|In July 1994, a group of Chinese American families with help from the Chinese American Democratic Club and the Asian American Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit. They took action against a consent decree of 1983 that worked to desegregate San Francisco’s public schools. Their target school was Lowell High, one of the 107 schools in the city. At Lowell, almost 70 percent of the students were already East or South Asian. The lawsuit argued that the consent decree constrained the right of Chinese Americans to enter the school in even larger numbers due to the “quotas” that held seats for underrepresented minorities. The Chinese students, the suit charged, became victims of “quotas” and their merit was not considered in admissions.
On February 15, 1999, the court decided in favor of the plaintiffs, so that now the schools need not be careful about diversity and equity. The Chinese American Democratic Club and the Asian American Legal Foundation celebrated their victory as “a solution for the Twenty-First Century.” In response to the verdit, three community organizers wrote, “If that’s true, the next millennium could be bleak, characterized by intensifying racial and class segregation.”
Many desis in my estimation would agree with the Chinese Americans who filed the lawsuit – that our youth are denied admission to schools not because of anti-Asian bias, but because the schools have “quotas”
This is a tragic interpretation of racial justice in our era.
Asians, in the past decade, have allowed ourselves to be used by the worst elements of white supremacy against anti-racist programs such as affirmative action. At a Heritage Foundation event in the 1980s, radical right-wing US.. Congressman Dana Rohrabacker (California) said that he used Asians as “a vehicle to show that America has made a mistake on affirmative action.”
He had no special empathy for Asians, but he did find us useful in his war against anti-racist programs, indeed toward the dismantlement of the social justice side of state policy. People like Rohrabacker talk about us as a “model minority” only to attack programs like affirmative action; otherwise they care little about us, indeed mock us, disdain us, and want to deport us.
Our own arrival in the United States after Jim Crow or legal racist segregation ended has meant that we have little historical sense of the significance of affirmative action. Indians did live in the United States before 1965, but there were few of us and those who were did not have an important role in the community after 1965.
The NRIs who dominated the community, indeed who continue to have an important voice in our community, do not grasp the historical enormity of legal racist segregation and so, of affirmative action. In that earlier epoch, even though we had been legally classified as white, we lived as people of color, with our dignity under threat each and every day. When Indian dignitaries visited the United States, such as Vivekananda or Anandibai Joshee, they complained about the racism. Joshee’s own biographer Caroline Healy Dall described her as “a stout dumpy mulatto girl,” while Vivekananda’s 1894 visit had been marked by personal humiliations that led to his general observations on Jim Crow (he was shocked by “the condition of the Negro in the South, who is not allowed into hotels nor to ride in the same cars with white men, and is a being to whom no decent man will speak”).
The Civil Rights struggle, led by brave blacks and their allies, forced the United States to ban Jim Crow and to create a modicum of protection for nonwhites. It was thanks to the Civil Rights movement that we can live in some measure of dignity in America, that we can speak out against racism if we ever experience it. The 1963 March on Washington, an enormous undertaking filled with the sacrifices of hundreds of thousands of people, mainly blacks, forced the government to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, a milestone for the lives of all Americans.
But we very rarely celebrate the gains of the Civil Rights movements, rarely do desis gather together to say that it was that movement’s heroes that allow us to live in the United States. Martin Luther King, Fannie Lou Hammer and others are more our heroes that any other desi community organizer that we have seen in the United States. No-one matches what those folk did for us.
Affirmative action comes out of this legacy. It was forced on the state by the struggles of blacks, but it benefits women and any non-white citizen of the United States in the areas of employment and education. There are no “quotas,” but there is a commitment to diversity and to redress the past. More than anything else, affirmative action, on colleges at least, allowed students of color to feel that the campus is their own, that they have a right to speak out about injustice because the system has taken a position, however tepid, on behalf of diversity and against racism/sexism. Far from being the instrument that makes nonwhites feel that they do not belong, I find that affirmative action makes nonwhites take charge of college campuses, because such policies force a college to take an ethical stand against discrimination. Affirmative action, then, is not just about this student or that student who gets into college; it is about the atmosphere that is produced by anti-racist and anti-sexist policies. Desi students, therefore, have been generally very committed to affirmative action even as they themselves are not individual beneficiaries of the policy. Since affirmative action produces a social atmosphere on campus conducive to students of color, desi students benefit from it immensely.
When the Supreme Court ruled tepidly to retain some measure of affirmative action this summer, many of us felt relief. Fortunately the court understood the importance of affirmative action for our educational system, indeed for our society. Most young desis with whom I spoke took a very positive position toward the decision, seeing it as a placeholder for a better society. With the court in favor of some kind of affirmative action, the claim can still be made that our society values equality along race and gender lines.
Among first generation migrants, the conversations seemed more ambivalent, indeed quite a few felt that this would mean that our children would not get into college for lack of spaces. Our community’s mainstream organizations remained mainly silent on the verdicts.
The fear of “reservations” in colleges does not represent any reality of college admissions, but is perhaps a holdover of suvarna fears of the Mandal regime in India: NRIs are disproportionately from the top end of the jati hierarchy and most look down upon the compensatory discrimination schemes that mark the public sector in India. Among NRIs, the furious support for the BJP, for Brahmanism, for the private sector can be somewhat explained by their jati location and of the resentments bred in these communities over the past five decades. Perhaps the hangover of caste is one explanation of why us first generation NRIs are less happy with the Mandal-like policies of the post-Jim Crow era.
Affirmative action is not an end in itself, but an instrument in the struggle for anti-racist movement. We, as desis, need to have a public conversation about affirmative action, air our views, take positions. We cannot afford to sit on the sidelines again as others do the heavy lifting for us: we benefit from affirmative action, but we have not been around in the struggle. The Chinese American organizations in San Francisco made a tragic error of identity: they fought for their rights without a consideration of the rights of all people. We need to fight for more schools, better public education, more money for education rather than for the military.
We need to ensure that the debate not be reduced to who gets into college, because we need to argue that everyone should be in college, get opportunities. Affirmative action benefits us, but it is also an important part of the democratization of American society. Let’s be there for this struggle.