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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  A contest of two faulty arguments familiar to Indians
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A contest of two faulty arguments familiar to Indians

The affirmative action debate misses the point of what a truly compassionate society should aim to achieve.

A contest of two faulty arguments familiar to Indians. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)Premium
A contest of two faulty arguments familiar to Indians. (AP Photo/Danny Moloshok)

The US Supreme Court has deemed it illegal for universities to practise “affirmative action", which is an American phrase for what Indians call “reservations". This is a part of the court’s war against discrimination based on “race", which is an American word for “caste", and to assert the US Constitution’s “colorblindness," which is American idealistic nonsense whose Indian equivalent is “secularism." The verdict was split with a majority of judges in favour of abolition and three dissents, marking not the end of a war, but a historic moment in an eternal political contest of two bad arguments.

The argument that triumphed is hinged on the view that ‘everyone is equal’ in theory. The dissenting argument is based on the idea that society should lower the bar for some people to help them catch up. One argument is dear to people who venerate ‘merit’ because they misunderstand their own luck for talent. Among the people who celebrated the verdict was Donald Trump, who was born into wealth. He wrote, “People with extraordinary ability and everything else necessary for success, including future greatness for our Country, are finally being rewarded…" This is almost exactly how many ‘upper castes’ in India would react if the top court deems all quotas in educational institutions illegal. There is an implication in this view that their success is a result of their innate abilities. They think ‘merit’ begins at the start of an entrance exam, and not in the cradle or earlier. What they cannot see is that being born into the upper class is a system with a 100% reservation for its own. Just look what happened in some spheres of life when a broad section of Indians got some opportunities. There was a time when it seemed only upper castes could crack the Joint Entrance Exam of the Indian Institutes of Technology, or even have the right technique to be batsmen. All that has changed.

The other argument, the one that lost, is more humane and like all humane arguments about equality it is dear to people who are beneficiaries of inequality. It is also dear to people of a race or caste or group that is perceived as the “underclass". Especially the elite among them, who are in the best position to gain from affirmative action. They appropriate the trauma of their people, even though they themselves are privileged. When a society lowers the bar to help victims of historical injustice, the people who benefit the most from are not weakest in the group, but the best off.

I do not say that African-Americans who benefited from affirmative action were all affluent, but I do say that they were, in their own ways luckier than most of their community. Even to work hard and succeed, you need to come from the right home. There are African-Americans who got college admission “on merit" as Indians would call it. They endure the discomfort of being perceived as unfairly selected. This is among the arguments that conservatives have presented to abolish affirmative action. It is not that their hearts ache for “meritorious" African-Americans, but because arguments need moral facades.

Michelle Obama issued a statement on the verdict that tried to remind us she entered Princeton and Harvard not because of quotas, but because she had “worked hard" for it; “…I sometimes wondered if people thought I got there because of affirmative action. It was a shadow that students like me couldn’t shake, whether those doubts came from the outside or inside our own minds." She considers affirmative action essential, though, despite some of its problems. Her husband Barack Obama reacted similarly: “Affirmative action was never a complete answer in the drive towards a more just society. But for generations of students who had been systematically excluded from most of America’s key institutions—it gave us the chance to show we more than deserved a seat at the table."

The problem with affirmative action is that it has not realized its goals; it has not liberated most African-Americans. So why have a policy that gives to privileged African-Americans what it takes from privileged Caucasians?

If both the arguments on affirmative action are flawed, then what is the solution to the fact that some people having an unfair head-start over the rest?

Much strife in the modern world emerges from constricted paths to economic well-being. What you love doing or what you’re very good at is usually not lucrative. Most entrepreneurs, artists and athletes fail to make a good living. A more certain path to a decent life is corporate bureaucracy, whose doors are guarded by a club that demands “quality education" for entry. So the consecration of higher education is not only a fake solution to social problems, but also a creator of new forms of inequality. It is a club that wishes to broaden the diversity of its snobs by luring people to imitate straight Caucasian males.

There will always be inequality because that is the instinctive objective of individual ambition. The central aim of a typical family is to provide an unfair advantage to the family’s children. Economic inequality is far less unnatural than people think. Social equality, which means the rich pretending everyone is equal, is possible because mass acting is not hard to achieve.

An ideal society would not waste its time trying to end inequality. Instead, it would try to establish a compassionate government that makes a high quality of life inexpensive for everyone, with only things like a seat in a carbon-fibre submarine that are left unaffordable.

Manu Joseph is a journalist, novelist, and the creator of the Netflix series, ‘Decoupled’

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Updated: 03 Jul 2023, 09:08 AM IST
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