Where is the Latino perspective in the current affirmative action debate? President Bush, a product of white privilege who would otherwise never have made it to Yale, has denounced the University of Michigan's diversity program. National Security advisor, Condoleezza Rice, a beneficiary of affirmative action employment policies at Stanford, applauds him. On the other side in this administration of self-serving hypocrites, stands Colin Powell who supports the Michigan program.
Juxtaposed against the headline that Latinos are now officially the largest minority group in the country, the lack of a Latin accent in this debate is telling. Affirmative action transcends just black and white; it is critical to Latinos and women as well.
I am a product of affirmative action. After attending Jersey City public schools, Dartmouth and Columbia, admitted me in the 70s - along with the children of alumni, wealthy donors, and others who were allowed to attend despite modest test scores like mine. Affirmative action got me in; but it was I who got me out.
One can view affirmative action from the prism of the past - a remedy for slavery and the state-sanctioned terrorism against African Americans after emancipation, the official segregation and exclusion of Mexicans in the Southwest, and the conveniently timed conscription of Puerto Ricans in World War I after the unilateral, Congressional imposition of citizenship. This compensation rationale is limited, however, for it looks backwards and fails to articulate the present-day problems with distributive inequities in today's world.
Affirmative action also serves a social utility in promoting diversity. It is rational and exemplary for a liberal arts education to require exposure to the entire palette of American communities especially given the increased levels of Latino and Black influences in America, and the emergence of globalization and interdependent markets.
But affirmative action policies beg the question of how opportunity is distributed in this country; a question that forces us to recognize that privilege, especially among white males in the U.S. is rarely questioned critically. Affirmative action attempts to produce a greater equality of opportunity than would otherwise result in its absence. Admission policies that favor the relatives of alumni and children of faculty members and donors (or even athletes) are all preference systems that may also serve institutional needs. Yet they are not deemed controversial while critics of affirmative action ignore that merit was never strictly followed and preferences for the wealthy exist.
Latinos know otherwise. Collectively they must overcome stereotypes that question their intelligence because they speak Spanish, or speak English with an accent; overcome economic hardships caused by exploitative policies that have enlarged the gap between rich and poor; overcome governmental policies that granted citizenship without an English language litmus test on the one hand, but debase it by eliminating opportunity for those who have yet to master it. A young Latina woman who excels despite the odds that favor privilege, like her counterparts from working class and Black families, can only be treated equitably if universities consider those histories.
The University of Michigan wants to continue an affirmative action program premised primarily on academic performance, that also counts race as an additional factor in admissions. Our colleges in New Jersey want to continue these policies as well.
Unless we are prepared to fully account for how opportunity is really distributed in our county, and rectify the resulting imbalances, we will exacerbate the exclusion that privilege for a few, has wrought for centuries.