This post has been updated.
As a junior at the University of Chicago from an affluent family with mediocre grades, Vijay Chokalingam, who is also comic Mindy Kaling's brother, realized he would have a hard time getting into medical school. Yet instead of cutting back on the activities at the frat house and studying a little more, he says, he devoted his spare time to an elaborate hoax. He shaved his head to hide his straight hair, trimmed his "long Indian eyelashes," started going by his middle name ("Jojo") and tried to convince the world he was black.
Not everyone was convinced, but Chokalingam claims the transformation allowed him to get into medical school. He's now seeking a publisher for a book in which he says he'll accuse U.S. educational institutions of discrimination through affirmative action, the New York Post's Laura Italiano reports.
"Racism is not the answer," Chokalingam said in the article, referring to affirmative action. "It also promotes negative stereotypes about the competency of minority Americans by making it seem like they need special treatment."
Chokalingam's story is only surprising because of how shameless he is. There is evidence that admissions officers in U.S. higher education see a résumé as less impressive if the applicant is of Asian descent. Sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Radford have documented that Asian Americans have the same chance of getting in to colleges as whites whose SAT scores are 140 points worse, and the gap is even larger for blacks.
So there's no reason to think that Chokalingam has concocted his story, except for the fact that if his story is true, he's already demonstrated his willingness to perpetrate hoaxes. Wonkblog
is seeking to could not confirm the authenticity of the documents Chokalingam has posted online, including this graphic:
Yet assuming that Chokalingam is telling the truth this time around, it is unclear what, if anything, his story is supposed to prove about affirmative action. For one thing, it does not appear that Chokalingam submitted any applications with his real name and race, so we'll never know if they would have been rejected.
More fundamentally, though, by posing as black, Chokalingam didn't just change how admissions officers perceived his complexion, but also how they saw his upbringing and background. In other words, he was no longer the self-described "hard-partying" Indian-American frat boy who skated through the University of Chicago with a 3.1 grade-point average. He became a young black man who overcame the disadvantages confronting all young black men in American society to earn a degree from an elite institution with passable grades and test scores.
Chokalingam emphasizes that he didn't hide his family's wealth from admissions officers, just his race, but things like parental education and earnings or conditions in a child's neighborhood can only explain part of the gaps between black and Hispanic children and their white and Asian peers.
By the time they begin kindergarten, the first group is already at a major disadvantage, performing worse on tests of cognitive ability. Black toddlers know fewer words than white toddlers whose parents have similar incomes. Race is more of an obstacle to a high-school diploma than poverty. Even the children of financially secure black families who succeed academically do so only in spite of the racism of their friends, neighbors and financial institutions. It would be no surprise if medical schools treated Chokalingam differently because he claimed he was black.
There are certainly persuasive arguments against affirmative action. For example, although schools and students do benefit from having people of different races on campus regardless of how wealthy their parents were, it could be that seats in classrooms would be better allocated to children of poor families, regardless of race.
Yet there's no suggestion that Chokalingam will explore these nuances in his book. Instead, everything he's said about it so far suggests he just hasn't thought very hard about what merit actually means in a society where children benefit so much from their parents' advantages.
By his own account, his make-over taught him what life in the United States is like as a black person. With his clipped eyebrows and shaved head, clerks and strangers mistook him for black and treated him badly. It's disappointing, then, that these insights about racism haven't led Chokalingam to a deeper understanding of the reasons for affirmative action, and why black students and Indian-American students with similar résumés might not always be equally deserving.
Update, April 9, 2015: A spokeswoman for the Association of American Medical Colleges said that the group no longer had a copy of what Chokalingam describes as the application on which he identified himself as black in 1998. A spokeswoman for Saint Louis University, the only school where he was ultimately accepted as a medical student and where he enrolled before dropping out, said that his test scores and grades met the university’s criteria for admission. “His race or ethnicity did not factor into his acceptance,” she said in a statement. Of course, neither Chokalingam nor anyone else can prove that it did.