Today’s affirmative action debate centers on the University of Michigan’s “Selection Index,” which gives black, Latino, and Native American undergraduate applicants automatic bonus points. But such systems should never overshadow the deeply personal nature of race-based policies.
In 1996, my high school sweetheart and I ranked atop our class. I had a grade-point average above 4.30 and she just slightly below. As I co-captained the volleyball team and co-founded the poetry club, she entered swim meets and helped coordinate the honor society. After school, she tutored elementary students, and I delivered pizza. We served as student senators, volunteered at local charities, and scored 1270 on the SAT (I later retook the exam and reached the 1300s). Besides enjoying the same education, we lived in comparable middle-class Los Angeles County neighborhoods. With nearly identical records and backgrounds, we applied to the same top schools, including Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and Claremont McKenna College.
The similarities ended there. Though we both had immigrant backgrounds, her family came from Mexico and mine from the Philippines. Eventually, whereas she earned admission to all but one school, I got rejected from all but one school. Of two equal candidates, university officials preferred the Mexican American to the Filipino American.
These results aroused mixed emotions. I acknowledged my weaknesses and understood the selectiveness of elite universities, so I accepted some rejection. At the same time, I wondered how a comparable applicant could have fared much better than I did. I tried to appreciate my one opportunity, but I envied my girlfriend’s many opportunities. Since she graduated salutatorian and I valedictorian, I questioned her qualifications. Yet how could I harbor doubts when I saw how talented she was and how hard she had worked?
Beyond such feelings lay bigger concerns. The schools obviously categorized my girlfriend as an underrepresented Hispanic and me an overrepresented Asian. The categories assumed that I belonged more with my Japanese American classmates than with my Mexican American prom date.
This assumption, however, captured just part of my story. Though I shared certain values with Asian Americans, I also shared certain customs with Latinos. In some respects, especially where Catholic and Spanish influences were concerned, I arguably had more in common with Latinos. On Sundays, for example, I occasionally attended Spanish-language Mass and followed the homily, which contained words that Tagalog speakers understood. Yet these commonalities seemingly went overlooked.
Consequently, on the most selfish level, I missed out on an “admissions hook.” More important, by treating me as a member of one particular group, the schools effectively recognized some personal characteristics over others. Did they thus consider the “whole person,” as they purportedly sought to do?
Of course, the task of evaluating thousands of applications required schools to group applicants. Because the schools placed a high priority on diversity, I expected them to diversify wherever they could.
My expectations seemed unmet. In 1996, Berkeley admitted approximately 8,000 California residents, of which 34% were Asian Americans and 16% were Chicanos and Latinos. These figures contrasted California’s general population, of which 11% was Asian American and 29% was Hispanic. The contrast presumably justified more outreach to my girlfriend than to me.
Of the admitted Asian Americans, however, only 6% were Filipinos, even though our group made up a quarter of California’s Asian Americans. I thought that Berkeley and other schools would have addressed this mismatch, but they gave it little attention. Instead, my girlfriend received preferential treatment over me, despite our groups’ similar numerical disadvantage.
I present this story not to seek pity or handouts but to shed light on a rarely discussed problem. Policy and legal debates often focus on discrimination against whites and preferential treatment of blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans, but seldom do they consider the fate of everyone else.
Yet these groups encounter some of the most complex issues. My experience, for instance, raises questions about cultural identity, racial categories, and disparate outreach, and highlights subtle contradictions. Though affirmative action strives to accommodate minorities, it still overlooks group nuances. Though it strives to promote diversity among groups, it fails to promote diversity within them.
As an interracial couple, my girlfriend and I faced many challenges, including different courtship customs and language barriers. We respected each other’s culture, but we also kept our differences from coming between us. That’s what America is all about. During college admissions, race played a prominent role. Perhaps because our applications had many similarities, schools had to weigh the one factor that differentiated us. Ironically, while we loved each other for who we were, schools treated us for what we represented.
We overcame these difficulties and later got married. But as my sister-in-law enters college and the Supreme Court decides the Michigan cases, I hope that history doesn’t repeat itself.