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 inculteration 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 sir names, 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 policitical 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 victemized 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 recentment as healing. Any decision to use judge people based on which racial checkbox they mark is doubtless going to continue to do so.

34 Responses to Affirmative Action and Me

  1. Blackadder says:

    I think you’re giving the admissions people too much credit. They don’t go out of their way to admit black or hispanic students because they think they will perform better than their test scores would indicate. If that were the case, then the dropout rate for such students once admitted wouldn’t be so high. What they want is to have a certain percentage of the student body be black and hispanic, because otherwise it just looks bad (and when it comes to the racial composition of a school, “looks bad” can have some very real and serious consequences).

    It’s not Harvard’s fault that the public school system is such a mess, so on one level I’m sympathetic to the situation such schools find themselves in. But there’s nothing admirable about what they’re doing.

  2. jonathanjones02 says:

    As Judge Roberts said, the way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.

    Different treatment/standards/barriers to entry on the basis of race and.or ethnicity was wrong before the Brown decision and it is wrong now. The principle is the same, and it is important. The difficulty comes in accepting what has come to be termed “disparate impact” – yet those persistent gaps can hardly be addressed by an employer or a university, and I think you are right to suggest that such attempts lead to insecurity and also resentment.

  3. I think you’re giving the admissions people too much credit. They don’t go out of their way to admit black or hispanic students because they think they will perform better than their test scores would indicate…. But there’s nothing admirable about what they’re doing.


    I think there’s something potentially admirable about what some of the better justifications of affirmative action say they’re trying to do (even the playing field to let in people of ability even if their educational or personal backgrounds haven’t allowed them to score as high on tests and get as high grades as other students) but so far as I can tell virtually no one has actually implemented it in this way — they’ve simply instituted systems of racial favoritism.

    On the drop out rates — I suppose it’s possible that admissions people deceive themselves that everyone they are admitting is of equal ability, but results would appear to be that even if the abilities are equal, the habits of success are different enough that they’re not necessarily doing anyone any favors.

  4. c matt says:

    Half white/half hispanic?

    Those categories are not mutually exclusive. One can be 100% white and 100% hispanic. They are two separate categories (race and ethnicity – or more precisely, national origin as Hispanic simply refers to those with ancestry from Latin America. Curiously enough, Spaniards are properly classified as Europeans – even more so than Anglos from England) although often confused as being in the same category and treated that way. I have even seen some forms that have a box for “white Hispanic” and “non white Hispanic” – at least that gets a little more accurate.

    The “Hispanic” race thing and the “Central America” as a continent thing are two of my biggest pet peeves.

  5. Steve says:

    My wife went to school with a kid who got a free ride to Boston College on some sort of affirmative action scholarship program. He was an affluent descendant of Spanish royalty.

  6. Foxfier says:

    I like the ones that have a slot to write things in.

    I tend to put “human” or “American,” depending on the day. ;^p

    One of my buddies on the ship, Brach, is a solid heinz-57– not a single one of his grandparents looks anything like any of the others. I think he liked to check all the boxes, or write “yes” in….

  7. Karen LH says:

    My husband knew someone in college who was not permitted to take Spanish for her foreign language because she was ethnically Hispanic, even though she didn’t speak the language.

  8. Tito Edwards says:

    Sometimes I write in the “other” column “Whitexican” (pronounced ‘white-sican’).

    One time I put down, Celtic-Norse-Norman-Welsh-Cherokee-Castillian-Portuguese-French-Jew-Mexican-American.

    That was fun.

  9. Donald R. McClarey says:

    Speaking of government forms, in the military on most security forms, at least in the 70s, there was a section asking if any of your relatives or friends had ever advocated overthrowing the government. A friend of mine would always put down the names of two of his Confederate great-grandfathers!

  10. cminor says:

    I love the idea of checking all the boxes, Foxfier. One of the great things about our military is that they were much quicker than society at large to figure out that the color or surname of the guy watching your back doesn’t matter–what matters is that you can trust each other with your lives.

    When you consider that one of our most prominent Hispanic politicians is a guy named Bill Richardson, that a pop singer named Linda Ronstadt once released an album of traditional Mexican/Southwestern music titled “Canciones de Mi Padre” (Songs of My Father–Ronstadt’s paternal line was Southwestern Hispanic with smatterings of North European) and that a singer named Ricardo Valenzuela (aka Ritchie Valens) had to learn the lyrics to the traditional Mexican song he made famous (“La Bamba”) phonetically because he spoke no Spanish, you realize that the Hispanic identity is easily as complex as the American (or Norteamericano, as folks South of the border like to remind us) identity.

    Like Darwin, I am of Hispanic and North European (mostly German) heritage. I consider Spanish and English both native languages (I spoke both from early childhood and, though I don’t use Spanish much these days, can still think in it.) Growing up in the mountains of Virginia, I was very aware that my bilingualism set me apart and identified strongly as a Hispanic although my maiden name is German-derived. Thus I can relate to the desire to check multiple boxes, especially when a college admission or grant could be on the line.

    Unfortunately for me, my mother’s Cuban family was as mixed as any “melting pot” family here in the U. S., and her maiden name came from a Georgia-born grandfather (with a Hispanic mother, no less) who settled in Cuba after the Spanish-American War. He bore an English surname that had been in the States since colonial days. I abandoned the idea of playing up my Hispanic roots, figuring that even if I employed the Spanish practice of tacking on my maternal surname after the paternal one, I would mark myself not just as doubly a yanqui, but thanks to my Georgia ancestor as a yanqui with connections to a First Family of Virginia to which any relationship I may have is well over two centuries distant.

    Is it any wonder I don’t take those ubiquitous ethnic identity boxes very seriously?

  11. G-Veg says:

    One of the guys I work with was invited to joing a lawsuit against our agency because he had been included on a list of Africen-American officers who had been in a senior but non-supervisory position for more than ten years.

    He did not reply to any of the six letters that “invited” him to join the suit.

    A seventh communication, in the form of an e-mail, explained that it was “African-Americans like him” – the ones who failed to “stand up to discrimination” in hopes of “getting along” that were a cause of continuing injury.

    My friend wrote one of the funniest responses I have seen, explaining that he was indeed of African descent but that he would have difficulty documenting that fact since he could only trace his family history six generations, back to Bavaria. He went on to explain that his ancesters left Africa many generations in a massive migration from the Rift Valley and that it is believed that they made their way north through Turkey. He went into great details about the Indo-European language theories and such…

    Curiously, he never received a reply.

  12. Gabriel Austin says:

    My daughter delights in writing “Celtic” when asked.

    Would cminor share the words to LA BAMBA? He will certainly know the song [to the same tune] which sings “I wish I knew the word to La Bamba , oh oh oh”.

    What about Basques? Catalans?

    I think it was the U of Wisc which would not accept Spanish as equivalent to Hispanic. They also discriminated between Venezuelan [bad] and Dominican [good].

  13. Foxfier says:

    What about Basques? Catalans?

    Ooh, good point– reminds me that my dad’s mom found it VERY important to point out which county of Scotland her dad had come from, and that a good 80% of my mom’s home town was from County Cork. (and it mattered)

  14. Donald R. McClarey says:

    I am still waiting for the Irish-Scottish-Cherokee box on one of those government forms!

  15. Kevin in Texas says:

    In reply to both Gabriel and to Darwin’s original post, I often end up addressing many similar questions in my work as a linguist and Spanish professor here in Texas–it should be noted that most of my students are definitely Caucasian, although there are a significant minority who are 1st- or 2nd-generation Hispanic Americans (mostly with Mexican roots, this being Texas!)

    In Spanish, the terms “hispano” and “Latino” should derive from their roots: “hispano” referring to any descendants of Spaniard conquistadores in the New World, and “Latino” referring to all descendants of any of the Latin-based languages that grew out of the Roman Empire, so technically the French, Italians, Romansch (small minority Romance language in Switzerland), Portuguese, and Spaniards should be counted as “Latino”. In current practice here in the States, and also I think around most of Spain and Latin America, “hispano” does refer to the linguistic group itself (even if most Latin Americans now have some degree of racially-mixed African or indigenous ancestry), while “Latino” refers to Latin Americans, including Brazilians, who speak Portuguese.

    I used to live and work in the Basque Country in northern Spain, and I am intimately familiar with practically every last little pueblo all over Spain (except for the far-off Canary Islands, to the west of Africa and well south of Europe), including some very close friends who are Catalans. Racially speaking, both groups are very much Caucasians, esp. the Basques, many of whom resemble big-boned, fair-skinned Germans or Eastern Europeans. Interestingly, the Basques are completely unique not only linguistically (Basque is not related in any way to any other language on Earth–Castilians often tease that it’s the language that ancient saints used to speak to, and drive away, sea monsters!), but also their blood type is exceedingly rare and their genes are unrelated to any other genotypes around most of Western and Central Europe. Nevertheless, all but the poorest and least educated people in each of these areas speak fluent Castilian Spanish and certainly would have no trouble living and working in any Hispanic Latin American country. For that matter, many Basques (shepherds, by tradition) immigrated to the United States, Chile, and Argentina, especially the mountainous areas therein, to escape from Franco’s oppression in the 1930s-1940s. You’ll find dozens of interesting Basque surnames in the US mountain west, esp. in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.

    All of this gets back to Darwin’s original post and point that affirmative action, if it is to be used at all (and I don’t agree that it always should be!), should focus on economic differences as opposed to racial ones, which are rendered essentially meaningless in the greatest melting pot society that the world has ever known!

    P.S. Oh, and I should point out that Basque food is universally heralded as some of the finest cuisine in the world! Try it, y’all!

  16. Foxfier says:

    . For that matter, many Basques (shepherds, by tradition) immigrated to the United States, Chile, and Argentina, especially the mountainous areas therein, to escape from Franco’s oppression in the 1930s-1940s. You’ll find dozens of interesting Basque surnames in the US mountain west, esp. in Idaho, Wyoming and Montana.

    Modoc county has a lot– that’s up in the corner of Cali, inland.
    No idea what my Godfather (he was Basque) would’ve looked like if he hadn’t been a rancher– as it was, Jean B. looked like he was made of boot-leather and spare corral boards– most of the Basque ladies I can think of in the valley look kinda Italian.

    I can’t even imagine his reaction if he were asked to check in a box what his “race” was.

  17. jess says:

    I had the same thing happen when I applied to law schools. I had ivy league schools sending me info for ‘hispanic’ admissions, which apparently meant that I didn’t have to have the same high LSAT scores and GPA as the ‘whites’ did. Seeing as my mother didn’t raise any idiots, I felt I should attend a school in line with my scores and ability. No point in being set up for failure by competing out of your league. It just makes minorities feel that much more denigrated. Thomas Sowell wrote some good things on this very topic.

  18. j. christian says:

    Thomas Sowell wrote some good things on this very topic.

    Heh. I used to eat in the university dining hall with Thomas Sowell’s son. Nice guy.

  19. ockraz says:

    The problem with affirmative action is that its had too many competing justifications, and as a result, the policies instituted don’t correspond well with any of them. If it were aimed at at correcting historical injustices, then children of holocaust survivors would not have been denied consideration. If it were a way to help those compete who were disadvantaged, then very poor white people would be expected to benefit more than wealthy minorities.
    If it had been intended as a way to make the country less prejudiced, then at some point it seems to have became counter-productive given that it is now a racially divisive issue and a source of enmity and bitterness. Furthermore, by grouping everyone of one race together for treatment designed to help those who are disadvantaged, the members of that group end up being stigmatized.

    It seems to me that by never establishing clear goals, we got policies which were a mess.

    I rather like the idea that people with disabilities or who grew up poor (regardless of race, creed or gender) all had burdens or disadvantages that others didn’t, and that if we want to have affirmative action programs, then they should be the recipients of the benefits. Inasmuch as minorities are disproportionately affected by poverty, the programs would still allocate benefits to the minority populations at a proportionately higher level than to whites, but it would be a just allocation that since it is open to all.

  20. Foxfier says:

    one more reason– to make the favored minorities feel good that they achieved something.

    Instead, I still wonder how much of my advancement in the Navy was because I’m a girl, and how much because I did my job well.

  21. ockraz says:


    Making them feel good that way can be another case of a poorly accomplished goal since it can (as you indicate) leave one with doubts that one need not otherwise have had. It also strikes me as evidence of a fairly patronizing attitude (which runs counter to feminist ideology).

    My dad brought to my attention another goal. Back in the 60’s there were apparently still pockets of ugly racism (concentrated more in the South for obvious reasons) that publicly challenged the ability of non-whites to achieve in some fields.

    Affirmative action did unequivocally demonstrate that those people were just racists trying to pass off hateful stereotypes as facts and therefore it did nullify one form of racist rhetoric. On the other hand, I think that when it continued long after it served that end, it provided an opening for a new way for people with racist ideologies to appeal to others- since the frustrations of impoverished whites could now be exploited on the basis of reverse discrimination.

  22. Gabriel Austin says:

    Steve Says Friday, July 31, 2009 A.D. at 3:00 pm
    “My wife went to school with a kid who got a free ride to Boston College on some sort of affirmative action scholarship program. He was an affluent descendant of Spanish royalty”.

    The Jesuit college? Poor guy.

  23. Gabriel Austin says:

    Kevin in Texas Says Saturday, August 1, 2009 A.D. at 1:39
    “…it should be noted that most of my students are definitely Caucasian…”.

    If ever they are in Moscow, they should never refer to themselves as Caucasians. The Russian Moscovians consider Caucasians [people from the Caucasus area] as something less than mafiosi.

  24. Gabriel Austin says:

    ockraz Says Saturday, August 1, 2009 A.D. at 5:05 pm
    “…It seems to me that by never establishing clear goals, we got policies which were a mess…”

    Welcome to normal conditions in the good ole U.S. of A. It was not that long ago that there were separate facilities for “whites” and “coloreds”. I came by bus from Mexico City to NYC in 1959. In town after Southern town, there such sections, in diners, waiting rooms, and the like.

    It was to throw up.

  25. Gabriel Austin says:

    Mention of Thomas Sowell makes me think that Justice Thomas should also be mentioned.

    It is his contention that separate conditions for “blacks” [or Hispanics or Indians] gives the impression that they are like puppy dogs and act alike and think alike. Thomas’ fine phrase is that he looks through the Constitution at the Declaration.

    Even the fact that some blacks are Republicans scandalizes the lefties.

    How dare they! Are they not grateful for what the Democratic party has done for them? [I mean after the Jim Crow period and KKK and Gov. Faubus and the condition of semi-slavery in the South].

  26. Gabriel Austin says:

    Foxfier Says Saturday, August 1, 2009 A.D. at 5:41 pm

    “Instead, I still wonder how much of my advancement in the Navy was because I’m a girl, and how much because I did my job well”.

    Of course you did better. You are a girl. Do you not wonder why men are called meat-heads?

    Do you not know that among sellers of relics men’s brains sell for far more than women’s? Because the women’s brains are used.

  27. Patrick Duffy says:

    My family is almost completely Irish, although there’s a touch of Alsatian, Dutch, Scot and, gasp, English, but we try not to talk about the English side of the ancestry. 🙂 Basically, we’re from County Mayo, God help us, just up the road from the Shrine of Our Lady of Knock.

    My wife’s family came from Japan. Before we got married, both mother-in-laws felt that the ‘intended’ wasn’t good enough for their child, especially after World War II, you know. My father-in-law’s Silver Star in World War II one-upped my father’s Bronze Star, however, so that settled things down a lot. Oh, that and having the first grandchild on both sides of the family. 🙂

    Our son writes in that he’s other: “Japirish.” One daughter says that she’s “Hapa,” which is Hawaiian for “half” and she’s always on the lookout for other Hapa’s, like speed skater Apollo Ohno and baseball player Travis Ishikawa (SF Giants 1st base). I don’t know what our older daughter puts down. Amongst my wife’s family, there are in-laws who are Danish, Portuguese, Chinese and Haitian.

    My wife was very concerned during their college application process that the kids not mark Asian because that would make it harder to get into certain schools. Back in the 20’s and 30’s, the elite schools had quotas on Jews. Now it’s Asians.

    Before the 2000 census, there was a great outcry about allowing a “race” answer of “mixed.” They claimed that this would dilute the percentage of minorities and they wouldn’t get their fair share of funding, et al. directed on the basis of minority-ness.

    Unfortunately, as much as most people are past the subject (hey, even that man in the White House is part Irish), there are those whose job it is to keep this on the front burner. To sing the old songs and recite the old wrongs. My grandmother could talk about King Billy at the Battle of the Boyne as if it happened yesterday. If you’re in charge of the affirmative action program, would you propose to end it? And if you aren’t and you propose to end it, it’s clear that you’re a bigot, beyond the pale, as it were. There are no conditions under which they would agree that the old prejudices are over, because keeping them alive as a grievance is their source of income. The rest of us get on with our lives and try to stay away from them if possible.

  28. Foxfier says:

    Reminds me…. my grandma was about as racist as they came– class-ist, too. She didn’t like anyone who wasn’t well-raised Scottish, and a good, old, solid Protestant. If you were rude enough to bring it up, she’d recite how horrible they were!

    But she married a guy who was English with some Indian…her sons married Basque, English, Italian and Irish, all the girls Catholic (worse yet, the odd numbered ones became various flavors of Bible church)

    She doted on my Godfather– Basque– and she did cooking classes for 4H for years. Over half of the 4H cooking girls were Mexican, often with little English. ENDLESS patience with the kids, and she was one of the fairest reporters that the newspaper ever had.

    I’d gladly trade a dozen folks obsessed with how fair they are for one “racist” like her– EVERYONE was an exception to the rule, and if she liked you, she’d walk through fire for you. Might sigh and fuss the whole time, but woe unto him who thought that meant she was giving up.

  29. Heh.

    Yeah, here I am 50% Mexican-American, 25% pure County Cork Irish, and 25% mixed Irish-Scottish-English-who-knows-what-they-were-disreputable-enough, but of course I ended up with the English last name. 😉

    Takes a little edge off any Irish-inspired ranting against the bloody English, and how can I object when my paternal grandfather (a mid-life convert) was one of the mildest, kindest men I’ve ever known.

  30. NancyP says:


    Probably not too much. The Navy’s pretty good about advancing people who deserve more responsibility. I’d say you should give yourself a pat on the back for all your hard work!

  31. I went to college in the ’70s, a private college for women. At the time I had no doubts that my acceptance was based on my grades and test scores. (Ah, the confidence of youth!) Looking back, I sometimes wonder if I was accepted primarily because I was Mexican-American.

    College was where I discovered that to some Anglos (especially liberal academics) we really did all look alike. I remember the creative writing professor who scolded me because I never wrote any gritty stories set in “the barrio.”Excuse me — I’m a girl of the sheltered suburbs and my native language is English.

  32. Donald R. McClarey says:

    I had a roommate from Chicago in College who was first generation American. His family had been illegals from Mexico, before becoming naturalized citizens. He complained to me that his advisors kept trying to push Mexican related courses on him. All he wanted to do was to become an architect and lead the good life here in the US. To his advisors he was merely an affirmative action Hispanic, instead of the Pedro I came to know who had a wicked sense of humor, a keen mind and a drive to succeed.

  33. cminor says:

    Sorry, Gabriel Austin; I’ve been out of the loop.
    There are a number of good lyrics sites; I googled the song and picked the top listing:
    From what I recall it’s accurate–the song, as you can see from the English translation, is pretty nonsensical.
    Wikipedia, incidentally, has an entry on the song that is kind of interestng.
    And sorry, I’m afraid I’ve never heard the parody. I’ll have to look it up.

  34. Foxfier says:

    Oooh, if you enjoy singing La Bamba, you might like this one:

    Tunak Tunak Tun. (Believe it or not, it’s a love song….)

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