is an opinion-page columnist for the Kansas City Star
The conversation usually goes like this: A worried mother calls, asking for a list of college scholarships for which her budding collegian can apply. Surely there are pools of money available to Hispanic students with good grades.
The request is usually a plea, the mother overwhelmed by the prospect of paying tuition and fees. Then she moves to the real dilemma: Her son or daughter is adamantly opposed to penning any required essay if it involves discussing race or ethnicity.
Call it the Clarence Thomas syndrome - one from which Sonia Sotomayor does not suffer, and Thurgood Marshall could never have fathomed.
The student does not want to be labeled "a minority." Never mind all the "diversity is good" dog-and-pony shows and seminars on multiculturalism to which this generation has been exposed. Students today are just as influenced by angry commentary about reverse discrimination. Many avoid at all costs (even forfeiting college) having their every accomplishment be written off under the taint of affirmative action. It's a reality under which Latinos are especially challenged. After all, they often can choose to avoid the label and therefore any negative associations. Lighter skin tone? No accent? No red flag 'z' at the end of the last name? OK. You are free to move along quietly and blend in.
Here's something I always remind people who complain to me about affirmative action and "diversity" measures: No one moves forward on their own. Some get more help than others - be they rich kids with connected daddies or poor kids with connected mentors. Sometimes they truly merit that help, and sometimes they don't. It's what a person does after he or she is afforded an opportunity that matters.
Yet that point gets lost these days more than ever. Quotas, and many similar measures, have been struck down by courts, yet you couldn't convince most people of that fact. Too often, well-meaning efforts to diversify an office or a university class implode and backfire under the weight of poorly executed plans.
Clarence Thomas, in his memoir, My Grandfather's Son, wrote of deep regret for listing his race on his application to Yale University's law school: "As much as it stung to be told that I'd done well in the seminary despite my race, it was far worse to feel that I was now at Yale because of it." Not surprisingly, Thomas shuns all forms of affirmative action, embracing to a fault the misconception that society can somehow be color-blind. In contrast, Sotomayor has embraced her Puerto Rican background and readily admits that diversity goals aided her entry into the Ivy League.
Her doing so has been taken as license by some to question her intellectual accomplishments. Yet how she entered did not affect how she exited the Ivies - summa cum laude at Princeton, a law review editorship at Yale.
In his day, Marshall didn't feel he could opt out of representing his race in court and as a role model. His life's work was viewed as a duty and a calling to reshape the laws of his country on behalf of his race, especially the charge he is most famously linked to, desegregating America's schools. Now the pendulum has swung so far in the other direction that Sotomayor would be howled out of D.C. if she tried to do so.
President Obama can talk about diversity and the colors of the multicultural rainbow all he wants. In truth, heavy suspicion falls upon those deemed to have received any sort of "extra help" because of race or ethnicity. The danger is that promising Latino students might shun an outreached hand. That's an opportunity wasted. And it doesn't feel like progress at all.