Experiencing Affirmative Action

Experiencing Affirmative Action June 2, 2009

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.

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  • jonathanjones02

    A nice reflection.

    That wonder you will always have in the back of your mind, unfortunately, is legitimate. It will always be so when there are different standards (that is, lower barriers to entry) based on race or gender or what have you. The wonder has two fronts, each harmful: wonder by potential employers and so on that you are good enough (and many times, its a very legitimate wonder with strong consequences, as in the Ricci New Haven case), and an understandable insecurity on the part of the “underprivelaged.”

    This is poison, yet we are afraid of unequal outcomes due, in part, to our collective egal. mindset.

  • What is called affirmative action is a necessary tonic to combat the structural deficiencies in society. When Sotomayor went to Princeton, very few of her background had this kind of achievement. She did it against the odds, and even today, the nativists grumble about some kind of preferentia treatment. And yet when somebody like Bush went to Yale, he did it smoothly, without effort, because his father and grandfather went there, and because he was the right social class (this is not a partisan issue, one could make the same point with somebody like Al Gore). This preferential system worked to the detriment of outsiders, especially the poor and minorities.

    Thankfully, the leading universities abandoned this bias years ago, but the network still exists informally. There is still a priviliged class, based on personal connections. Legacy matters. For some people, acheivement still comes easy, too easy.

    And what about the others? Because of the appallling education system in the US, because of the refusal to redistribute resources between districts, because of the culture of mediocrity (often abetted by teachers’ unions),because of lingering racism, because of structural sin in our society that leads to the perpetuation of a priviliged underclass — because of all this, some action must be taken to make the playing field a bit more level. We can have a debate about what actions are more legitimate than others, but we cannot talking naively about a “color blind” society when no such society exists.

  • Agreed on both counts. Here are some lines that, hopefully, show my ambivalence that favors it as a tragic solution to an even more tragic alternative:

    “…with or without affirmative action, the game is inevitably rigged.”

    “…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.”

  • Gabriel Austin

    Why s it assumed that going to Yale or Harvard or Princeton is a good thing? When Harvard has [again] to offer courses in what it calls “ethics” meaning morals, three decades after it announced that it would do this, where is the superior value?

  • I agree with your sentiment on the educational value, but, I am sure you realize that “educational value” is not the name of the game of college-going (or graduate school, for that matter). On those merits, just or unjust, I think they are considered a “good thing.”

  • Kurt


    I would suggest that it is not affirmative action that denies credibility, but the attacks on affirmative action. The conservative criticisms are the cause here, not the initiatives themselves.

  • Kurt, I would love to agree with you, however, I suspect that such suspicions would come to me whether the conservative critique was there or not. To be quite honest, I empathize deeply with the straightforward critique that replacing institutional discrimination with another form of discrimination (with entirely different intentions, of course) is problematic. The issue is that the political alternative is much worse. But there is nothing innocent about it, I think.

  • love the girls

    When I think about it, is it any accident that its always been women who have told me to use my status as an hispanic to curry favors?

  • love the girls: I am not sure what you mean by that.

  • Kurt


    I have difficulty with the proposition that affirmative action is a form of discrimintion, at least conceptually and in its proper implementation. A generally positive feature is its de-centeralization, allowing programs to be developed for particular situations. Obviously that also has the potential to lead to abuses and improperly designed initiatives. But I think there is a vast territory out there of injustice to racial minorities and women beyond conscience discrimination made illegal under the Civil Rights Act. To not address that injustice would be a shame.

  • Kurt, the point is that human solutions are never completely innocent or effective, they are tragic. Affirmative action may seem to be wonderful to those who understand the injustice it ought to address, but, that meaning is not as salient when you are the beneficiary or (I suspect) the victim, which may or may not be the same thing.

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