Mindy Kaling’s Brother Pretended to Be Black—but That’s Not the Real Tragedy
Vijay Chokal-Ingam is far from a household name and certainly less famous than his sitcom-writing sister, Mindy Kaling. Nevertheless, Chokal-Ingam thrust himself into headlines recently when he revealed a head-scratching detail about his life: He once faked being a black man to get into medical school.
The admission came as Chokal-Ingam—the son of ethnic Indian immigrants, he grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts—drummed up publicity for his memoir (and website), Almost Black. In it, he describes shaving his head, cutting his eyelashes, using his middle name (“JoJo”), and joining the University of Chicago’s Organization of Black Students, all to pass himself off as African American and gain admission to medical school. In his estimation, the scheme worked: He was admitted to St. Louis University’s School of Medicine in 1999. He dropped out several years later, but the experience left a lasting impression on him: namely, that affirmative action—which he credits with allowing an underqualified student like him into a competitive grad school—doesn’t work.
Chokal-Ingam eventually earned an MBA from the University of California at Los Angeles. Now, he hopes his book will spread the idea that affirmative action is discriminatory. “I am writing this book to show my opposition to affirmative action, specifically at my alma mater UCLA but in the American education system in general,” he writes on his website. What he’s advocating is ostensibly the same thing that Chief Justice John Roberts argued for last year: color-blind admissions. “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race,” Roberts wrote in a Supreme Court opinion in 2007, “is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
Chokal-Ingam’s approach isn’t new or, in the grander scheme of things, all that unusual. Critics have been trying to tear down affirmative action policies ever since they were enacted in the late 1960s as a way to mitigate the impact of systemic and institutional racism. In many cases, those attempts have been successful.
Take California and UCLA. Affirmative action has been banned in the state’s public universities since voters approved Proposition 209 back in 1996. The passage led to an astonishing decline in the number of black and Latino students. From 1994 to 2010, the percentage of black applicants admitted to California’s state university system dropped to 58 percent from 75 percent, according to a 2013 report by the Campaign for College Opportunity, a public policy group. By comparison, 83 percent of white students who applied in 2010 were admitted, in addition to 85 percent of Asians and 76 percent of Latinos. At the system’s most prestigious campuses—the University of California, Berkeley, and UCLA—the dramatic declines are even more pronounced: Only 15 percent of black students who apply to Berkeley are admitted, down from 51 percent before Prop. 209. And at UCLA, where 58 percent of black students were once admitted, only 14 percent have been in recent years.
But here’s the problem with any color-blind policy: It ignores racism where racism clearly exists. Racial inequities have been proved and are prevalent in nearly every facet of American life: housing, jobs, health, K–12 funding. Those disparities don’t disappear when a student sits down at a computer to fill out the Common Application.
What makes Chokal-Ingam’s argument especially hard to stomach is that it diminishes the hardships faced by black medical school students and doctors. “We know from the research that minority medical students face disproportional feelings of isolation and a lack of empowerment,” Monica Vela, associate dean for multicultural affairs at the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Medicine, told USA Today.
After decades of progress in black student enrollment in medical schools from the 1970s through the 1990s, “there’s been a significant downturn in black enrollments in medical school education in the past several years,” reported The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. From 1996 on, there’s been an almost 16 percent decrease in black enrollment in medical schools, which experts attribute in part to the decline of affirmative action policies in states such as California, Florida, and Washington: “Other state-operated medical schools, although not barred by law from practicing race-sensitive admissions, have backed off from former strong affirmative action admissions policies in fear of legal challenges from right-wing groups that are pouring money into continuing litigation targeting racial preferences.”
There’s long been a roiling war over the future of affirmative action, and Chokal-Ingam has just become one of its highest-profile soldiers.