Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Affirmative Action and Me

It always annoys me when I am confronted with a form which demands to know my "race or ethnicity" and offers no "mixed" option. Being exactly half "white" and half "hispanic", it seems tiresome to have to pick one or the other. "Just pick the one you feel represents you most," a nice lady at the DMV once told me. But of course, what I think represents me most is being half each -- not picking one over the other. I would certainly not say that I "am" Hispanic, yet the experience of having a large Mexican-American half to the family is hardly accidental to my life experience.

One of the areas I knew this would make a more than usually substantive difference in my life was deciding how to fill out college application forms. I objected to the idea of racial quotas (something that was still going on fairly explicitly in 96/97) and I figured that with an English last name even if I were tempted to try to take advantage of "Hispanic" status, I wouldn't pass the laugh test. So I put myself down at "Hispanic" on the PSAT and "white" on the SAT, and simply refused to pick on all my college applications.

The midly interesting result of this was that I got a National Hispanic Scholar award (no money or anything, just a certificate) based on my PSAT scores, something I found a bit disconcerting given that I'd only scored in the 75th percentile nationally. However, my Ramirez grandfather was very proud of it (I was the first of the five of his grandchildren who've gone to college thus far out of 20+) so I appreciated it at that level. This also generated some rather unusual mail. Harvard sent me admissions materials in Spanish along with a letter from their Hispanic union promising that I could be provided with inculturation opportunities and remedial English help if I came to Harvard. I didn't know any Spanish, so I had to get someone to read the letter to me. They never did send me any materials in English, even based on my SAT scores which were a fairly respectable 99th percentile. Apparently a 75th percentile Hispanic student was a lot more appealing to them than a 99th percentile white one.

The basic motive behind some of this I can understand. If someone didn't learn English till he was ten years old, or struggled to get a decent education at failing inner city schools, it's likely that his scores will not reflect his actual academic potential as well as those of someone who attends an elite academy and gets tutoring three days a week. At that level, it makes total sense to me that admissions directors would make allowances for someone's background when evaluating applicants.

The problem is when this is done in a completely depersonalized and statistically-based way rather than actually based on individual circumstances. That Harvard thought I was most comfortable in reading Spanish simply because I'd checked the "Hispanic" box on the PSAT shows a certain ignorance about the realities of life for many Americans of Hispanic ancestry. Nearly half the kids I knew in my fairly working-class parish had Hispanic surnames, and few could speak more than a few words of Spanish.

It takes a lot of time (which admissions people don't necessarily have, especially at large universities) to actually figure out what challenges someone might have had in his background, while it's very quick and easy (and gets you instant political plaudits in certain circles) to filter admissions according to race/ethnicity check boxes. But it's precisely the arbitrary nature of this shortcut which causes the incredible amounts of resentment towards affirmative action policies among those demographics victimized by affirmative action. Back when I was dealing with these things, an Asian had to have SAT scores nearly 100 points higher than a white person in order to get into one of the UCs, and a white person in turn had to score a couple hundred points higher than someone who was Black or Hispanic. It's hardly surprising that this caused resentment, mainly because it completely ignored the influence of class in America and focused only on race.

Due to various legal decisions over the last 12 years, the situation has got better. But it continues to be something mildly absurd, and likely to cause at least as much racial resentment as healing. Any decision to judge people based on which racial checkbox they mark is doubtless going to continue to do so.


Kevin J. Jones said...

Amazing how much power a checkbox can have.

One blogger, Karen Hall I think, recounted how she had been teaching her daughter some Spanish.

Upon applying to a school for her child, she unthinkingly checked "Yes" on the question "Is a language other than English spoken in your home?"

This automatically landed her kid in an English as a Second Language class.

Enbrethiliel said...


I experienced this when I went to university in New Zealand. Now, I've personally never seen Filipinos as "Asian"--when I read or hear that word, I think of East Asians (Chinese, Japanese, Korean)--so I ground my teeth whenever I had to tick a box next to one of the "Asian" choices. (The choices were often Chinese, Japanese, South Asian, Other Asian.) I would have been more comfortable ticking the Pacific Islander box, but I knew the logic of that wouldn't have been compatible with the bureaucratic binary system.