US Supreme Court affirmative action ruling may help South Asians

Three Indian, two Pakistani and two Hindu organisations had joined other Asian groups in filing a brief supporting the Students for Fair Admissions (SAFA) case against Harvard.

Arul Louis Jun 30, 2023
Photo: Arul Louis

The United States Supreme Court striking down race-based affirmative action will likely lower one barrier for South Asians applying to Ivy League and other selective institutions that have tried to limit their numbers by setting set a higher bar for them that amounted to discrimination.

The court in a six-justice majority verdict on Thursday ruled that the racial factors in admissions policies of Harvard and the University of North Carolina (UNC) violated the Constitution’s equality provisions.
Three Indian, two Pakistani and two Hindu organisations had joined other Asian groups in filing a brief supporting the Students for Fair Admissions (SAFA) case against Harvard.

They argued that “Asian ethnicity was considered less desirable because it was regarded as less ‘diverse’”, by Harvard thus enforcing discrimination against them.

“In the hierarchy of race, Asian American applicants rank lowest at Harvard”, they said.

The purpose of the affirmative action programmes, it was asserted, was to ensure diversity in the student body by increasing the number of African American, Latino and Native American students.

US institutions, including the government, do not use an explicit quota like in India’s system of reservations for various categories of socially disadvantaged castes and groups.

Therefore, they resort to other measures to achieve their goal of increasing the representation of some groups and this has come down heavily on Asians.

A Princeton University academic found that Asian students had to outscore Whites by 140 points on the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT), a common admissions test, to get into elite universities. 

One of the techniques Harvard used to get around the Asians’ high score was to use “personal rating to ‘devalue’”, the Asian groups said, awarding them almost uniformly low scores to pull down their rating, the Asian groups said in their brief. 

Chief Justice John Roberts giving the majority opinion said that the two universities’ admissions policies “unavoidably employ race in a negative manner, involve racial stereotyping, and lack meaningful end points".

He did not, however, entirely rule out consideration of race and allowed it to be taken into account for applicants “based on his or her experiences [of racial factors] as an individual – not [solely] on the basis of race”.

Thomas Abraham, Chairman of Global Organization of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO) which was one of the organisations joining in filing the brief supporting SAFA, welcomed the court’s verdict but also reflected Roberts’ view.

He said, “We didn’t want the whole affirmative action to go away, but at the same time we didn’t want Asian Americans to be discriminated in the general quota of admissions. We hope that the universities can achieve both”.

The other South Asian groups that joined the Asian American Coalition for Education and the Asian American Legal Foundation in filing the brief supporting SAFA were , National Federation of Indian American Associations, American Society of Engineers of Indian Origin-NCC, American Hindu Coalition, World Hindu Council of America, Pakistan Policy Institute, and Pakistani American Volunteers.

Despite the negative impact on Indian Americans, there is support for affirmative action among them with 60 per cent calling affirmative action a “good thing”, according to a survey by Pew Research, in contrast to 50 per cent of Americans disapproving it.

Affirmative action polarises the US along partisan lines.

President Joe Biden denouncing the verdict angrily said, “This is not a normal court”.

He said that it was “a severe disappointment” and called on institutions to “not abandon their commitment to ensure student bodies of diverse backgrounds that reflect all of America”.

But calling it a “great day for America”, Republican former President Donald Trump said, “People with extraordinary ability and everything else necessary for success, including future greatness for our country, are finally being rewarded”.

Nikki Haley the Indian American candidate for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination said, “Picking winners and losers based on race is fundamentally wrong. This decision will help every student – no matter their background – have a better opportunity to achieve the American Dream”.

The other Indian American candidate, Vivek Ramaswamy, tweeted, “Meritocracy and ‘equity’ are fundamentally incompatible. Mark my words: ‘elite’ universities will now start to play complex games to achieve the same results using shadow tactics like deprioritising test scores”. 

Many universities, including Harvard, have already begun adopting those tactics, moving away from using the common admission tests like the SAT and the ACT test for admissions because Asians score very high and it makes the discrimination obvious.

Universities can give greater weightage to the economic and social status of applicants.

While Asians have not been involved in slavery and the past discrimination against African Americans and Latinos, they bore the brunt of what were supposed to be programmes of reparation that would also diversify the make-up of colleges.

In fact, Indians had faced discrimination being excluded from immigration till 1964 and for long periods those already here were not allowed to own land in California.

The apparent rationale for limiting Asian admissions by Harvard, but not openly admitted, was that they are over-represented: They are 6.3 per cent of the US population, but makeup 27.9 per cent of students admitted to Harvard College, the university’s undergraduate division headed by Indian American Rakesh Khurana. That is more than four times their share of the US population.

(The author, a New York-based journalist, is a non-resident senior fellow of the Society for Policy Studies)

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