Explained: What Is Affirmative Action? Why Are Some Indian Americans Against It?

A lawsuit in the US Supreme Court has asked Harvard University to defend its race-based admission criteria.

South Asians
3 min read
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For more than 40 years, universities in the United States (US) have taken a person’s race into account during admissions. But that may very well come to an end as the fight against affirmative action has reached the US Supreme Court

What is Affirmative Action? What is the Case? 

Affirmative Action: Affirmative action is a practice used by some US universities that consider race as one of the many factors in admissions. The programme is aimed to increase diversity in admission and account for the massive history of discrimination in the US.

But now, the Supreme Court is hearing two cases that challenge race-based admissions policies. 

Lawsuits: A lawsuit in the US Supreme Court has asked Harvard University to defend its admission criteria, which was brought on by SFFA – Students for Fair Admissions – an anti-affirmative action group of students. It is composed of ‘many Indian Americans’ who believe they were ‘wrongly’ rejected by the university.

The group has also filed a similar lawsuit against the University of North Carolina. 


SFFA is an anti-affirmative action group of students founded by conservative activist Edward Blum and claims to have 22,000 members, many of whom are Indian Americans.

The group claims that Harvard and UNC use subjective standards to weigh students including personality traits, likability, courage and kindness, creating a discriminatory block for them.

Who is Edward Blum? A legal entrepreneur, Blum has previously brought several lawsuits against race-conscious admission policies and claims that most competitive US colleges use race-based affirmative action.

Opposition from Indian Americans

Why do Indian Americans oppose it? Indian Americans who oppose the programme say affirmative action adversely affects their admission chances because it considers race as a factor against meritocracy, where admissions are based on skill. 

Second-generation Indian Americans say it is 'hypocritical' in a country which values meritocracy above all else' where their parents were given a chance to live and work because of their skills. 

SFAA argues that the affirmative action programmes by Harvard and the University of North Carolina violate equal protection principles, break the promise of a colourblind society and discriminate against Asian Americans.

They are urging the court to overturn a precedent and say that the schools should explore and further develop race-neutral alternatives to achieve diversity.

Vikas, an Indian American student, said:

“...the problem I have with them is that they hold people to different standards. It is more difficult to get in if you are Asian American than White, White than Hispanic, Hispanic than African American.”

The SFAA claim that keeping all other factors constant, changing an applicant's race from Asian American to white, admission chances go from 25 percent to 36 percent.

Now, if the race is changed to hispanic, chances soar to 77 percent. The group further claimed that if changed to African-American, admission chances boost to 95 percent. 


Supporters of affirmative action point out the benefits women gained from the policy as evidence for its success. Some researchers have suggested that in the fifty years that some groups have been subject to affirmative action laws, their representation in the workplace has risen dramatically. 

However, opponents say that if the policies succeeded in making the US richly diverse, they are no longer required altogether. They also claim that the program perpetuates socio-economic inequalities by making it easy for racial minorities from privileged backgrounds to gain from affirmative action, while not providing any benefits to less privileged classes. 

Some experts have said that affirmative action improves diversity on college campuses and enhances the educational experiences of students of all backgrounds. However, the SFFA contends that UNC and Harvard are violating civil rights laws by treating people differently due to their race—specifically, by discriminating against white and Asian American applicants.


A Conservative Supreme Court

The US Supreme Court last discussed the issue in 2016 in a case against the University of Texas and upheld the affirmative action programme. Since then, the Supreme Court has become much more conservative, given the appointment of conservative justices by former US President Donald Trump. 

The court’s six conservative justices all expressed doubts about the practice, while the three liberals defended the programs, which are similar to those used by many other private and public universities.

The supreme court’s six conservative justices have all expressed doubts about affirmative action laws, while three liberal justices have staunchly defended the program. 

However, given the conservative majority, it is fair to say that affirmative action is certainly in danger.

(With inputs from Savita Patel)

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