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Affirmative Action Under Siege

Both India and the United States implemented group-based policies to remedy the serious historical discrimination and ongoing disadvantages faced by large swaths of society. But recent decisions by each country’s respective supreme court suggest that the guiding principle of righting past wrongs may have run its course.

NEW DELHI – Should individuals receive differential treatment based on race, caste, gender, religion, or any other accident of birth? In June 2023, the United States Supreme Court answered this question with a firm “no,” as it struck down affirmative action in higher education. The plaintiffs in the case, Students for Fair Admissions, had sued Harvard College and the University of North Carolina, alleging that their race-conscious admissions policies discriminated against Asian-American applicants.

When countries are riddled with deep-rooted intergroup inequalities, any group-based policy like affirmative action presents a conundrum. Efforts to redress historical discrimination, such as slavery or caste bias, and to promote equal opportunities for marginalized communities are inevitable. But so, too, is the eventual backlash against such policies for perpetuating “reverse discrimination” and protecting their beneficiaries from the rigors of competition.

Inequality of opportunity is not a matter of a country’s wealth. The US is considerably wealthier than India, with a per capita GDP roughly nine times higher in purchasing-power-parity terms. Moreover, 88% of eligible students in the US are enrolled in colleges and universities, compared to only 31% in India. Yet both countries have enacted affirmative action policies.

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