By Anam Mittra:
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.