This year, the Supreme Court will take up the policy of affirmative action in one of its decisions, Fisher v. University of Texas. Affirmative action has to be considered one of the most divisive issues in politics, up there with Roe v. Wade and Citizen’s United. Since its introduction into the decision-making process at universities across the country, affirmative action has come to be recognized by some as a repudiation of the meritocratic spirit that is so ingrained in American culture. Others, meanwhile, view it as the only way to level the unequal playing field that has mired minority groups in less well-paying careers and bereft of the economic and social benefits that come from going to prestigious universities. The term that has become synonymous with the policy is that of the pejorative “affirmative action baby.”
I am an “affirmative action baby,” or at least some people will call me that. My mother was born in Ecuador, immigrated to America at 16, and worked her way up through college and into a decent middle class life. But she wanted more for me, and so when it came time to apply to college, it didn’t matter that I had great grades and even better test scores, or even that I was a captain and all-state soccer player. The prevailing idea at the time was (and still is) that you do everything you can to make yourself as appealing as possible to the schools to which you are applying. I was going to put “Hispanic” on my application, even though I did not identify at all with being a Latino, and wasn’t even raised to speak Spanish. But one day I received a fat envelope from Princeton University, and all seemed good in the world.
The reality was, things weren’t that good on the inside for me. I arrived at Princeton with a chip on my shoulder, feeling that, because of my ethnicity, I had something to prove to everyone else around me. And so I worked my tail off for four years, hardly took a break from accomplishing some task, whether academically or in extra-curricular activities, and nearly collapsed from mental fatigue during my senior year. I hardly spent much time developing the strong relationships that many other people I know from Princeton will carry with them for the rest of their lives, and that bothers me. I did not have a work-life balance because I was so consumed by the idea that I was not good enough, since I had to rely on something as arbitrary as my ethnicity to “get in.”
This brings me to my overall point — that affirmative action may be good as a general idea, but is bad for the individuals concerned. I can empathize with the theory that minority groups have been disenfranchised from these universities in the past and that they deserve a chance now to experience what multi-generational Americans have been experiencing for many years. But too often in the grand debates over affirmative action is lost what sort of impact the policy has on individuals. I believe that affirmative action based on race should be substituted for an affirmative action policy based on class, but with America’s aversion to class warfare, it is hard to see that happening. Whatever happens with the Supreme Court’s decision on Fisher v. University of Texas, I will be viewing it with an ambivalent heart.