Race- and Ethnicity-based Affirmative Action

By Kollengode S Venkataraman

e-mail:  ThePatrika@aol.com

In April, the US Supreme Court upheld Michigan’s voter-approved constitutional amendment that bans affirmative action in admissions to the public universities in the state. It was not, the court stressed, deciding the larger, divisive question of whether racial preference in admission policies can be lawful.

The U.S. has a checkered history in assimilating new immigrants particularly in the early decades of the immigrants’ arrival.  Early Italians, the Irish, Jews, Chinese, Japanese, Eastern Europeans, Hispanics and Mexicans faced blatant discrimination in housing and education. For many years, Ivy League schools kept Jewish students out by design. Women too had problems getting into colleges.

Blacks came here as slaves against their will, and hence are not “immigrants” as the term is generally understood. Theirs is a painful history in getting integrated into the education system and in athletics in schools, colleges, and even professional sports. Their assimilation even today appears to be a work in progress. The US is not unique in this. Every nation state has its own problems with immigrants. But what makes the U.S. unique is that its Declaration of Independence explicitly states “All men are created equal,” and the country itself was built by immigrants. The harsh history of Native Americans is in an entirely different basket.

Societies in transition, like individuals in rehab, are prone to recidivism. So, educators and social scientists worry that this Supreme Court ruling, if implemented nationwide in both private and public institutions, will turn back the clock. So, understandably they wonder how to keep diversity in their student body. As the latest immigrants, we need to grasp the import of this ruling.

In the last three decades, a large percentage of the latest immigrant groups from Asia and the Indian subcontinent have integrated themselves into the American Middle Class in suburbia.  This is because of the selective immigration policies. The US uses filters to let in Asians only with education, talents and skills that are in demand, or who are the blood relatives of these immigrants. These policies are periodically fine-tuned making it more difficult for the “sponsored” relatives to migrate.

Because of selectively choosing immigrants from Asia — a large number of them are engineers, doctors, lawyers, managers, scientists who put a premium on education — Indian- and Asian-Americans are over represented in the student bodies of American universities.

Therefore, children of Indian- and Asian-Americans are no longer considered a minority in college admissions. In an earlier article (http://tinyurl.com/k7bf6fo) we welcomed this decision.

Since our kids are competing with others without any preferential treatment, they are forced to strive and give their very best in school work and extracurricular activities — a trait that will stay with them when they join the work force. This is good for them personally, and good for society at large. After all, when everyone tries to do his/her best, all benefit.

This is important also in another important way:  When our young men and women graduate from schools without having received preferential treatment in admission, psychologically they are confident and self-assured. This smoothens their interactions with coworkers, vendors, and clients. Since they stand out in their appearance, their confident demeanor makes a big difference in how they are perceived by the US mainstream.

Besides, tolerating under-performance because of race and ethnicity drags down morale. That is why armed forces all over the world resist the quota system in promoting people, even though they may give preference for a diverse work force at the entry level.

But in American educational institutions, for a variety of historical, social, economic and cultural reasons, Blacks and Hispanics are under-represented in the student bodies. The US News and World Report ranks US universities on the basis of the ethnic diversity of its undergraduate student body. Here are the rankings of some of the schools (1.00 means highly diversified and 0 means not at all diversified). See here: http://tinyurl.com/EthncRnkngColleges:


Rutgers U.:                    0.77        Stanford U*:                          0.74
MIT*:                             0.70        Univ. Calif. Berkeley:            0.67
Carnegie Mellon U*:     0.62        U. Chicago*                           0.56
Cleveland State U:        0.48        George Washington U:         0.47
U. of Pittsburgh:           0.32         North Carolina St. U:           0.35
Duquesne U*:               0.22         Florida A&M:                        0.10

* Private Universities       International students excluded


We see that some of the private universities are highly diverse racially/ethnically, while some of the public universities are not. So educators’ anxiety in the wake of the US Supreme Court’s judgment striking down affirmative action is not entirely misplaced.

But racial diversity of the student body says nothing about the socio-economic diversity. We can make a case that an injustice is being done to White and Indian-, and Asian-American kids from low-income homes who do not have professionally educated parents to guide them in their middle and high-school years and send them to expensive coaching classes. These low-income parents — people working in restaurants and grocery stores; or driving taxis on erratic schedules — often work two low-paying jobs having long working hours.

For example, young men and women from low-income Indian-American families with less educated parents have great disadvantage when competing with children of professional Indian-Americans for college admissions. This is true among low-income Whites as well.

The opposite is the case with Black children from affluent families — homes of lawyers, doctors, and managers, not to speak of star athletes in the NFL, NBA or MLB. Do these kids still need the Affirmative Action crutch in college admissions when compared with Black children from low-income families?

So, race and ethnicity all by themselves cannot be and should not be a weighted criterion in school admissions. We need to factor in race only where necessary, and economic class where warranted. This becomes important given the sharply uneven income and wealth distribution in US households in the last 20 years.

After all, what is the point in having racially and ethnically diverse student bodies if the students come from the same slice of the economic class—from the homes of upper middle class professionals or better?  ♦

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