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If Passed, This Judgement Could Be A Big Blow To The Rights Of Racial Minorities In The US

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By Anam Mittra

Chocolate, 36, an activist who wants to be identified by only her nickname, waves an American flag upside down while posing for a portrait in Ferguson, Missouri July 24, 2015. When asked how Michael Brown's death affected her life, Chocolate said, "My life won't ever be the same. It has changed me to become an activist and protester. It has made me to get more involved with my community and especially with youth. When you ask a kid these days what they want to be when they grow up, their answer is "I want to be alive." When asked what changes she has seen in her community over the past year, Chocolate said, "We are all still trying to heal. There are still a lot of racist cops here. We can do what we do which is stand up for justice. No one has accepted what happened out here. There is still a disconnect with the police and the community." The message on the flag reads: Hands up, don't shoot. Lost voices. Mike Brown means we got to fight back! On August 9, 2014 a white police officer shot unarmed black teenager Michael Brown dead in the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri. A year later Reuters photographer Adrees Latif returned to Ferguson, where he has documented events in the past year, to capture the portraits of local residents and canvass their views. REUTERS/Adrees Latif TPX IMAGES OF THE DAYPICTURE 6 OF 13 FOR WIDER IMAGE STORY "PORTRAITS OF FERGUSON"SEARCH "LATIF PORTRAITS" FOR ALL PICTURES - RTX1N6N6
Source: REUTERS/Adrees Latif

The US is waiting on a crucial judgment that will uphold or dismiss the practice of affirmative action in the University of Texas that benefits the African-American, Hispanic and Native-American races. Whichever side the apex court leans on is bound to have ripple effects across the country and will affect millions of lives.

Affirmative Action refers to a policy of the American government which is geared towards greater inclusion of historically marginalised sections of the society.

A recent New York Times (NYT) article spoke of how the state of Michigan has been coping with the aftermath of the passing of the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative (MCRI), also popularly known as Proposal 2. MCRI was a citizen’s initiative that sought to prohibit affirmative action in public institutions on the basis of race, colour, sex or religion. It became a law in November 2006 leading to a massive drop in enrollment of the minority races (excluding Asians) in the University of Michigan. Ironically in 2003, the Supreme Court had upheld reservations in law school admissions in the same university.

A close analysis of the arguments put for and against affirmative action in the US resonates with what we have witnessed in India since the inception of the Mandal Commission.

Ex-President of the University of Michigan who was present during the Supreme Court rulings, Lee Bollinger, asked, “What is the reality we are trying to address in our society, including in our colleges and universities trying to build diverse student bodies? It really is trying to overcome two centuries of legacies of discrimination and active disempowerment and wealth transfer.” The Indian Constitution provides for reservation of backward classes as an effort to empower the communities that have historically suffered unspeakable atrocities and discrimination.

Conversely Justice Antonin Scalia of the US Supreme Court observed that minority students who had poor academic records were better off at “a less advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well.” Meanwhile, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. asked, “what unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” The motive of rights and empowerment is lost on those who are to deliver judgments forever altering the lives of minority races in the US. Within India too, we spend more time debating ‘merit’ and lose sight of what prompted the need for affirmative action in the first place. It is our collective inability to treat them as equal citizens that prevents us from understanding why this is their right to take and not for us to give.

As many as seven US states have already banned affirmative action in their universities. The NYT article cites a report by Century Foundation which explains how seven out of 11 flagship universities in these states have adopted practices that have improved or maintained the racial mix in their student bodies. These included-guaranteeing admission for top graduates from each high school in the state, giving priority to low-income students, improving financial aid packages, stepping up recruitment and eliminating legacy preferences.

However, the Michigan experience with the low-income criterion is to be noted as a warning flag on how counter-productive it can be. Given the much higher number of Whites in the state, using a low-income indicator to enroll students doesn’t bode well for the other races as there are many White students from low-income households who are also making the threshold score for admission.

The US continues to grapple with racial inequality and cannot afford to completely do away with affirmative action unless it can replace it with other solutions that guarantee the rights envisioned in the original provisions.

India needs a positive and efficient overhauling of its reservation system, one that keeps it relevant for those in need of it. Till we wait for the miracle of a fair implementation of schemes to augment enrollment and retention of the reserved classes, the verdict on affirmative action is simple- in the absence of universal access to education, health and employment opportunities, it is the best shot many communities have at a dignified life.

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  1. monistaf

    “what unique perspective does a minority student bring to a physics class?” Absolutely nothing. “in the absence of universal access to education, health and employment opportunities”. There are plenty of students in the same situation that have made it on merit, not on a quota. How can we explain that? “geared towards greater inclusion of historically marginalised sections of the society”. The only problem is that History is the past. None of the students applying to universities today have been subject to any form of “historical” oppression or deprived of opportunities to succeed. Retributive justice cannot be justified because neither the oppressors not the oppressed are alive today. This whole idea of reservations just to force a diverse student population is an excuse for these “marginalized” groups to justify their underperformance. I would vote for university applications to be made anonymous with just numbers instead of names to establish a system that is purely based on meritocracy. The USA has had enough trouble with title IX “reforms” and I hope they do not go down this path of making exceptions for people based on race, ethnicity, religion, gender or anything else.

    1. Anam Mittra

      Thank you for your response. What you have written is what is given as justification by anyone opposed to reservation including in India. We tell them..'hey you wern't there 2,000 years ago when the society was pouring hot iron into their ears for listening to religious Sanskritic you don't deserve reservations.' In the Indian context, the reserved classes continue to face discrimination, violence and are not given the same opportunities as the 'forward' classes.
      What is the percentage of people from the African-American, Hispanic or Native American communities having the same standard of living as the upper-middle class White Americans?
      And 'underperformance' is not just restricted to the marginal communities but even to
      those who have had a relatively privileged existence.
      There is no level playing field. Look around you- religion, race, gender..everything determines what and how much of it will you get.

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