Confessions of an Affirmative Action Maybe

In the back of a closet at my parents' house hangs my wrinkled and musty barong. In the six years since my father, a Filipino immigrant who married a WASP from Connecticut, brought it back from his home town, I haven't put it on even once.

Maybe I've betrayed my ethnicity. Once I tell you that a barong is a stiff cotton shirt that Filipino men wear on formal occasions, you know about as much as I do about the culture of my father's birthplace. Every now and I happen upon that never-worn garment or a few photographs of relatives I barely know, but the paucity of my celebrations suggests that I deserve no prize for my embrace of my Asian-American heritage.

But several of America's top law schools believe otherwise. The University of Virginia, the University of Michigan, Yale and a few other institutions all sent me unsolicited application packets.

Each school's packet contained a letter from an assistant dean in charge of the affirmative action program, and each dean explained the school's attempts to recruit "qualified minority candidates like yourself."

Yale even included the name and telephone number of the president of the Pacific Islander, Asian, Native American Law Students' Association, and said I could call her to discuss the special concerns of a minority applicant.


That my paperwork had already left the Adams House office for New Haven, Ann Arbor and points westward and southward rendered that option moot, but I wouldn't have called anyway.

I'm not entirely sure how my name found its way onto these law schools' minority mailing lists, but the bluntness of the instruments upon which law schools rely to locate affirmative action targets provides one explanation. When you sign up for the Law School Admission Test, item 9 on the registration form asks you to "blacken only one oval that best describes your ethnic background."

Mixed-ethnics like me can't answer this optional item easily. After vacillating for a minute or two between "white" and "Asian," I gave into the "one-drop" mentality that dominates Americans' ethnic self-identification. It tells you that if even the slightest bit of the blood in your veins (even one drop) comes from somewhere outside northern Europe or the British Isles, that somewhere is your native land. With some discomfort, I made my choice. Asian it was.

My choice, though basically accurate, made me a potential beneficiary of special minority recruiting. This is bizarre. I have no involvement with Asian-American issues (whatever those might be) and take no part in activism (if such activism actually exists) on behalf of the children of interracial marriages. Moreover, bigots have taken potshots at me only twice in 21 years, and neither incident hampered my educational career.

Furthermore, the blue-collar WASP half of my ancestry has suffered more from circumstances beyond its control than my white-collar Asian half ever did. My father's father teaches law at a Philippine university, employs two maids and paid for undergraduate and professional degrees for all of his eight children. My mother's father worked in a factory, and his children didn't go to college. I grew up in a middle-class suburb because of my father's education, not because of the color of my mother's skin.

Luckily, item 9 offered an escape hatch. You can tell Law School Admissions Services, the Pennsylvania firm that administers the LSAT, to leave your ethnic description out of score reports. This meant, I thought, that I could help LSAS's statisticians get an accurate picture of the law school applicant pool without signing up for special consideration that I don't deserve. My negative answer to 14C, which asks, "Would you describe yourself as someone who comes from a low-income family?" should have eliminated me from such consideration altogether.

But the packets came anyway. James M. Vaseleck, deputy corporate counsel for Law Services, told me that schools use his firm's database--which includes ethnic descriptions even of those students who, by using the escape hatch, ask that their ethnic descriptions not be used--to pick out "targeted pools." The only real way to keep your ethnicity out of the admissions process is to skip item 9.

As Dennis J. Shields, assistant dean and director of admissions at the University of Michigan School of Law, said, "You always have the option of not identifying yourself." I should have chosen that option.

I support affirmative action in the abstract, but I worry more about its application than I used to. The possibility that those with only tenuous claims to disadvantaged minority status can find their way into "targeted pools" incenses me.

The rationale for special treatments for certain minority groups remains solid. For centuries mainstream America either condoned or ignored prejudice against Blacks, and poverty and discrimination prevented many Blacks from performing well on the usual measures of merit. As a result, anti-discrimination laws that allowed Blacks to compete on the basis of merit for jobs or for places in universities did little to improve Blacks' socioeconomic status. Latinos have faced similar barriers.