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What Americans can Learn from Affirmative Action Across the World

Positive social change is not for the timid.

In the course of the federal trial over Harvard’s affirmative action policies, the university had to defend policies created in an attempt to bring a more diverse group of students to a campus that has long been a preserve of the white elite. Harvard’s admissions’ practices, from their interpretation of regression scores to the influence of donors and legacy admission, have been put in the spotlight. A complex picture has emerged.

Judge Allison Burrough’s ruling on this matter will start the next chapter in our country’s four decades long conversation about affirmative action — a conversation that often makes it seem like the United States is the only country where affirmative action policies have been tried.

Actually, other countries have created systems and formulas to try to increase racial, ethnic, and gender participation in schools, the workplace, and government. Some of these policies predate the US experiment by more than a century, and demonstrate the positive effect affirmative action can have.

What can we learn from a global perspective? Most importantly, while policies like Harvard’s are not always perfect, affirmative action remains one of the most effective ways we can create true social and economic mobility.

The largest nationally sponsored affirmative action program was established in India under British colonial rule in the late 19thcentury. The caste system had historically prohibited “untouchable” (Dalit) castes from going to school and moving into decent employment. What was termed the “reservation” system transformed life for many in the lower caste groups.

As recently as 1965, Dalits held just 1.6 percent of the most senior civil service positions. By the present decade, the Dalits share of those positions rose to 11 percent, nearly identical to the Dalits’ representation in the Indian population. Dalits now have a chamber of commerce representing their interests, more than 80 members of the lower house of parliament, many millionaires among other gains.

The effects of this reservation system are also felt in education. In today’s India, almost no educational funding is based on a student’s merit (such as test scores); rather, nearly all student aid is based on the degree of historical discrimination by caste or tribe. Like in the United States, India’s quota system has faced considerable pushback. Many members of the upper (Brahmin) castes claim that the system is unfair, and push for quotas based on economic disadvantage rather than caste.

Meanwhile, proponents claim that to focus on wealth alone is to ignore India’s long history of discrimination, as well as the continuing social stigma attached to being an “untouchable.” Under the system, 22.5% of all places in educational institutions that have complete or partial government funding are reserved for such caste and tribal youth. Research has found that this policy, when applied to some of India’s most prestigious universities, led to a three-fold increase in enrollment among the disadvantaged groups.

Many other countries—including post-apartheid South Africa, Brazil, Bulgaria, China, and France, just to name a few—have put into place one or another kind of affirmative action policy to address historical discrimination.

Many Americans think of ourselves as being in a different category than India and other countries. We’re the world’s leading economy. We have the world’s leading research universities; India and other countries send their best students here for advanced degrees.

Much has been said of the growing gap between the rich and the poor in the US, in spite of our strong tendency to believe in the American Dream. This type of economic immobility may be seen in many countries today.

While we have never had a caste system, the effects of systemic racism that predate the founding of this country still affect the everyday lives of millions. President Trump’s media tour just before the mid-term elections — filled with misrepresentations about immigrants, and a commercial so naked in its rhetoric that FOX News refused to air it — shows again that racial discrimination is not a matter of history. Similarly, #MeToo offers yet another reminder about how far we must go to achieve gender equality, especially for women of color.

Instead of undoing the few US policies that are directly designed to redress historical and ongoing discrimination, we should take this opportunity to consider the Harvard case in light of what can be learned from other nations. Affirmative action is one of the only ways to create equitable and socially responsible societies.

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