A Personal Perspective on Affirmative Action
by Jesús Mena, Public Affairs
The adrenaline rushed through me when I saw him heading my way. It was like catching a distant glimpse of your best friend after a 20-year lapse. My pace quickened. Before I knew it, I was running toward him.
He responded in kind. We embraced like old friends. We spoke a mile a minute as we introduced ourselves to each other. After all, we had never met before. But both of us were Chicanos and neither one of us had seen a brown face in our first two weeks as freshmen at Texas A&M University. The year was 1966 in a Texas where Jim Crow still ruled.
Like me, Luis came from a farm worker family. Each of us had enrolled at Texas A&M with the hopes of breaking into mainstream America. Neither one of us was aware that Chicanos on the campus were but a handful in a sea of more than 20,000 whites. That reality sank in painfully when we arrived.
Not until recently had I remembered that shock I felt then as a 17-year-old freshman. The dramatic drop in minorities admitted to the Berkeley and UCLA announced last week rekindled those emotions. The decline had been anticipated, but few of us visualized its full impact until the numbers were released.
For Berkeley, the numbers are especially distressful. Our campus has always prided itself in its diversity. There are many like myself who came to work for Berkeley because it played a key role in opening the gates to opportunity for minority students. Despite the drop in underrepresented minorities enrolling next fall, our campus remains extremely diverse, and I remain proud to work here. Currently, African-Americans, Chicanos, Latinos and American Indians make up 21 percent of the student population. Although some of these students will graduate next year and proportionally fewer underrepresented minorities will enter as freshmen, their total numbers will remain higher than anything I ever saw when I attended college in the late 1960s. The fact is that we as minorities have a significant foothold in this premier public university that is essential to our future. The immediate challenge is to preserve the foothold we have at Berkeley and UCLA. In the coming weeks, faculty, students and minority staff members like myself will be working hard to enroll as many of the minorities who were admitted as possible to these institutions.
It is a numbers battle. It is a short-term battle. But it is one we need to win if we are to preserve our options for the long term.
For the long term, the issues lie at the feet of our state public policymakers. The dismal admissions numbers are partially a reflection of the poor academic preparation underrepresented minorities receive beginning in kindergarten. Our state leaders need to initiate an honest public dialogue on the unequal opportunities afforded minorities in the states public schools. A renewed public investment in K-12 is essential to counter the cataclysmic cuts made over the years.
And until opportunities are equalized for minorities in public schools, our state leaders need to revisit the constraints imposed on UCs admissions process. The fact remains that private institutions like Stanford and Harvard still use race and ethnicity as criteria in their admissions policies and no one would say that they are admitting inferior students. Quite the contrary, their experience mirrors that of UC, where overall academic excellence improved steadily in the period when affirmative action was the law of the land.
If our state leaders are not up to taking these issues head-on, then I fear that the experiences I underwent 30 years ago will be repeated in the coming years.
Jesus Mena is director of media relations at Berkeley.
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