Dimensions of Affirmative Action

December 1, 2012

Yesterday I received my November copy of Imprimis, a terrific little newsletter from Hillsdale College that features thoughtful discussions about education and civil liberty.  Edward Erler’s article therein challenges legislation that promotes equality through reverse discrimination.  His article contributes to recent affirmative action discussions generated by the Supreme Court case Fisher vs. University of Texas.  Such discussions offer a timely opportunity to illustrate complications that arise from applying relatively simple solutions, like the racial quotas promoted through affirmative action, to highly complex problems, like racial discrimination. 

                With affirmative action, organizations strive to reduce the suffering created by discrimination in the past by providing preferential treatment to representatives of groups whose rights were once abused.  Resulting policies have often been based on naïve assumptions that a society having equal minority representation in upper and lower economic strata will be void of discrimination. There is good reason to question whether such policies hinder progress towards civil liberty. 
To consider the question from my father’s perspective, I must recall that as a child, my father attended a one room school, where he was already learning to read and write in English, when a misunderstanding of English legal documents contributed to the loss of his father’s ranch.  In a riches-to-rags story, his family moved to town, and he was sent to a school where children were routinely whipped for speaking the languages (Spanish, Zuni, Navajo…) they learned from their parents at home.  Teachers typically came from other states, and were not required to learn that New Mexican rights to native languages were protected by our state constitution.  In this new environment, my father and his family routinely experienced blatant discrimination that favored white society.  He remembers widespread “separate but equal” policies, and he witnessed tragic effects of boarding schools that pulled Native American children away from their families and forced them to forget their culture.  As a young man, he was rightfully outraged by the racial injustice he witnessed daily.  In my father’s era, this injustice repeatedly favored white men.  I understand his outrage.  I understand his belief that the world would be better if more people of color were in positions of leadership.   But I also understand that injustice favoring people of any color remains unjust. 
My own experience with discrimination has been different.  Growing up in the 70’s, racial injustice was a common topic of discussion at home, on television, and in school.   Like most of my generation, I was raised without tolerance for segregation.  I’ve always been surrounded by people of varied colors, and I’ve always welcomed diversity.  The only times I’ve ever been  forced to consider my race an issue are the times I’ve had to complete data forms from schools and government agencies asking me to identify my race.  I’ve always been annoyed by these forms. 
When Hispanics in my father’s generation experienced racial targeting, they were told they had to eat at a different restaurant, or ride the Greaser bus.  For me, racial targeting was alway camouflaged with praise, like the time I received an unsolicited Outstanding Hispanic Student award from my undergraduate college.  I was expected to be honored by this award, but I found it quite shameful.  Afterall, why should an outstanding Hispanic student be recognized differently from an outstanding student? Was it so remarkable that a Hispanic student should be considered outstanding?  How would my Hispanic colleagues feel if an Outstanding Anglo Award were presented?
When I applied to graduate school in 1992, I was dismayed because, even though I did not check off any boxes on application forms that revealed my Hispanic identity, I was awarded a federally funded fellowship dedicated to underrepresented minority students.  I recall taking my award letter to the program director, requesting to be admitted to the program for my academic merit rather than for my last name.  
This white program director took my request as an opportunity to enlighten me.  He patiently explained that he had no concerns regarding my academic merit. I had completed my bachelor’s degree in the top 1% of my class.  I had outside work experience.  By his words, I was his most qualified applicant of any color.  He wanted me in the program.  However, the National Institute of Health provided fellowships to increase the number of underrepresented minorities in biomedical sciences. This money did not come from the university, but it provided a welcome supplement to university funds.  He said his department had more minority fellowships available than he had qualified applicants.  The same department had funds for only two departmental assistantships.  He told me he had seven qualified white applicants under consideration.  He understood my hesitancy to accept a minority fellowship.  He just wanted me to understand that in order to award me the departmental assistantship I sought, he would have to turn away a qualified white student.  Once I considered this new dimension to the problem, the minority fellowship seemed the lesser of two evils.  Afterall, if  I accepted the fellowship, more people would receive an education.  I grudgingly accepted the fellowship, but I’ve felt compromised by the decision ever since.  
In the years that followed, I was ironically seen by white students as belonging to a privileged class because I was a minority who received federal funding.  I despised being perceived in this manner.  I was embarrassed by my observation that some white students came from backgrounds much more disadvantaged than mine, yet qualified for no financial assistance at all.   Equally embarrassing was my observation that some (NOT ALL) minority students expressed a disturbing sense of entitlement to the benefits they received.  These students lacked sensitivity towards students who did not qualify for minority funding.  The shame I experienced and the resentment I frequently observed between white and minority students pursuing was undeniably fostered by the same affirmative action policies that were implemented to reduce racism. These policies were driving intolerance that I believe would have vanished had students simply been admitted based on merit.
While I commend leaders of my father’s generation for recognizing racism as an evil that was shattering our great nation, I cringe to think they honestly believed discrimination against whites could promote civil rights.  I believe the solution to racism, like solutions to other complex issues, lies not in top down, policy based solutions like enrollment and hiring quotas.  The solution lies in education that fosters broad understanding of alternate views.  The solution lies in teaching the value of diversity, so that even elementary school teachers recognize the freedom to speak Spanish, Keres, Navajo, or any other language – in addition to English- is one of our civil liberties.  The solution lies in recognizing that cultural differences enrich us all. 

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