January 24, 2003

Commentary

A Proud Beneficiary of Affirmative Action

By Ikeita Cantú Hinojosa

The Supreme Court recently is hearing two cases involving my alma mater, the University of Michigan, to decide the constitutionality of considering race and ethnicity in the higher-education admissions process.

In the interest of our nation’s fundamental principles of hard work, merit and fair and equal opportunity to compete, the court should uphold affirmative action.

I am a proud beneficiary of affirmative action and proof of its success. I have earned two graduate degrees, influential employment positions and numerous awards. First-hard experience as a woman of color has taught me that prejudice is still a significant barrier, despite one’s qualifications, and that affirmative action provides a fair chance for one’s abilities to be considered.


Ikeita Cantú Hinojosa

My undergraduate experience at Texas Tech, one of the three most competitive public universities in Texas, illustrates why meaningful diversity is essential to quality education. Since many of my West Texas classmates rarely had personal interaction with people of color, I suffered the paradoxical consequences of tokenism. On the one hand, my classmates stereotyped my views as representative of everyone who is black or Latino. On the other hand, they presumed I was an exception to the rest of the black and Latino population because I am smart.

I was at Tech when the 1996 Hopwood vs. Texas court ruling resulted in the prohibition of the use of race in admissions decision, financial aid, scholarships and student and faculty recruitment and retention. I recall the chilling effect it had on our already racially challenged environment.

Realizing how policies shape educational and employment opportunities, I pursued a career in advocacy. I chose to attend Michigan Law largely because, as proud as I am to be a Texan, I wanted to keep Michigan from becoming Texas with respect to affirmative action.

Michigan Law showed me meaningful diversity at its best. Since students of color were represented in numbers significant enough to showcase our internal group diversity, I was free to be myself. I became an outspoken affirmative action supporter as a graduate student, and the issue is now part of my professional focus in Washington, D.C.

Affirmative action opponents tend to champion so-called color-blindness in the name of individual rights and merit. But affirmative action focuses on both individual rights and merit by looking at a qualified applicant as a whole. To fully appreciate an individual, we must take all aspects of her talents, ideas and uniqueness into account.

Likewise, merit is not simply a numeric calculation. Schools do not admit standardized test scores and grade point averages, just as they do not admit races and ethnicities. They admit people.

The Supreme Court can exercise constitutional leadership by upholding one of the most important civil-rights policies of our era. In considering affirmative action, let us not forget that at the time of my parents’ birth, Jim Crow segregation was alive and well, and blacks were still legally considered second-class citizens.

My generation is the first to be born into a society in which equal opportunity approaches a realizable goal. Unlike racism and sexism, affirmative action recognized that people of color and women belong beside, not below, everyone else.

Allow us a fair and equal opportunity to compete, and we’ll take it from there.

Ikeita Cantú Hinojosa earned both her law degree and her master of social work degree from the University of Michigan and was a steering committee member of the Law Students for Affirmative Action, a defendant-intervenor in the admissions suit against her law school. She is currently employed at the National Women’s Law Center, a member of the Americans for a Fair Chance consortium. She can be reached at pmproj@progressive.org.

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