Opinion: The admission process at Harvard and other elite universities was systematically racist for a long time.
By Dr. Ajay Kothari
Last week’s decision by the Supreme Court on the landmark Students for Fair Admissions, Inc.Â v President and Fellows of Harvard CollegeÂ (also the University of North Carolina) was right because the admission process was systematically racist for a long time. Harvard applicants in the top decile ranking had different chances to be admitted based on their race. For instance, Asian American students had a 12.7 percent chance to be admitted, while in the case of Whites, it was 15.3 percent. On the other hand, Hispanics had a 31.3 percent chance and Blacks 56.1 percent. Quite a travesty festering for a long time.
The Supreme Court ruling proves that meritocracy triumphed. At this juncture in time, it has become crucial and inevitable to accede to that. In my professional field of rocket science, I see day in and day out how fast China is progressing with its emphasis on meritocracy in that field and also in others like AI.
It landed a rover on the Farside of the Moon after placing a satellite around L2 to be able to communicate with landers from Earth, something the US has not yet done. It also aims to put Taikonauts on the Lunar surface to build a base by 2030, and possibly before then. In the arena of hypersonic research, they are ahead of us. Competing with them is just not possible without rewarding merit here. And any entity that does not do that is on a foolâ€™s errand which will eventually hurt all of us.
As former president of the American Society of Engineers of Indian Origin-National Capital Chapter (ASEI-NCC),Â an organization of Indian American engineers, I was invited by the Asian American Coalition for Education (AACE) to speak at the National Press Club, in 2016, just after the Students for Fair Admission case was filed, with AACE as a participant. AACE was formed in 2015 after a case against Harvard University was filed with the Department of Education by a coalition of 60-plus Asian American organizations in the US. AACE then, in May 2016, filed a similar case against Yale, Brown, and Dartmouth.
If youâ€™re applying to any of these Ivy League institutions and your last name is Wong or Patel, changing it to Smith or Lopez might just make the difference you need to get in (although they do have caveats to catch such identity thieves).
A specific example: of over 700 students in the class of 2015 graduates of Western High School in Davie, Florida, the top four were Asian Americans (three were Indian Americans) with outstanding academic and extracurricular achievements.
Yet, none of them was accepted by Ivy League universities, while five non-Asian class members, all ranked lower or even unranked, were accepted by Ivy League institutions, including Yale, Penn, Brown, and Cornell. This is a very compelling example of selective discrimination.
We do not want any favors, but we certainly do not deserve punishment. How is that fair in this country? To be considered at the same level in admission to Harvard, an Asian American has to have almost 140 points higher than a white, 270 higher than a Hispanic, and 450 higher than an African American in SAT scores.
Why this punishment? Is it fair to Asian American youth who have a different sieve to go through and compete against each other, simply because of their race?
Enrolment data reveals that Harvard limits Asian Americans to a flat 15 percent to 18 percent of the student body, year after year, though they increasingly dominate the top of the applicant pool.
To smoke out ethnicity, Harvard required applicants to provide their parentsâ€™ place of birth, their motherâ€™s maiden name, and whether their family has ever changed its surname. These questions, along with an interview requirement, were devised in the 1920s to limit the number of Jewish students.
Now Asians became the new Jews, welcome only in limited numbers as Harvard did in the 1920s. It was deemed unacceptable later but it was deemed perfectly acceptable to have the same covenant for Asian Americans.
But for Asian Americans, and more personally for me, for Indian Americans, this revelation is only the tip of the iceberg. It is a symptom of the root cause, of visualization of our limited acceptance in this country â€“ a fact that needs to be brought out in the open, and discussed. We positively belong here. It is time the country opened its eyes and smell the tea!
I got firsthand experience in what visual media thinks of Indian Americans. I became the first Indian American to become a member of the Screen Actorsâ€™ Guild (SAG) in 1993 in the MidAtlantic region, had a few bit parts in mainstream TV shows, but most of the calls in the last two decades have been specifically for â€œAfrican Americans or Caucasiansâ€ as if Asian Americans do not exist, even with their large buying power, not just here but even more so worldwide with almost 60 percent of this Earthâ€™s population being Asian. Hollywood and corporate bigwigs and media reflect this succinctly. 50 percent of the commercials on TV have African American faces.
Up until a few months ago, the other 40 percent to 50 percent were White faces. Absolutely a slap in the face of Hispanics and Asian Americans who make up 20 percent and 7 percent respectively according to the last census, about twice as many as African Americans at about 13 percent. They are every day telling us visually that we do not exist or matter here, the way the White society did to African Americans 60-70 years ago when the argument was that black faces would not be welcome in the living room TVs. It is now the same against Asian Americans. It is as if this land is being divvied up today between blacks and whites and no one else need to apply. Not right or fair.
Do you really think we do not exist, that we do not buy thingamajigs, and even if we of course do, we do not count? Harvardâ€™s excuse that Asians are not personable is also a reflection of the same. What about the presence on the celluloid screen of Native Americans, Hispanic Americans, and us, Asian Americans? Hollywood, are you that obtuse? This is not and should not be construed as an attack on one minority by another. It is a plea and a respectful demand to Hollywood, the media, and the whole country to open up to the presence of other visible minorities that also exist here and that are contributing mightily to the betterment of the country.
I will offer another example: For many years now the top three spelling bee winners have been Indian American kids, as were the toppers of 13 of the last 17 years and all since 2008. But when Hollywood made a movie on this subject, called Akeelah and the Bee, it was not about Indian American kids but about an African American contestant. Why? Because we can spell but we do not count? How would the country have reacted if the roles were reversed?
And do not think that because the heads of many IT-related companies are Indian Americans, you have won the world. You have not won even here. What matters for your children and grandchildren is acceptance in all endeavors in the country â€“ not just admissions to good schools. Even endeavors like music, art, or performing art. Everything that America is made up of, not just IT. How many Asian American celebrities can you name?
For every Indian American CEO, there are more than a hundred university professors, engineers and researchers in companies, NASA, Department of Defense, and elsewhere who continue to contribute to this civilization. Claim, recognize and front them.
It should be about Indian Americans, not just Prime Minister Narendra Modi and India, who on their own are already making their mark, as the very successful recent state visit to Washington by Modi illustrates. We need to rightfully but respectfully claim our place in the sun in this land too. This is our country. Our progenies will grow up and live here, not in any other country.
In this country, ballyhooed by arguments of equality for all races and ethnicities, Asian Americans (including Indian Americans) have become the new race group that is perfectly acceptable to ignore and even to discriminate against surreptitiously. One need only look at the face of CNN or MSNBC or FOX to see that. Do not worry much – they will never protest in the streets and cause a scene, so go ahead, ignore their pain.
The implication is: We want you to come here as immigrants and do well, but hey, if you do well, we will put barriers in front of you. We will decide in which field you are supposed to do well and how much. Yes, you can come and work here, perhaps, but about being part of the society here, oh, we are not too sure.
(Dr. Ajay Kothari is the President and CEO of Astrox Corporation.)