigrants or the children of immigrants. They were not descended from American slaves. Therefore, it remained unsettled how much, if any, of the injustice of the past was actually being redressed. Between ideal and intent on the one hand and practice and outcome on the other falls the shadow.
To dig further is to return to the pre and immediate post-war period when elite American universities still had unwritten rules to limit the number of minority or immigrant entrants— a negative quota. And the group that suffered most were Jewish Americans, in many ways the forerunners of Asian Americans in terms of academic merit. But Jewish Americans excelled and left their mark on America’s socio-economic and academic life despite such negative discrimination. A recent essay in Tablet magazine, titled ‘Ivy League Exodus’, argues: “The Ivy League schools are jealously protective of their self-image as the vanguard of the national elite—a self-appointed purpose that was always the sole determinant of whether Jews or any other demographic group would be admitted in large numbers. The Ivies operate like rentier states whose legitimacy depends on the wise dispersal of a lucrative and diminishing resource. In Ivy League administrations, that resource is prestige.”
The Jewish case is instructive for Asian Americans not merely because Ivies have been “swapping out wealthy Jews for wealthy Asians”. It has been statistically demonstrated that at every Ivy League university, except Brown, Jewish Americans have been the biggest victims of affirmative action, and not just because they are considered a subset of ‘white’.
Multiple, even opposing, truths clash here. Beneficiaries of affirmative action are living examples of how the policy has made a positive difference, and often, it was also a triumph of merit when they ended up in the top 10 per cent of their class. If the end of affirmative action is a victory for merit, which in turn would be good for them, why then that high percentage of Asian Americans supportive of affirmative action? Claims of minority solidarity don’t wash because the SFFA is an Asian American outfit that took Harvard and UNC to court. Part of the answer could lie in whether you are in America or outside, looking in. A student from India applying to a place like the University of Pennsylvania could benefit from the “first generation” applicant criterion if her parents were educated outside the US. But that won’t work for an Indian American if her parents were educated in the US. And what works at UPenn doesn’t work elsewhere. This was never a black-and-white case, whichever way one approached it.