The American Dream is not possible without higher education for all - Hindustan Times
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The American Dream is not possible without higher education for all

Sep 02, 2023 09:05 PM IST

Following SCOTUS' ruling on affirmative action, affluent groups in the US should continue the historical battle for social justice, equity and inclusion

In June, the United States (US) Supreme Court ruled that affirmative action in higher education violates the Constitution, determining that race should not be a factor in university student admissions. The landmark decision was announced nearly 60 years after the US Supreme Court (SCOTUS) first permitted colleges to use race-based affirmative action (AA) in admissions – a move that aimed to combat discrimination practices and bolster diversity. The most recent surveys by the Pew Research Center state that the majority of Americans believe that affirmative action is a force for good and a mechanism to create equal opportunity. In the year that America celebrates its 247th Independence Day, it’s important to remember that within many Americans' lifetimes, racial segregation was a fact of life, even after slavery was abolished in 1865. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and several other civil rights groups and universities including Harvard are protesting this decision.

Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Thursday, June 29, 2023, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor.(AP)
Demonstrators protest outside of the Supreme Court in Washington, Thursday, June 29, 2023, after the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, saying race cannot be a factor.(AP)

As a harbinger of what was to come, nine states banned the use of race in admissions policies at public colleges and universities. And earlier this year, Republican governors in Florida and Texas signed bills to ban diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) offices at public universities.

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Those who oppose AA policy deploy the age-old merit argument that college admissions should not factor in one’s race or ethnicity. However, it’s important to note that aside from merit, and race, elite institutions made considerations for legacy students (applicants’ whose parents or relatives attended the institution), recruited athletes, and applicants with financial need. Legacy admissions (and the outright ability to pay high fees) lead some students to have an advantage over others, thus reproducing class inequality. Meanwhile, the effects of systemic racism and injustice continue to weigh down generations of families of colour.

Affirmative action was introduced to help “level the playing field” in higher education and the workforce for individuals who experienced racism historically. African American enrollment in higher education has decreased in recent years, creating a ripple effect on diversity and inclusion programs. There are universities, especially among the Ivy League, that have realized that the standard test for admission should be given much less weightage in admissions decisions to ensure a diverse student body and equitable society.

Though not a comprehensive remedy to social inequality, the AA policy was the only way to bring social mobility among African Americans. In the last six decades (compared to 250 years of slavery), there has been a certain level of social mobility and social consciousness that AA brought to education. It’s the responsibility of university education to not only make students conscious of history but also guide them to change it for a just and diverse society. This consciousness is about knowing the uncomfortable truth of our history.

Effective learning occurs in a diverse classroom environment when students from different gender, race, caste, class, ethnicities, regions and faith systems learn together. It’s easy for people to say “We don’t see race” or purport not to see colour. By claiming that they do not see race, they also can avert their eyes from the ways in which well-meaning people engage in practices that reproduce neighborhood and school segregation, and disadvantage racial minorities in the job market. Since its inception in the 1960s, AA has served as a beacon of hope for generations of Black students. Subjugated by extreme poverty, mass incarceration and institutional violence, the only hope for many African Americans was a college degree. Yet, the SCOTUS ruling will reverse concrete steps taken toward social justice. Without AA, it’s hard to imagine any other way to create and maintain diversity. Thus, it’s crucial to understand ‘who has the weight of the culture behind them in terms of deciding who needs AA.

What Indian Americans can (un)learn from this

According to National Center for Education Statistics data, Asian Americans make up 56% of the student body at elite U.S. universities, followed by white persons. Yet Asian Americans make up less than six percent of the population. Among this group, Chinese (1.58%) and Indians (1.35%) constitute the largest minorities. Most Indian Americans are second and third-generation higher education learners and belong to the middle and upper middle class - considered the “model minority”. Their parents and grandparents came to America to study and work at a time when racial segregation was still present. In other words, African Americans were late entrants in higher education in their own country along with other underrepresented racial minorities including Hispanics and Native Americans.

Thus, it falls on affluent groups to continue the historical battle for social justice, equity and inclusion as the core values of the American dream and democracy. Privileged Americans should take note of Professor W.E.B. DuBois (Harvard’s first African American doctorate and founder of NAACP) warning: “... good and evil in the nation should not be judged from the point of view of the privileged class alone.”

Gaurav. J. Pathania is a sociologist of education at Eastern Mennonite University in Virginia. He is an anti-caste poet and the author of The University as a Site of Resistance: Identity and Student Politics. The views expressed are personal

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