Good Intentions With Bad Consequences: Affirmative Action

Guest post by Kush Desai

Each year, thousands of aspiring high school seniors send thousands upon thousands of college applications in to their dream schools. Laden with application fees (which alone can add up to several hundred, if not, thousand dollars), these applications are sent in with high hopes of a good education and future – and fears of outright rejection and failure.

But of the many merit-based factors that can affect a college admissions decision, from SAT scores to GPAs to extracurricular activities, none is as uncontrollable as one’s ethnicity. Statistically under-performing ethnic groups – like African Americans, Hispanics, and Native Americans – can receive a ‘boost’ in undergraduate admissions. Statistically over-performing ethnic groups – such as East, and, in our case particularly, South Asians – are considered more rigorously for admission.

Simply, affirmative action policies are futile attempts to correct a much bigger and complex problem. They aim to somehow establish a new equilibrium of racial representation and achievement in academics and education. How significant is affirmative action’s influence? Consider this: when Texas abolished its affirmative action policies in 1996, Texas’s prestigious Rice University’s freshman class had 46% fewer African Americans and 22% fewer Hispanic students compared to previous freshman classes ( Such jaw-dropping statistics are indicative of how important affirmative action is for many ‘under-performing’ minorities, many of whom come from poverty and otherwise difficult circumstances.

But in this otherwise virtuous and munificent undertaking, hardworking and intelligent members of ‘over-performing’ minorities are in turn discriminated against. Princeton University sociologist, Thomas Espenshade, reported in a study that while Asian applicants to prestigious universities received an admissions ‘penalty’ equivalent to about 140 points on their SATs, black and Hispanic students received an admissions boost equivalent to about 310 and 130 points, respectively, on their SATs (

We, as the Indian-American community ought to be outraged.

While I myself am a proponent of some sort of affirmative action policy, I think currently many modern affirmative action policies are outdated and ineffective. More importantly, the affirmative action policies of providing ‘boosts’ and ‘penalties’ for members of certain ethnicities deal with the results of the problem, not the problem itself. Education is a lifelong process, and one’s demographics and socioeconomic circumstances go a long way.

Consider Indian-Americans singularly, as a case example. The USINPAC website proudly reports that the median household income for Indian American families is “nearly double the median income of all American families”. Across the board, wealthier households – regardless of race – produce more educated children. They tend to live in cities and towns with better schools that can open more doors for college admissions. Wealthier households may simply have more resources available for their children’s education – SAT classes, prep books, tutors, the ability for mothers to stay home and ensure proper management of their children’s time, etc. Additionally, many Indian-American parents themselves belong to the well-educated classes of Americans, saturating career fields in medicine, research, IT, and, increasingly, finance. More educated parents are more likely to stress the importance of a good education to their children. For households who do not necessarily fit into this wealthy minority mold, Indian and Hindu culture stress the importance of and respect for education, a paradigm indicative in the Upanishads’ famous line “acharya devo bhava” or “the teacher is God”. At common cultural and religious events, Indian-American children and families are likely to associate with other Indian-Americans who are better off and who can brush off the right ideas of work and education. Many teens (including yours truly) may lament the “monkey see, monkey do” competitive mentality of their parents with regards to SATs and college admissions, but it is a social habit that has helped induce widespread educational success.

Given these circumstances, it should hardly be surprising to discover that Indian-American students are routinely competing for seats at America’s finest universities. It would be unfair to punish these students for simply being born with a leg up in the education process.

On the other hand, underrepresented minorities are typically poorest. They are often confined to reside in poorer inner-city neighborhoods. These inner-city neighborhoods’ schools – as a result of low property values – are often underfunded and ridden with issues akin to poor urban areas in every nation: gang influence, troubled family life, and the stresses of people living paycheck-to-paycheck. In many cases, high school students are forced to drop out of school and take up low wage work to help their struggling households. Unlike with Indian-American students, there is no coherent and binding cultural/religious tenet upholding the necessity of education or much – if any – association with better educated and mentoring kin. It should hardly be surprising that minorities who are often subjugated to such circumstances fail to truly compete with their Asian-American and white peers, all of whom are much more likely to have better resources and support.
But it is from here, where students receive the foundations of their education, where affirmative action ought to take root. Better school funding, organization, and out-of-school help and welfare programs may help these poorer minorities to bridge the wealth-education gap. It is a solution that gives real gains to minorities, and it is a solution that does not punish Asian-American students either.

To summarize, current affirmative action policies – those of ‘helping’ underrepresented minorities at the expense of over-represented minorities – are outright unjust. There are better alternatives out there, alternatives that work with minority students at the very foundations of the problems of under-representation. In the ensuing political discourse and widening public interest in American education, I hope people become cognizant of such woes. As the wise axiom of social rights activist Malcolm X once put it: “education is our passport to the future, for tomorrow belongs to the people who prepare for it today”. While we focus a great deal on the visas and passports of immigration, it is time we focus on the Indian-American youths’ “passport to the future”.

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