A Personal Look at Racial Preferences

As I listened to President Bush’s remarks on national television regarding the use of racial preferences at the University of Michigan, I couldn’t help but shake with excitement. There are few issues as divisive in this country as race, and there are few issues that touch me as personally.

Throughout my life, I have seen firsthand what racial preferences can do and how they affect individuals and families. No, I haven’t been oppressed or "kept down" by "the man," but as someone who is half Hispanic, I have nonetheless seen and felt the emotional and literal effects of judging people by race.

Even early in my childhood, my sisters and I were taught that in order to achieve, you had to work. Hard work, drive, and determination (along with a little bit of smarts) were the keys to success. Never in a million years would race be considered part of that equation. If we kept our noses to the grindstone, we would succeed.

Of course, one of my first introductions to the fact that race matters was the endless forms we had to fill out in high school, college, and graduate school. There was that box that always popped up: White, Black, Hispanic, Asian, Pacific Islander. Pacific Islander??? Anyway, being half Hispanic means that I’m also half white, so whenever it came to choosing a race, I chose white.

I chose white, not because I’m anti-Hispanic-which I’m not. If that were the case, I’d hate half my family-which I don’t. In fact, I greatly admire the work ethic and sense of family that are demonstrated by many Hispanic families and individuals. No, I chose white, because I knew in doing so, I’d be judged on merit. No one gives bonus points to a white person.

In the last semester of high school, I remember gathering for our Awards Assembly. All the students in the school met in the gym, and the principal announced honors such as valedictorian, salutatorian, scholarship winners, and so on. As a special recognition, the high-ranking students were seated in chairs on the gym floor right in front of the stage. I doubt they’d group kids by class rank anymore, but they did for this assembly.

For a while, it was an enjoyable gathering as my peers (fellow "smart kids") collected awards and scholarships. Then, the principal announced the next scholarship. It was a $10,000 scholarship to the University of Texas. Wow! Ten thousand bucks. That sure beats the $500 scholarships we were getting. When the name of the recipient was called, the collective jaws of the "smart kids" hit the floor. The winner didn’t come from our group at the front. No . . . the winner came from the middle of the pack, and he received the scholarship for one reason: He was Hispanic.

During the summer following my freshman year of college, I went with my mom to visit my grandmother. At the time, my grandmother, Isabel Perez, was a housekeeper for a rancher and his wife in a small Texas town. I was standing next to my grandmother as she told her employer how proud she was that I was going to college and was going to be an engineer. The woman’s response was, "That’s nice, but I’m sure he got in because he’s Mexican."

I couldn’t believe it! I could feel my face start to tighten and my fists clench as her words soaked in. Did I just hear what I thought I heard? Doesn’t she know that I’m one of the "smart kids"? Doesn’t she know that I checked the "White" box??? Rather than say anything, I just stood there quietly, but the impact was felt. I’ll never forget those words.

Why someone would want to get rewarded for being of a particular race. I’ll never know. What I do know is that the practice of racial preferences must come to an end.

America cannot end discrimination by discriminating. We cannot yearn for a colorblind society and then base contracts, admissions, and employment on race; America cannot be true to the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., when he hoped his children would "not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character" until we actually look past skin color and take a good look at character.

There is hope for America to get beyond the racial issue, but it will take some time. The clock won’t start running, however, until we see race for what it is: a birthright, not a government grant.