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'If you hadn't been Mexican' : A Harvard graduate returns to his high school to confront a new kind of discrimination-reverse discrimination

May 12, 1991|Ruben Navarrette Jr. | Ruben Navarrette Jr. will pursue a doctorate in education at UCLA this fall

SANGER, CALIF. — Their young eyes stare at me with a hint of skepticism, and perhaps a bit of anger. With more courage than common sense, I have come as a guest speaker to a government class at the high school I attended not long ago. Invited to defend an educational program that is continually under siege by those who want racial equity without sacrifice, I have come to confront an old friend--Allan Bakke.

It was six years ago, as a high-school senior in this brown and white town, that I first met the spirit of the 33-year-old NASA engineer who, a decade earlier, had decided to become a doctor. After being rejected by 12 medical schools, he had challenged the admissions policy at UC Davis' medical school. Bakke charged that the school's special admissions program, which reserved 16 of 100 places for "economically and educationally disadvantaged" applicants, violated his 14th Amendment right to equal protection.

Though, in 1978, the U.S. Supreme Court, by 5-4, eventually ordered his admission to Davis, it also allowed--indeed encouraged--colleges and universities to consider the race and gender of its applicants to bring diversity and racial parity to U.S. higher education. Taking his place in history beside Linda Brown and James Meredith, Bakke was catapulted to the dubious position of poster boy for a new kind of racial injustice. For opponents of affirmative action, the issue was clear: Bakke was the blond, blue-eyed victim of a new kind of discrimination--reverse discrimination.

None of this seemed important to me at the beginning of my senior year in high school, when I was setting my sights on applying to some top colleges.

Not everyone shared my confidence. In the middle of the application process, my high-school principal counseled me not to bite off more than I could chew. Diplomatically, he said that it was "fine" that I was applying to schools like Harvard, Yale and Princeton, but that I should also consider applying to Fresno State nearby "just in case." I thanked him and promptly disregarded his advice.

Rebuffed, he cast the first spear of a bitter attack that was to be taken over by my Anglo classmates and maintained through spring. "You may be right," he conceded with insincerity. "After all, (in the admissions process) your race should help you a lot." In five minutes, he had dismissed four years of hard work and perfect grades in favor of a more race-conscious explanation of why I would eventually be admitted to each of the schools I applied to.

My white classmates, many with grades not as good as mine and reeling from rejections by the schools that were admitting me, were far more direct. "Now, you know if you hadn't been Mexican . . . " one said. "Reverse discrimination," another charged. And it was then that I met Bakke.

He was there in the eyes of my classmates, who clutched in their fists letters of rejection from such schools as Stanford and UC Berkeley. "It's not fair," I remember one saying. "They turned me down because I was white."

I half-expected to find huge clusters of Mexican students at Harvard, but I was one of only 35 Mexican-Americans at the welcoming luncheon. Did this signify the alleged "darkening" of higher education?

Part of youth is ignorance of the world outside your window. Yet, the furor over perceived "reverse discrimination" is not limited to high-school seniors. A few weeks ago, a friend of mine who is a graduate of Yale stormed into the law firm where she works after a lunchtime argument with the managing partner. The partner had blatantly charged that "the only reason" my friend had been admitted to Yale was because she was Mexican-American and a woman--the dreaded "double whammy." He had dismissed not only her near-perfect grades in high school but also her equally outstanding marks at Yale.

The stories of angry white Americans in search of whipping boys--and girls--could go on without end.

This is the legacy with which I entered the high-school government class and confronted Bakke. "Granted, racial discrimination was wrong back then (presumably pre-civil rights movement)," a student conceded. "But now that that's over with, shouldn't we get rid of affirmative action? And if we don't, aren't we just creating new victims?"

The first time I'd heard this line was from Nathan Glazer, a professor of mine at Harvard, who some say coined the phrase "reverse discrimination." Once a society has liberated its employment and educational opportunities and fully met the burden of its democratic principles, Glazer argues, any further tampering with the laws of appropriation through race-preference programs constitutes impermissible "reverse discrimination."

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