Affirmative action isn’t reverse racism

Claiming that diversity policies help certain minorities over others is tacky, ahistorical and inaccurate

April 12, 2015 2:00AM ET

In 1998, apparently frustrated with his application process for entry to medical school, Vijay Chokal-Ingam, who is Indian-American and the brother of comedian Mindy Kaling, decided to try a social experiment: He shaved his head, trimmed his eyelashes and pretended to be black. He claims that this pretense increased the number of invitations he received to apply and was responsible for his ultimate admission into medical school.

In explaining his experiment this week, Chokal-Ingam has outed himself a vocal opponent of what he called “affirmative action racism.” He claims his experiment proves that admission standards were “less stringent” for certain minorities.                                    

While Chokal-Ingam’s story is outrageous, his anti-affirmative action activism falls in line with a common conservative argument: that these policies allow entry for less qualified students who take spots from other more qualified, usually white, individuals — what critics often refer to as reverse racism.

It’s not just white people who take umbrage. In recent years, there have been a few highly publicized cases of Asian-Americans that also feel frustrated by affirmative action policies, including a 2014 lawsuit against Harvard by an Asian-American student. The suit claims that Harvard’s quota cap on acceptance of Asian-American candidates is accepting less qualified black and Latino students in their stead.

Chokal-Ingam is peddling a similar story that sits snugly at the intersection of two racist paradigms: Pointing to Asian-Americans as proof that minorities can succeed without institutional help, it casts affirmative action as preferential treatment for less worthy individuals and asks, why can’t other minorities do the same? Doing so perpetuates false competition between communities of color in the U.S. and renders invisible those who are fighting for access that affirmative action policies can provide.

False competition

The muddled, “do it yourself” narrative Chokal-Ingam has embraced is compelling — particularly if you are blinded by a desire for success and have bought into the American dream. In that sense, it’s not surprising that certain Asian-Americans would feel frustrated with college admissions and find any scapegoat to explain why, despite being pushed to be the best, they weren’t accepted into top-tier institutions.

Vijay Chokal-Ingam, who is Indian-American, pretended to be black on his applications to medical school.

But believing that affirmative action helps certain minorities over others is inaccurate: An important tenet of affirmative action is that it diversifies the educational experience — something that benefits all students. Additionally, affirmative action does protect Asian-Americans, in particular those from a lower socio-economic background, who have lower rates of college attendance. It’s also still popular: A poll conducted last year in California during the debate over SCA-5, a bill that would restore affirmative action in the state’s higher education, which had very vocal Asian and Asian-American opponents, found that Chinese-Americans were almost 70 percent in favor of affirmative action.

Chokal-Ingam’s experiences don’t even prove preferential treatment of one race over another. As “Jojo,” he applied to 20 schools and was only accepted to one, the St. Louis University School of Medicine. The only real case to be made is unrelated to his race: He didn’t have the grades for a top-tier medical education. Funnily, he did later get accepted to UCLA’s MBA program, using his real name and identity. Given his grades, one might wonder: Did he himself — as “Vijay” — benefit from affirmative action?

Remembering history

His argument is also compelling if you have no relationship to history or the civil rights movement. As Jennée Desmond-Harris pointed out in an excellent takedown at Vox, putting aside reverse racism, Chokal-Ingam’s experiment in some ways just highlighted that real racism is alive and well: When he posed as a black man, he got harassed by the police more often. Nevertheless, he appears to be more concerned with the reverse racism that he claims his experiment demonstrates.

Affirmative action is one of the few policies in the U.S. that attempt to correct some of the institutional biases that impede progress for entire subsets of the population.

What is perhaps most fascinating is his frustration with what he perceived to be schools’ more vigorous outreach once he pretended to be black. We don’t know that this is actually what happened, because he didn’t measure this by also applying as an Indian-American candidate. But beyond that, there is nothing wrong with strong diversity outreach efforts. After all, what makes for a qualified college student or effective employee is complicated. A perfect GPA or SAT score isn’t a particularly good measure of one’s success in college. In fact, if affirmative action overall has pushed universities to be less reliant on test scores and look instead at the whole student, that’s a good thing by any measure.

One of the most concrete ways to course-correct our racist past is to engage in outreach and professional development. Affirmative action is the first step. We also need policies that engage and develop talent for jobs and schools: Often, young students who aren’t surrounded by high-achieving family and friends are less likely to apply to competitive schools in the first place.

Rather than evaluating the history of affirmative action and the development patterns of immigrant communities in the United States, Chokal-Ingam is trying to use his personal experience to prove a bigger point about racism. But affirmative action policies are difficult to critique on a personal level, because equal opportunity is one of many factors that determine if someone is a good fit for a school. Instead of squabbling about how it doesn’t placate a desire to be the best, we should look at the historical environment that has necessitated these policies in the first place. Affirmative action is one of the few policies in the U.S. that attempt to correct some of the institutional biases that impede progress for entire subsets of the population. Chokal-Ingam’s actions are not just tacky and ahistorical, they also create a spurious rivalry between communities of color, while discounting the many Asian-American communities that are still battling for rights and access to schools, jobs and other important resources that affirmative action policies can help make a reality.

Samhita Mukhopadhyay is a New York City–based digital strategist and writer and the author of “Outdated: Why Dating Is Ruining Your Love Life.” 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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