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“Indian Americans like all Asian Americans and all students on these college campuses benefit from attending a college campus that is diverse, in which we see representation, in which they are exposed to peers who are from a variety of backgrounds,” says Dr Natasha Warikoo, a professor at Tufts University, amid the ongoing debate on affirmative action in the US.
Admission decisions intending to create diversity among student populations at American colleges are a contentious subject. Affirmative action in the form of race-based admission policies is being challenged by ongoing lawsuits against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at the US Supreme Court.
Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), a group of Asian American students including Indian Americans, has brought on the legal challenges calling such admission policies "unfairly biased."
An Interview With Dr Natasha Warikoo
Professor Warikoo, an Indian American sociologist with an expertise in racial and ethnic inequality in education, says the admissions process works to create the "best possible campuses" for learning.
Warikoo believes that it is beneficial for Asian and other immigrant communities to understand that affirmative action policies build not only diverse college campuses but also a society with equal opportunities, which helps minorities in the long run.
“There are very small differences between these selective colleges (and other elite colleges). Wherever you go it's going to be a positive experience. It's important to think about the big picture - as a society, what are we? How are we thinking about this?"Dr Natasha Warikoo
She cites examples of President Barack Obama and Justice Sonia Sotomayor who benefited from affirmative action policies.
Warikoo, whose parents were Kashmiri and moved to the US from India in the 1970s, says that like other well represented communities, students coming from the ‘highly educated Indian American community’ will thrive at many colleges and not only at Ivy League.
“Strong students coming from strong educational backgrounds often do. The idea that Harvard is the only place is problematic. There are a lot of great colleges in the country and people go on to do amazing things from most of them," she says.
"There aren't big differences in ten years out when that person goes on to the labour market, if you compare someone from a more disadvantaged family, because of (access to) the kind of social networks. How do you get your first job? Often, it's through your parents, they know someone or it’s someone you grew up. People coming from less resourced communities have fewer of those connections."Dr Natasha Warikoo
'Race Plays Just a Small Role in Admissions'
SFFA claims that Harvard University uses subjective standard to weigh certain personality traits including likability, courage and kindness, creating a discriminatory block for them. The university maintains that its admission programmes take account of race to foster educational diversity which is not illegal as per a decades old precedent set by the Supreme Court.
Warikoo believes that race plays ‘just a small role’ in admissions. “They look at their (applicant’s) academics obviously. Extracurriculars is a big part of this. Race is one of the many factors they consider who to admit.”
Even legacy factors like a family member who went to the same college is considered during admissions. Needs of athelic team also become a factor while considering an application of a candidate with a sports background.
"So, they're looking at all kinds of factors beyond just what is your SAT score or certainly your race, and it's often that is what's tipping you into the in pile, because there's so many amazing candidates who are applying,” Warikoo says.
Warikoo, who studied mathematics and philosophy at Brown University, went on to do a PhD at Harvard University and joined as a faculty member there, says that admission in top universities is very competitive among top students.
“You wouldn't even apply to Harvard unless you were a strong student and of all those less than 5%, less than one in 20 is getting selected! It's kind of cherry-picking among very strong candidates."Dr Natasha Warikoo
'Interests of Asian Americans Not at the Heart of SFFA’s Lawsuit'
Warikoo says the interests of minority communities, including those of Asian Americans are not at the heart of SFFA’s lawsuit against race-based college admission policies.
“This case is not about concern for Asian Americans and here's why. The man who has funded and organised this lawsuit is Edward Blum."Dr Natasha Warikoo
Blum also organised the opposition to the parts of the Voting Rights Act and the gutting of voting rights is being used by the ‘Republican Party in many places’ to ‘limit people’s voting, she says.
Warikoo is of the opinion that Edward Blum is using the minority community to further advantage his conservative beliefs after he lost his previous case.
“He (Blum) attacked affirmative action with a white plaintiff, Abigail Fisher. That case went all the way to the US Supreme Court. He lost the Fischer vs Texas case,” she says, elaborating, “I think when he lost the Fisher vs Texas case, he thought he could cleverly link this issue of anti-Asian discrimination to affirmative action. There are some Asian Americans who bought his logic.”
She stresses that Asian Americans need to understand Blum’s motives, “He cleverly thought, if I put a racial minority front and center and use them to say we should be a colorblind society or there is no longer racial discrimination or racial inequality.”
She gives numerous examples of hate incidents against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities which have not been addressed by conservative groups. Many conservative and libertarian foundations that have been funding this case have not "shown any concern" about racial discrimination Asian Americans face in the US, Warikoo, who has authored several books on education and race, says.
Race based selections in college admissions have been around for 50 years, but they don’t have popular support. A 2019 Pew survey showed that 73 percent of Americans believe universities should not consider race or ethnicity in admission decisions.
In the 2020 election, voters in liberal and diverse California, continued to support a state ban on consideration of race, ethnicity, and gender in public higher education and government jobs. Warikoo explains how this impacts careers: “University of California has not considered race and admissions since 1998 and we see declines among underrepresented minority groups on the elite campuses."
"There's a cascade effect, where a student who may have under affirmative action gotten into UC Berkeley now might be at another college. That student is then less likely to graduate college and as a result less likely to go on to professional schools. It even seems to impact wages of people. We see a difference in wages among Latinos who applied before and after the ban because of that cascade effect."Dr Natasha Warikoo
As per AAPI data, in 2022, 69% of Asian American registered voters surveyed favour affirmative action. At 80%, support is high among Indian Americans.
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 court has become much more conservative. It is projected to give the decision on affirmative action in the spring or summer of 2023.
Supporters of affirmative action wish that universities continue their efforts towards integration by creating diverse student bodies, to undo the effects of years of racial segregation and White supremacy.
Warikoo, the Lenor Stern Professor in Social Sciences, Department of Sociology at Tufts University, says, “Race continues to play a role in American society as reflected in wealth disparity. The median wealth of White Americans is 10 times that of African Americans”.
The author of Is Affirmative Action Fair? The Myth of Equity in College Admissions adds, “If we want these kind of universities to be contributing to American Society, this is one policy that can help create diverse and broader perspectives among graduates who go on to be leaders in society, and obviously provide more opportunities for groups that have been historically excluded from the American dream."
(Savita Patel is a San Francisco Bay Area-based journalist and producer. She reports on Indian diaspora, India-US ties, geopolitics, technology, public health, and environment. She tweets at @SsavitaPatel.)