Friday, March 7, 2014

Democracy against Brahmins

From appearances it looks like California now has a Brahmin (Asian) problem. Historically, the ancestors of Karthick Ramakrishnan have enjoyed their position at the top of the social pyramid in Dravida-Nadu.

Then came democracy (and more importantly the social justice movement) and the Brahmins (aka northern invaders) were driven away to the North, West, and Eastern corners of India, as a consequence of the (in)famous 69% reservation policy [ref. wiki]. The history of quotas and various arguments for/against are debated in this article. There is no doubt that reservations help seed a creamy layer in each category (which may or may not benefit the less well off people in the same categories). All in all about 80% of Tamil Nadu population are said to be protected by reservations.

Main Category as per Government of Tamil Nadu
Sub Category as per Government of Tamil Nadu
Reservation Percentage for each Sub Category as per Government of Tamil Nadu
Reservation Percentage for each Main Category as per Government of Tamil Nadu
Category as per Government of India


only for Arunthathiyar)

Total Reservation Percentage


But the great northbound movement proved only to be a temporary respite. The quota battles spread out to the north as well, though settling at a lower level of 49.5% for now (more importantly enforcement was better than before, as Shudras and Dalits came to power on their own steam). The next (logical) step for many of these Brahmins was to move out from Sharat Bose Avenue (Kolkata), Ramakrishna Puram (Delhi) and Matunga (Mumbai) to the green(er) pastures of the West where (apparently) meritocracy still prevailed in California, enshrined via the equally (in)famous Proposition 209. Asians of many stripes (driven to excel by the Tiger Mother syndrome) managed to take advantage of race-neutral admission policies and savoured the model minority badge from the white majority (who used the MM stick to beat up the blacks/latinos).

However democracy has now managed to catch up with the super-castes in California as well. The game changer (as KR reports below) is that whites who resented preferences for blacks in the 1990s are now resentful of asians (mostly Chinese but I would imagine also Koreans and Indians) for the sin of grabbing too many university seats. The dreaded specter of quota being (sort of) tied to population percentages has been raised. Once that genie is out of the bottle it will not be possible to push it back. Even if the Asians manage to win a few battles they will surely lose the war (one problem is that Asians are not all equally doing well- Pacific Islanders and Laotians for example). The 10% will inevitably need to bow before the heft of the 90%. The logic of democracy is relentless (and it is how it should be). For the super-castes there will be now no more place on earth to run (and to hide). For folks like Karthick Ramakrishnan, the writing on the wall (and the desperate anguish reflected in his writing) is clear.

Is the debate on affirmative action versus race-blind policies mainly about principle, or mostly about preserving narrow group interests? We are beginning to find out in California. A bill passed by the state Senate and pending in the Assembly would put a constitutional amendment on the ballot that would overturn portions of Proposition 209 to exempt public college and university admissions from the ban on racial, ethnic and gender preferences.

Interestingly, many of these fears are emanating not from conservative white voters but from a few vocal Asian American organizations. National advocacy groups such as the 80-20 Political Action Committee, editorial writers in Chinese-language newspapers and activists from Chinese-language schools have begun to bombard Assembly members, urging them to vote against restoring affirmative action. They worry that Asian American students, who saw a sizable increase in UC enrollment following 209's ban on affirmative action in 1996, will see a big drop in enrollment if affirmative action is restored.

Just as important, the focus on narrow group interests might also change the opinions of white voters in California in surprising ways.When whites voted overwhelmingly against affirmative action in 1996, the UC admission rates for whites and Asian Americans were roughly equal, at 83% and 84%, respectively. Today, under the ban on affirmative action, the admission rate for whites is 65%, compared with 73% for Asian Americans. These gaps may become relevant to the attitudes of white voters confronted with a new choice on affirmative action. Experimental studies of white voter opinion show that support for merit-based university admissions drops significantly when respondents are provided information about the high success rate of Asian Americans. If the primary consideration in voters' minds is the potential loss or gain for their own racial group, we may indeed see a reversal in voting patterns of whites and Asian Americans on affirmative action. This is particularly true if group fears are based on the kinds of erroneous or exaggerated claims we are already seeing.

For example, some ethnic media stories claim that affirmative action would cap Asian American admissions to their share of the resident population. Not only has this kind of quota been ruled unconstitutional since 1978; such fears also ignore the fact that the Asian American share of UC students was about three times their state population share in 1995, when affirmative action was last in place.