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Letters from readers about Tienda and affirmative action

April 25, 2003

I find it strange that one problem of affirmative action that Mr. Vacano seems to have forgotten in his letter is the obvious fact that it clearly is reverse discrimination and for every "minority" kid that is eased in, some totally innocent "majority" kid is eased out.

Remember that each applicant is a minority of one. With the sense of narcisism and victimization that minorities bring to the table, there is no reason why this should trouble them.

Richard R. Golden M.D. '60
Boca Raton, Fla.

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April 2, 2003


Professor of Sociology Marta Tienda presented a defense of affirmative action on April 1, 2003. While compelling in many respects — and certainly lively — the exposition did not question the ultimate value of affirmative action.
As a Latino person who has partially benefited from affirmative action, I believe I can attest to the problems affirmative action has as it is now generally understood in national policy debates. Although I used to believe that affirmative action was a good way to correct the social ills of our society, it has become clear to me that affirmative action has three fundamental problems.
The first problem is that it can often become mere 'tokenism.' Owing to the fact that many institutions-including educational ones- have very thin affirmative action policies such as merely "encouraging minority members to apply" for positions, their thinness only leads to a token minority presence in such institutions.
The second problem is that it has tended to be used to benefit only particular segments of the underrepresented group. While Latinas (as members of the largest US ethnic minority group) and African Americans women (as a historically oppressed group) are arguably the most in need of redress, institutions have often opted to consistently confer the benefits of affirmative action to other subgroups, such as white or Asian American women.
The third problem has to do with academic institutions at the graduate level. While much of the discussion of affirmative action centers on how to make campuses more diverse, graduate students of color often find themselves pigeon-holed as specialists of 'minority issues.' For one reason or another, both at the graduate level and in academic positions, minority scholars are expected (or even assumed) to focus on topics that relate to their ethnic background. This creates a pressure that essentially leads to a 'ghetto-ization' of the academy. Minority scholars are pressured by institutional forces to study minority issues. This does not allow for a varied presence of minorities across different branches of learning.
Taken together, these three problems, particularly in academic settings, really do undermine the actual benefits of affirmative action as it is generally understood. The fact is that affirmative action has had very mixed results especially at the highest (academic) levels and must now be radically reconsidered or discarded as an approach to social reform. Schools like Princeton have reason to pride themselves in their advances over the last three decades, yet we are far from a truly egalitarian society. New methods have to be developed to achieve this ideal.

Diego von Vacano *GS-03
Princeton, N.J.

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