Politics & Policy

Smash the ‘Bamboo Ceiling’ of Racial Quotas

One Indian American says he overcame anti-Asian bias and got into med school by claiming he was black.

A group of Asian-American students has filed suit against Harvard’s admissions policy, charging that it seeks to limit the number of Asian students much like quotas held down the number of Jewish students until the 1920s. For example, one of the students Harvard rejected, an unnamed child of Chinese immigrants, had perfect scores on three college-admission tests, graduated first in his (or her) class, led the tennis team, and raised money for National Public Radio.

Harvard officials respond that one in six of its students have an Asian background, its admissions policy was singled out for praise in a 1978 Supreme Court decision, and it rejects thousands of impressive overachievers every year.

But the group bringing the lawsuit, Students for Fair Admissions, won a powerful PR ally this week: Vijay Chokal-Ingam, an Indian American who happens to be the brother of Fox comedy star Mindy Kaling, revealed that he won acceptance to medical school by claiming to be black. Frustrated at being rejected by medical schools in part because of mediocre test scores and a 3.1 grade point average, Chokal-Ingam shaved off his slick black hair in 2001, began using his middle name, “Jojo,” and checked the “black” box on his applications. He soon won interviews at Harvard and Columbia and a spot on waiting lists at the University of Pennsylvania, Washington University, and Mt. Sinai. He eventually went to Saint Louis University Medical School but dropped out after two years. He then applied as an Asian American to UCLA’s business school and graduated with an MBA. He now works in Los Angeles as a résumé coach.

RELATED: To Improve Higher Education, Scale Back Federal Involvement

“I got into medical school because I said I was black,” Chokal-Ingam writes at his blog Almost Black. “The funny thing is I’m not. . . . My plan actually worked. Lucky for you, I never became a doctor.”

Chokal-Ingam admits it was wrong for him to lie but says he did so in part because he was angry at the system of quotas that discriminated against Asian-American students. “Affirmative-action racism is as ingrained in our society as imperialism was in the time of Gandhi and segregation was in the time of (Martin Luther) King,” he wrote on his blog. “People who challenge affirmative action racism such as Abigail Fisher, Justice Thomas, and Ward Connerly are the true heirs” to the ideal of a color-blind society.

He isn’t opposed to giving people from disadvantaged backgrounds a leg up when it comes to college admissions, but he argues that it was wrong for someone of his financially privileged background to get into medical school with mediocre grades.

“I disclosed that I grew up in one of the wealthiest towns in Massachusetts, that my mother was a doctor, and that my father was an architect,” he told the New York Post. “I was the campus rich kid, let’s just put it on the table. And yet they considered me an affirmative-action applicant.” He says affirmative action actually works against the interests of its beneficiaries, because it “promotes negative stereotypes about the competency of minority Americans by making it seem like they need special treatment.”

#related#Liberals active in the 1960s civil-rights movement such as Martin Luther King called for a color-blind society, but today’s left-wingers want to entrench quotas forever. Last year, the Democratic state senate in California rammed through a ballot measure that would have ended the state’s ban on racial preferences at public universities, a ban put in place by voters in 1996. But Asian Americans mobilized against any return to racial preferences and forced the Democratic state assembly to shelve the idea. That effort was part of what inspired Chokal-Ingam to write a book on his experience. It will be called Almost Black.

Richard Kahlenberg, an education-policy analyst at the Century Foundation, says there is indeed evidence that Harvard is substituting race for poverty as a major determinant in its admissions policy. “Harvard has as many students in the freshman class from families in the top 1 percent by income nationally as from the bottom 50 percent,” he told Fox News last year. “It could produce considerable racial and ethnic diversity without resorting to racial preferences.”

Edward Blum, a civil-rights activist who has midwifed the complaint against Harvard, says he believes the recent 2013 Supreme Court decision in Fisher v. University of Texas provides valuable legal ammunition for his point of view. “The Fisher opinion unambiguously requires schools to implement race-neutral means to achieve student-body diversity before turning to racial classifications and preferences,” he told me in an interview last year. But at the three most selective Ivy League schools, there is a clear anomaly: Asian Americans were over 27 percent of applicants to those schools between 2008 and 2012 but represented only 17–20 percent of those admitted. Blum believes that the discrepancy represents a “bamboo ceiling” against Asian-American applicants.

The Harvard lawsuit will be fascinating to watch if it strips away the veil behind which college-admission decisions are made. Even if the case does not ultimately reach the Supreme Court, it will probably be a powerful teaching tool for Americans of good will who want to promote education opportunity for minorities but not at the expense of other minorities. As Chief Justice Roberts declared a few years ago: “The way to stop discrimination based on race is to stop discriminating based on race.”

— John Fund is national-affairs correspondent for National Review Online

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