Fairness, Ability and Merit

The case for Affirmative Action

By Sylvia J. Trujillo
Published on LatinoLA: January 22, 2003

Fairness, Ability and Merit

Last week as I was driving home I listened to President Bush on National Public Radio. I almost had an accident and died. Those of you who know me personally, I know are relieved to hear that I beat back death.

Why did I almost have an accident? I was incredulous and outraged all at once. Our President was talking about a grave injustice: affirmative action at the University of Michigan. He took great umbrage at the notion that the perspective and experiences I as a minority student brought to the classroom at Bryn Mawr College, Harvard University and the University of California at Berkeley had been grossly over-valued by those institutions. Well, maybe, he did not say those words exactly. Most of you know that I might be given on occasion to hyperbole.

What President Bush did say was that the University of Michigan has continued to consider race and ethnicity in the admissions process. He indicated it was not fair and I am pretty certain he talked about merit and ability -- according to him Americans believe you need the foregoing to get ahead in this world.

My first reaction was: Fairness? Ability? Merit?

Then the less than gracious thoughts took hold of me. I thought "These principles are being espoused by someone who went to first rate private schools paid for by his parents; was a legacy at Yale -- the parents again; was a self-proclaimed "C" student, yet was miraculously admitted to Business School; was bank rolled by his parents and their friends in business; and is President despite the fact that the majority of Americans voted for other guy -- thanks to the electoral college and some sketchy behavior by his brother's cronies down in Florida." I thought -- "Wow! This guy definitely needs to use his bully pulpit to set us straight: he is a real testament to America's firmly held beliefs in fairness, ability and merit."

After the anger dissipated, my next thought was: "What can I do in a constructive fashion to demonstrate to my family and friends that affirmative action is a policy that brings about racial equality and affords access to institutions that for so long have barred people like me from entering?" I thought about how I could convey that affirmative action is the epitome of fairness, merit, and ability.

My chosen course of action is to write to you and tell you that I am proud to be a part of the affirmative action legacy. I am an affirmative action poster child. While defending affirmative action could be viewed as a self-serving justification for my existence, I will say: You are absolutely right -- it is also a justification for a policy that promotes equality in our community and has enriched all of the people that
had the privilege to attend college, graduate school and law school with me. My presence in the classroom helped prepare them for the diverse world in which we all live and work. Furthermore, the type of affirmative action condemned by this President has provided him with the opportunity to have a smart, talented, hard-working Latina serve him as a Federal agency attorney where I bring sorely needed diversity. I am an asset in no small part because I am extremely well educated, hard working, and LATINA.

I want to be clear that affirmative action did not take my exams, write my papers, take the Bar, draft my pleadings, complete my work assignments, supervise other lawyers, or provide me with the degrees or outstanding work evaluations.

I did.

Affirmative action opened the door that has for far too long been closed to Latinos/as. It is that simple. It rectifies a wrong that, frankly, is ongoing as demonstrated recently by our President's fellow Republican Trent Lott. It is a borrowed analogy, but is the best one I have heard, yet. If a group is playing poker and one of the players has accrued all the money because he cheated, the other players do not agree to call it even by letting him keep his ill-gotten gains and everyone go forward playing by the rules.

This is the ridiculous notion that the President is advancing.

The other notion is that the cheater is not cheating anymore which is another fallacy. The teacher shortage has increased exponentially, the facilities of inner city schools have fallen into greater disrepair, schoolbook shortages remain rampant (and even if we had them there are not enough qualified teachers to use them). Disparities in school funding have increased at the same time that re-segregation has set-in. All with the blessing of our Federal Courts.

Of course, all of this disproportionately impacts Blacks and Latinos as well as poor white students. We get the least qualified teachers (if any), the fewest books, the buildings with the worst physical plant and built on environmental hazards and our President wants to call that playing fair? He is doing his funny math again.

I encourage each one of you to share your own story about affirmative action and send it to friends and family. You are authorized to pass my message along.

Our President has done us a favor: this is a wake-up call. The door is closing on our watch.

Bryn Mawr College, B.A. '91; Harvard University, M.P.P. '93; University of
California (Boalt Hall), J.D. '96.

About Sylvia J. Trujillo:
Sylvia Trujillo is an attorney in Washington D.C. where she serves as counsel for a federal agency. She grew-up in New Mexico/Colorado one of six children to a cleaning lady and a trash truck driver.

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