American Blackness isn't just Skin Deep: A Message on Mindy Kaling's Brother

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The Indian brother of well-known actress Mindy Kaling stated that he falsified a black identity to get into medical school. The irony of his action is that it tears at the fabric of modern American blackness as a racial construct, and brings forth questions that for too long have gone unanswered.

"So, I shaved my head, trimmed my long Indian eyelashes, and applied to medical school as a black man...My change in appearance was so startling that my own fraternity brothers didn't recognize me at first."

Starting off the actions of Vijay Chokal-Ingam were undoubtedly fraud, and should be treated as such. He not only cheated the University he attended, but he also took an admissions space that should have been allocated to a deserving African American student. Vijay pretended to be black to gain easier admissions through affirmative action programs. This is wrong because Affirmative Action was particularly meant to correct the long standing effects of the oppression of African Americans over hundreds of years through slavery followed by Jim Crow. Not just a way to even the field for darker colored Americans. Vijay’s ignorant scam undercut America’s attempt to heal through correcting its dark past’ impact on real black lives today.

Yet, the bigger issue is how this points to the lack of movement in the rigidity of defining American blackness. As we as a nation moved beyond color being the sole defining character of being black, we failed to bring society along with a full understanding of those changes. While looking black remains a barrier, it is not the greatest price of blackness in modern America. Rather the true seedling from America’s history is having the riddled setbacks of Jim Crow and Slavery’s marks throughout your family.  Unlike ethnic division, the racial construct of blackness roots out of being the antithesis of white normalcy. This difference was used as a tool of economic oppression against black American families for generations, spanning hundreds of years. But this construct of black has been nearly all accepting of those who check the black box for affirmative action or quota benefits, with few if any demands in return.

In the recent piece "Black America is Less Homogenous Than You Think" author Jamilah King wrote

One 2004 Princeton study found that immigrants accounted for more than a quarter of black students at America’s Ivy League schools. That led some to question the relevance of affirmative action policies, which were originally intended to help bring talented members of historically marginalized groups into many institutions of American society. In 2007, Lani Grunier, a professor at Harvard Law School, famously theorized why this is in The Washington Post. She said: “It has to do with coming form a country, especially those educated in Caribbean and African countries, where blacks were in the majority and did not experience the stigma that black children did in the United States," she said. What Grunier and other black Harvard professors later argued was that affirmative action policies were not helping America’s most disadvantaged blacks—those who were the direct descendants of American slaves—access the country’s most prestigious colleges.

In accepting everyone without any criteria beyond appearance for admission, those with the most need for recognition of America’s historical cost have been left behind.

Continuing along this analysis in the prior piece, "The Era Within Which American Legacy Rises"  I stated:

Over the last thirty years, Americans of all walks forgot (or never learned) this country's true history, and the class/racial structure that defined it some 300+ years prior, starting well before the country's official Declaration of Independence. We were made to believe that the rich got positioned so purely as a result of effort & genius, as though America did not recently abolish the legal institution of Jim Crow, and as though Slavery's illegality became enforceable criminally well before the actual date of 1942 when President Roosevelt signed Circular No. 3591 legislation. Legacy's power in the U.S. is interesting in that it is remembered for when it carries the gifts of wealth and security, but much more often it bears the unforgiving pain of poverty… Slavery and Jim Crow as legal institutions have legacies that not only clogged American Capitalism from being a truly fair opportunity for all, it has burdened Black America particularly with heavy social cost and chained them as a mass group to lives of struggle...

The actions of Vijay have also continued an old and uninformed criticism of affirmative action. It has left people asking the question why did Vijay get easier access to admissions because of what he looked like? This shows a clear failure of our nation in teaching our citizenry that being black in America is not just about what one looks like, its also about where blacks came from in this country and its resulting impact on their families and current social position. African Americans have dealt with cycles of oppression, from lynchings and brutal beatings during boycotts throughout the 1900's. To intensive unpaid labor on fields of cotton in the Carolinas during the 1800's, and even before on tobacco fields throughout Virginia during the 1700's.

In contrast, regardless of this counter model’s belief, a movement to merit only hardens that history by creating a faux message that the natural resulting inequity of American history is somehow a fairer outcome. The great irony being that many insiders have begun to elude that colleges across the country have been admitting candidates based on the fact that they pay cash for tuition, over students who need financial aid. In the article “Silver Spoon Admissions” the author stated the below in review of the book The Price of Admission,

A chapter in the book about Duke University, for example, says that a few years back the institution spread the word among private high schools that it wanted "development admits," those whose families had the potential to become big donors, and that strong academic credentials weren't a requirement.

The true problem with ignorance to the goals of affirmative action, is that it shows ignorance to America’s history. Not having the program in place to attempt to make space, does not result in a process for admission that is fairer for all. As I showed, in the piece “America's Financial Divide” much of the above financial advantage roots itself out of racism’s deep economic shadow, and results in heavy advantage for white Americans in access to higher education institutions across the nation. 

America has moved forward, but in the process left the families of those subjugated behind as they struggle for access to the American dream. Those without historical context are using individual merit as a cover for the outcome of the country's long dark history.

The problem with the merit based analysis is that merit is never truly individual; it is a composite of ability, effort, opportunity and in addition access that comes from family and community. Thus, when you do expensive computer camp at UCLA while in junior high school, live in a neighborhood of lawyers and doctors, have a grandfather that leaves a large inheritance or just have family that have relationships at the University, your personal achievement comes on the shoulders of those around you that support your success. I believe merit is very real, but the individuality of it not so much so. While we all sit down to take the test as a single person…" some do so with too much historical weight to push forward. “UCLA, Male Black Bruins and the Myth of Individual Merit”

Our nation deserves better, but we have to chisel that with the demands that challenge the ethos at the heart of Vijay’s ignorant actions. We must do so by being honest about where we as a country came from, and that history’s role in forming America, as we know it today.

Antonio Moore is a Los Angeles based entertainment attorney with several celebrity clients.  He is also producer of the documentary on the Iran Contra & Crack Cocaine Epidemic “Freeway: Crack in the System presented by Al Jazeera” --  Facebook and Instagram.

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