Why did you choose to write about your story now?
I am writing this book to show my opposition to affirmative action discrimination, specifically at my alma mater UCLA but in the American education system in general.
My experiences applying to medical school as a black man impressed on me the injustice created by the system of legalized racism called affirmative action. This system destroys the dreams of millions of Indian-American, Asian American, and white applicants for employment and higher education. It also creates negative stereotypes about the academic abilities and professional skills of African-American and Hispanic professionals, who don’t need special assistance in order to compete with other minority groups. My experiences at UCLA showed me that Affirmative Action is not required.
After blowing off med school, I worked in finance for a few years. I took coursework in finance and refocused on academics, completing the requirements of the CFA program. With my new focus on academics, gained admission to the UCLA Anderson School of Management in Los Angeles. This time I didn’t pretend to be black, and not because UCLA Anderson is one of the few top American business schools not practicing affirmative action in admissions (because of California Proposition 209). My experiences at UCLA Anderson showed me that it was possible for an institution of higher learning to have a diverse and qualified student body without resorting to affirmative action. I am very proud to say that I went to business school with a diverse group of African American, Asian American, Native American, Hispanic, white and International students, all who earned the right to go to UCLA based on merit. I am not some Harvard, Stanford, or USC student who was only admitted because of my school’s racially discriminatory affirmative action policies.
In the last few years California Attorney General Kamala Harris has moved to reinstate affirmative action in California’s higher education system and UCLA. There was also some legislative action to do the same. I wish to show my opposition to Attorney General Harris’s efforts. I think that reinstating affirmative action at UCLA will undermine the academic integrity of UCLA as well as reinforcing negative stereotypes about the qualifications of minority students.
How do you know that race played a factor in your admission to medical school at SLU?
I decided to apply to medical school as black after discovering statistical evidence that an applicant with my test scores who was Indian or Asian-American was unlikely to get into med school, while an African-American with the same scores was statistically likely to get into medical school. Affirmative Action played a role in my admission to SLU.
- In the late 1990’s Saint Louis University School of Medicine (SLU SOM) said: “The School of Medicine participates actively in Project 3,000 by 2000, a minority recruitment campaign sponsored by the Association of America Medical Colleges (AAMC).” Source: Minority Student Opportunities in United States Medical Schools 1996
This program set the quantitative target (aka quotas, official or unofficial) of doubling minority enrollment in American medical schools from 1584 to 3000 between 1990 to 2000 and was put forward by the Division of Community and Minority Programs (DCMP) a division of the Association of America Medical Colleges (AAMC).
- The average GPA of an entering student at SLU SOM was 3.70 in the 1996. Source: Medical School Admissions Requirements United States and Canada 1998-1999
- The average GPA of an entering student at SLU SOM was 3.67 in the 1997. Source: Medical School Admissions Requirements United States and Canada 1999-2000
I had a 3.1 GPA…
- In the late 1990’s, the medical school had a 1 year post-baccalaureate program called Medical Preparatory Program in Anatomy, which allowed minority students (black and Hispanic) to bypass the convention medical school admissions process and complete their first year of medical school in 2 years. Source: Minority Student Opportunities in United States Medical Schools 1996
Other Evidence of Affirmative Action Discrimination in History:
In 1994, the averaged MCAT score and GPA for an African American accepted to medical school was 22 and 3.11 respectively. In 1994, the averaged MCAT score and GPA for a Mexican American applicant accepted to medical school was 24.9 and 3.25 respectively. In contrast, the averaged MCAT score and GPA for a white applicant accepted to medical school was 29.4 and 3.53 respectively. For Asian Americans, it was 29.9 and 3.56. Source: Minority Student Opportunities in United States Medical Schools 1996.
The acceptance rate of Black American applicants was 39.6% and Mexican American / Chicago applicants was 53.4% which was higher than the overall acceptance rate of 37% in 1993-1994. Source: Medical School Admissions Requirements United States and Canada 1998-1999
Another source is Ward Connerly a Regent at the University of California, who heard evidence in 1993 that the medicals schools of the University of California system were discriminating against medical school applicants. Statisticians, Jerry and Ellen Cook, presented evidence that Asian American students were being denied admission to University of California Medicals Schools despite having stronger grades and test scores than applicants from other ethnic groups. (see Wikipedia entry). Jerry and Ellen Cook produced a statistical chart that showed that at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine minority students had significantly lower MCAT and GPA’s than non minority applicants. This strongly suggested ( I would say “proved”) that the school was discriminating against its white and Asian American applicants. My statistical analysis suggested that the Cooks were correct. I concluded that the UCSD really was discriminating against it’s non minority (aka Asian American and white) applicants.
Source: Figure 5.1 Profile of UCSD Undergraduates Admitted to the UCSD School of Medicine from The Ups and Downs of Affirmative Action Preferences: Hardcover – November 30, 1999, by by M. Ali Raza (Author), A. Janell Anderson (Author), Harry Glynn Custred Jr. (Author).
Now, the admissions policies at Saint Louis University School of Medicine might have undergone substantial changes over the past 15 years, and one might argue that an individual case does not represent the whole picture of medical school admissions in America; but take a look at the MCAT and GPA Grid for Applicants and Acceptees by Selected Race and Ethnicity, 2013-2014 and 2014-2015 and the evidence will speak for itself:
Even put into today’s admissions scenario, an applicant with my GPA (3.1) and my MCAT score (31) would have an acceptance rate of 74.3% if s/he was African American, 49.1% if s/he was Hispanic; YET 29.0% if s/he was White, and 17.1% if s/he was Asian American…
Therefore, if I applied to medical school between 2013-2015 as an African American instead of Indian American, I would increased my chance of admission by almost 60%.
There is also broader evidence of widespread racial discrimination against Asians and whites in the form of affirmative action in admissions. A 2005 study found that applying to a selective university as an underrepresented minority (black, Latino, or Native American) increased a person’s odds of being admitted by about 28% points (William G. Bowen, Martin A. Kurzweil, and Eugene M. Tobin, Equity and Excellence in American Higher Education (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2005), 105, Table 5.1.).
Princeton University Researchers found that being black instead of Asian was worth the equivalent of 280 points on the SAT when applying to colleges in 2004.
Why did you pose as black to apply to medical school?
After watching my better-qualified Indian-American friends get rejected from medical school, I realized that my chances of getting in where almost nil. I read several books and discovered strong evidence that American medical schools were discriminating against Indian Americans, Asian Americans, and whites in the form of a statistical chart in the back of the book, Minority Student Opportunities in United States Medical Schools 13th Ed. 1996. In essence it stated that black, Hispanic, and Native American applicants with my grades and test scores were much more likely to gain acceptance into medical school than Indian, Asian and white applicants.
I realized that by posing as a black man, I could dramatically improve my chances of gaining admissions to medical school. So, with the help of my girlfriend (at the time), friends, and Psi Upsilon Fraternity brothers, I hatched a plot to gain admission to medical school by applying as an African American.
Where you really a member of the Organization of Black Students at the University of Chicago?
For the record, I was a member of the Organization of Black Students (OBS). I religiously attended meetings at the end of junior and all of my senior year although I never took a leadership post. I paid the dues and they cashed my check. I even won a prestigious Wall Street internship that I learned about during an OBS meeting. I remember speakers coming in to talk about law school and graduate school admissions. The South Asian Student Association (SASA) was a cultural organization with a lot of infighting. OBS was more serious and career focused, something I admired.
I only had positive experiences in OBS and no one ever made me feel anything but welcome. I did get some funny emails (not directed towards me) as part of the OBS email group.
You don’t look Black. Were you really able to convince the medical schools that you were an African American?
No, I was not able to convince everyone I was black. In fact, the climax of my book is when an Admissions Officer at the Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine confronted me about my fraudulent racial identify. I think that several other admissions officers were skeptical about my race but decided against confronting me about it.
However, there were several aspects of my background that might lead someone to believe I was black. I am a dark skinned South Indian and I shaved my head to hide my straight hair. My parents immigrated to the United States from Africa and I lived in Nigeria for several years as a child, a fact that I took great pains to mention in all my interviews. My middle name is Jojo because my Bengali Namesake is Jojo White, an African American player from my parent’s favorite team, the Boston Celtics. Most African-Americans in the United States have mixed heritage and I was able to convince at least some people not to question my racial identity.
Is your story like the 1980's movie Soul Man?
Soul Man (film, 1986) tells the fictional story of Mark Watson (C. Thomas Howell), a white UCLA student who pretends to be black to get a scholarship to Harvard Law School. This film became one of the defining movies on race relations in the 1980s and featured appearances by James Earl Jones, Leslie Nielsen, and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. It was a box office success. Soul Man has a similar story to that of Almost Black, and in some ways Almost Black could be perceived as an updating of this 27-year-old movie. Both works portray their central characters (Mark Watson and Vijay Chokal-Iingam) as privileged and jaded college students who learn about the seriousness and complexity of America’s racial problems as a result of their experiences posing as black men. A notable difference between Soul Man’s Mark Watson and me is while Watson sometimes responded to racial provocation with violence, as a proponent of nonviolence it is something I would never do.
What do you think of the book Black Like Me?
In Black Like Me, John Howard Griffin—a white Texan—chronicles his experiences traveling through the segregated American South after altering his appearance to give the impression of being black in 1959. His story emphasizes the racial inequities of 1950s America and the dehumanizing experience of racial discrimination. Griffin first published this book in 1961; several subsequent editions have been published, including a Cliff Notes version. Forty-three years after its initial publication, in 2004, sufficient interest in the book existed to justify an audiobook version by Audio Bookshelf. The enduring success of this book indicates a large potential market for other books of this genre. Yet Black Like Me is of a different era, and describes life before the full onset of the civil rights movement. Griffin often presents a dismal perspective on race relations.
Of note, while Griffin is provoked several times, he never responds with violence.
What do you think of the book Your Face In Mine?
Your Face In Mine (Jess Row, Riverhead Hardcover, August 2014) is science/literary fiction speculation. It is the story of Martin Lipkin, a white Jewish man who gets “Racial Reassignment Surgery” to appear black to correct his “Racial Dysphoria.” Other characters in the book include Julie Nah, an ethnic Korean woman who desires to be white.
Your Face In Mine presents characters whose dysfunctions are primarily psychological in nature, rooted in their personal discomfort about their original racial identities. In contrast, my goal in Almost Black was strictly mercenary. Posing as black was the only way I felt I could get into medical school. I have always been proud to be of Indian descent and never had any desire to change my race.
It’s difficult for me to relate to the motivations of some of Row’s characters. I feel you are who you are so learn to live with it and make the most of it. If you try to be someone you’re not it can come back to haunt you in ways you never expected. That’s one of the messages of Almost Black, and perhaps of Your Face In Mine as well.
What does your family think about your book?
My sister Mindy Kaling (Vera Mindy Chokalingam), of the Mindy Project and Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me?, strongly disapproves of my book. She actually said, “This book will bring shame on our family.” The rest of my family does not agree with the book. Still, they respect my right to make my own decisions with my career.