The Affirmative Action Trap

By Esther J. Cepeda, V0xxi

CHICAGO — This fall the Supreme Court will hear Fisher v. University of Texas, a case that could decide the fate of racial preferences in the college admissions process. And here’s a perfect example of why higher education’s affirmative action and diversity initiatives should focus on socioeconomic status rather than race and ethnicity: Elizabeth Warren.

It turns out that Warren, a Harvard law professor who decided to challenge Sen. Scott Brown after she was passed over as the first director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, has in the past identified herself as a minority — 1/32nd Native American, to be exact. Warren’s great-great-great-grandmother was Cherokee.

A Massachusetts genealogist tracked down Warren’s long-deceased relative after Brown’s campaign raised “serious questions” about her credibility. The Brown camp noted that Harvard Law School counted Warren as a Native American employee in the 1990s when the school was being attacked for its lack of diversity, and implied that her racial classification gave her an unfair advantage in getting hired to begin with.

Though Warren said she didn’t know about the label Harvard had assigned her, she confirmed that she had, for about a decade, listed herself as a minority in a directory of law professors that was widely used as a tip sheet for minority recruiting purposes. Warren said she’d hoped to meet peers of a similar background but eventually gave up.

Social media streams have been brimming with offensive remarks directed at Native Americans, illustrating how completely clueless most people are about contemporary Indians — but also how angry people get about any type of ethnicity-based preferential treatment.

Much of this mini-scandal centers around whether Warren can rightly claim to be Native American. But who has the right to tell another whether they qualify for admittance into a particular cultural heritage?

Interracial households in America recorded a 28 percent increase between 2000 to 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In my family, between me and my two cousins, we have six kids who are half Hispanic (from two different Latin American countries) and half white, black or Asian. When our kids grow up, any choice of mate will produce a child of further-diluted race or ethnicity, and so on, until our adult great-great-great-grandchildren get to decide their identity for themselves.

Which brings us back to affirmative action. Unless the government decides on a minimum percentage to be considered any one of the acknowledged racial or ethnic minorities — and requires blood tests or DNA sequencing to prove it — how will any college or other organization with a mission to maintain a diverse faculty and student body do the sorting? And how could it possibly be fair?

Many middle- and upper-class minorities can afford a college education. So is it right for their children to be considered for extra financial aid, a break on tuition, or a coveted registration slot alongside minorities whose parents are truly poor? And what about poor white students? Are they simply out of luck because their race supposedly accords them special privileges to begin with?

But far worse is the perception that when race enters the equation, merit is overlooked in favor of whatever category needs to be added on to meet a quota — and that minorities are more than happy to exploit such a situation.

Warren’s list of accomplishments — not the least of which is that, as a child, her parents struggled financially and troubles worsened after her father died, but she still managed to earn a full-ride, merit-based college scholarship — is impressive by any measure. Warren worked hard to get from her kitchen-table law practice to the White House where she advised President Obama.

If we would only ensure that college is accessible to all those who can excel academically and professionally, we’d neither feel the need to question Warren’s qualifications nor doubt her personal connection to her family’s heritage.

Esther J. Cepeda writes a weekly column for the Chicago Sun-Times and three columns weekly for national newspaper syndication for the Washington Post Writers Group. She is an opinion journalist and expert on the issues of U.S. Hispanics/Latinos. She is a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, The Chicago Headline Club, and The Society of Professional Journalist. You can learn more about her at

[Photo by hhsara]

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