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I Support Affirmative Action, Even Though It May Hurt Me

Image via The Harvard Crimson

“As a person of Indian heritage, I’m willing to lower my odds in November’s game of chance if it makes the admissions process, as a whole, more inclusive.”

Every November, 3.6 million high schoolers conclude twelve years of doing ‘everything right’ for a process that, statistically, boils down to a game of chance. Years of work are judged in less than ten minutes, so every one of those six hundred seconds counts.

Later this year, I will be one of those entering the race. Like my classmates, I want to be certain that I am being judged on my own merit. That being said, because of this process’s high-stakes nature, I want to have faith in its fairness.

It is for this reason that I find it difficult, on a general level, to oppose affirmative action, a policy that serves such a valuable purpose. As an Indian-American, I acknowledge that this may result in demographics other than my own being given a ‘leg-up’, so to speak. But I also acknowledge that this is well-intentioned and reasonable. 

A recent Brookings study showed that 60% of top-scorers on the SAT were of Asian ethnicity, and, in a perfectly meritocratic society, a large chunk of them would be admitted to schools of their choice. In the presence of affirmative action, however, colleges’ consideration of ‘encouraged diversity’ can undermine Asian accomplishment. Asian students, for example, only comprised 22.2% of the admitted students for Harvard’s class of 2021, despite their higher (on-average) test scores. It is for reasons such as these that the Justice Department announced in August, 2017 that it was looking into the alleged bias against Asian-Americans in the college admissions process.

This was a point made also by Vijay Chokalingam, the brother of comedian Mindy Kaling, in his book Almost Black – How I Posed as Black to Get into Medical School. After seeing other Indian-Americans with better test scores and GPA’s higher than his own rejected from medical school, Chokalingam checked the box for African-American on his own applications. He was accepted. 

“Centuries of discrimination have been demonstrated to have resulted in concrete structural challenges for certain demographics.”

My home country has its own form of affirmative action. India uses quotas in its government-mandated educated system to assist historically marginalized castes. Certain ‘untouchable’ groups continue to face the remnants of colonial-era discrimination. (Historically, the population was divided into “castes,” which resulted in a vastly different set of opportunities endowed to different castes.) Thus, the grossly undersupplied group of elite Indian universities continue to use this quota system, which has in recent years aggravated the tensions between the million students who apply for entry and the ten thousand seats available.

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With that in mind, the universality of affirmative action raises the most hotly-debated question surrounding the topic: Is it principally legitimate? On the surface, it seems so. Centuries of discrimination have been demonstrated to have resulted in concrete structural challenges for certain demographics. In the U.S. in particular, generational wealth accumulation for African-Americans lags behind their Caucasian counterparts. It seems like it is nothing more than basic good governance to try and bridge these gaps, even if in the eyes of its detractors, affirmative action will ultimately devalue the legitimate accomplishments of minority groups. 

Some critics of affirmative action might argue that the most persuasive argument affirmative action is the possibility that it could ultimately harm those it is designed to help. Following the adoption of Proposition 209, which prohibited the consideration of an applicant’s race at public universities in California, graduation rates increased by 4.4%, and Duke University economists have further suggested that this ban resulted in a better matching of students with schools whose workloads they were able to handle. If we’re concerned about graduation rates, rather than just admissions statistics, there’s evidence to suggest affirmative action can hurt certain minority students by putting them in schools that are too difficult. 

“As a person of Indian heritage, I’m willing to lower my odds in November’s game of chance if it makes admissions, as a whole, more inclusive.”

That being said, it is difficult for anyone to argue that institutions should not attempt to give young people applying to college equal opportunity, even if that necessitates the difficult task of righting structural wrongs. As a person of Indian heritage, I’m willing to lower my odds in November’s game of chance if it makes admissions, as a whole, more inclusive.

The race for college admissions, which I enter this year, should be like a footrace with a staggered starting line so as to give each of its runners an equal chance to arrive at the same finish line. 

Parthav Shergill, this fall, will be applying to college in the United States from India.