Books: Excerpts

November 27, 1991 3 min read

Linda Chavez, former executive director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate in Maryland in 1986, has always taken a provocative stance on the impact of civil-rights programs formulated in the 1960’s. In Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation, she charges that these programs have placed a premium on disadvantaged status,” and that Hispanic leaders have been all too eager to exploit that to the detriment of their constituents.

In the following excerpt, Ms. Chavez, now a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, argues against programs such us affirmative action that she says separate Hispanics from mainstream educational and employment opportunities:

The idea of personal sacrifice is an anomaly in this age of entitlements. The rhetoric is all about rights. And the rights being demanded go far beyond the right to equality under the law. Hispanics have been trained in the politics of affirmative action, believing that jobs, advancement, and even political power should be apportioned on the basis of ethnicity. But the rationale for treating all Hispanics like a permanently disadvantaged group is fast disappearing. What’s more, there is no ground for giving preference in jobs or promotions to persons who have endured no history of discrimination in this country--namely, recent immigrants.

Even within Hispanic groups, there are great differences between the historical discrimination faced by Mexican- Americans and Puerto Ricans and that faced by, say, Cubans. Most Hispanic leaders, though, are willing to have everyone included in order to increase the population eligible for the programs and, therefore, the proportion of jobs and academic placements that can be claimed.

But these alliances are beginning to fray at the edges. Recently, a group of Mexican-American firemen in San Francisco challenged the right of two Spanish-Americans to participate in a department affirmative-action program, claiming that the latter’s European roots made them unlikely to have suffered discrimination comparable to that of other Hispanics. The group recommended establishing a panel of 12 Hispanics to certify who is and who is not Hispanic. But that is hardly the answer.

Affirmative-action politics treats race and ethnicity as if they were synonymous with disadvantage. The son of a Mexican-American doctor or lawyer is treated as if he suffered the same disadvantage as the child of a Mexican farm worker; and both are given preference over poor, non- Hispanic whites in admission to most colleges or affirmative-action employment programs. Most people think this is unfair, especially white ethnics whose own parents and grandparents also faced discrimination in this society but never became eligible for the entitlements of the civil rights era. It is inherently patronizing to assume that all Hispanics are deprived and grossly unjust to give those who aren’t preference on the basis of disadvantages they don’t experience.

Whether stated or not, the essence of affirmative action is the belief that Hispanic--or any of the other eligible groups--are not capable of measuring up to the standards applied to whites. This is a pernicious idea.

Ultimately, entitlements based on their status as “victims” rob Hispanics of real power. The history of American ethnic groups is one of overcoming disadvantage, of competing with those who were already here and proving themselves as competent as any who came before. Their fight was always to be treated the same as other Americans, never to be treated as special, certainly not to turn the temporary disadvantages they suffered into the basis for permanent entitlement.

Anyone who thinks this fight was easier in the early part of this century when it was waged by other ethnic groups does not know history. Hispanics have not always had an easy time of it in the United States. Even though discrimination against Mexican-Americans and Puerto Ricans was not as severe as it was against blacks, acceptance has come only with struggle, and some prejudices still exist. Discrimination against Hispanics, or any other group, should be fought, and there are laws and a massive administrative apparatus to do so. But the way to eliminate such discrimination is not to classify all Hispanics as victims and treat them as if they could not succeed by their own efforts. Hispanics can and will prosper in the United States by following the example of the millions before them.

From Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation, by Linda Chavez. Copyright @ 1991 by Basic Books, a Division of HarperCollins Publishers.

A version of this article appeared in the November 27, 1991 edition of Education Week as Books: Excerpts