Affirmative action is not, primarily, a political issue for me. I live under its dual shadow and shelter with little idea of when it is taking immediate effect or not.
I am a Gates Millennium Scholar; which means that entering Fall 2001, I was one of the best (whatever that means), poor (Pell grant eligible), minority (Hispanic, Black, Asian, or Native American; Hispanic in my case), high school seniors in the United States. I doubled-up my funding entering doctoral studies with a Graduate Teaching Associateship (tuition, fees, and stipend in exchange for teaching) from Ohio State University, which comes with no overt litmus test, but advertises preference for people like me. My adviser has told me, point blank, that my race and socio-economic status had nothing to do with it, but I still wonder sometimes. Add to that, when I hit the academic job market (next year, job prospects are welcome, seriously!) I know good and well that most search committees are required to bring in one ethnic minority for a job talk. So, even when I am stripped of student benefits I will begin to reap new ones. I am told that even tenure decisions can play this game too. Things are looking pretty promising and that makes me feel shame and gratitude.
My point is this: Affirmative action is, in my own experience, an ambivalent and strange thing. It gives opportunity and denies credibility in a stroke. Every night, when my head hits the pillow, I wonder: Where would I be without it? Am I truly deserving?
Please, save the pity for someone else, that is not what I am writing about. What I am saying is that we ought to be sober when we access the meaning of affirmative action since, for me and millions others like me—if we are honest enough to tell you the truth—there is nothing honorable about playing in a game that favors one side or the other. And, with or without affirmative action, the game is inevitably rigged.
This much I know: Affirmative action is not a solution; it is not a victory; it is not tantamount to emancipation. If anything, it serves to instill a more heinous form of oppression on the psyche of the newly-favored minority: the silent whisper of inferiority.These days, with the nomination of Sotomayor, we would like to say one of two things—both of them inadequate, in my mind. Either, Sotomayor is the undeserving minority who would never find herself in this position had it not been her race, class, and gender. Or, Sotomayor’s race, class, and gender have nothing to do with this other than make her nomination something to be celebrated as another step in the right direction.
I don’t know Sotomayor, but I do know, from my own experience that the truth is both and neither. And, the final answer never comes, the looming hope that I might be worth something more than a quota mixed with the possibility of knowing for certain being completely out of reach, makes this entire affair we call ‘affirmative action’ tragic, imperfect, and irreplaceable, at least for now, I think.
But make no mistake, the only solution to this quandary of entrenched, structural oppression and hatred will not be found in affirmative action or alike, if anything these things only obscure the real desire of the oppressed: to be recognized as a dignity-filled, loved-by-God, human persons and treated correspondingly in the workplace and public square (and everywhere, for that matter).
For this very reason, when we rest on the laurels of politics, we have so few human persons. Instead we find a variety of resources, objects, quotas, statistics, socio-political capital, and more. The experience of affirmative action only reminds me that this is not what I (or you) was created for and, in this imperfect drama of life, I must hope for love to come, again and again.
Only in that love can we be truly free.