Rodriguez opens this essay by explaining that he has been the beneficiary of affirmative action. This policy arose in the late 1960s, as a result of agitation by nonwhite Americans to gain more equal access to higher education. He declares that he was wrong to have accepted the label of “minority student.” He writes, “For me there is no way to say [‘minority student’] with grace. I say it rather with irony sharpened by self-pity. I say it with anger.” He recalls the first time he saw the phrase “minority student”: in a college literature class, his professor returned a paper Rodriguez had written with the comment, “Maybe the reason you feel Dickens’s sense of alienation so acutely is because you are a minority student.” Rodriguez remembers the confusion he felt reading this comment: “Never before,” he writes, “had a teacher suggested that my academic performance was linked to my racial identity.” He considers questioning the professor about the comment, but instead he leaves the class silently—thus, he writes, “implicating” himself in the “strange reform movement” of the late 1960s.
Rodriguez became notorious in the 1970s for his anti-affirmative action stance. In this passage, he introduces the notion that part of his opposition to affirmative action, which targets “minority students,” is the way that such a policy manipulates language. Rodriguez experienced intense cognitive dissonance when he was first labeled as a minority student, because this is never how Rodriguez had seen himself. Furthermore, he found the comment condescending, because he considered his identification with Dickens to be unrelated to his race (and perhaps more related to his academic abilities). As he will continue to explain in this essay, Rodriguez takes issue with a policy that thrusts labels onto people without their consent.
Rodriguez provides a brief history of affirmative action. He argues that this policy has its roots in the black civil rights struggle of the late 1960s. The leaders of this movement realized that institutional racism was blocking black students from acceptance to universities, and they advocated for improved access for black students. Rodriguez agrees with the assessment that limited access was a problem, but he argues that these activists “tragically limited the impact of their movement” by defining and addressing the problem “solely in racial terms.” Affirmative action is flawed, Rodriguez argues, because it stands to benefit “those blacks least victimized by racism or any other social oppression—those culturally, if not always economically, of the middle class.” Rodriguez goes on to describe how he initially accepted the label of minority student, even though it made him uneasy, but then he began to realize that his excellent early schooling meant that he wasn’t disadvantaged in the way that other nonwhite students entering university were. By the early 1970s he had realized that he was “not—in a cultural sense—a minority, an alien from public life.” Rodriguez writes: “The reason I was no longer a minority was because I had become a student.”
It is difficult to overstate the importance of this passage. Rodriguez is redefining the concept of what it means to be a minority; rather than regarding the label as an issue of race, he defines being a minority as existing outside of public, middle-class life. Rodriguez attacks the question of affirmative action in an almost legalistic manner, challenging the way that others have defined their terms. Furthermore, Rodriguez takes a fundamentally intersectional approach to the question of affirmative action: he believes that it is a flawed policy because it does not account for the intersection of race and class. Despite the rhetorical power of this passage, however, it is difficult to determine whether to take Rodriguez’s statement that when he became a student he ceased being a minority at face value. Even if the professor mentioned earlier was misrepresenting Rodriguez’s response to Dickens, it seems unlikely that Rodriguez’s race could have had absolutely no impact on his experience within the university.
Rodriguez elaborates on the reasons he thinks affirmative action has been a failed policy. He argues that affirmative action had its roots in the American South, “where racism had been legally enforced, [and therefore] all blacks suffered discrimination uniformly.” He acknowledges that affirmative action has had the positive effect of teaching Americans that “there are forms oppression that touch all levels of society.” However, the downside, he writes, is that this focus on racism has made it “easy to underestimate, even to ignore altogether, the importance of class.” He further explains that he does not doubt, for example, that a black lawyer or businessman experiences racism—but, he writes, “I do not think that all blacks are equally ‘black.’ Surely those uneducated and poor will remain most vulnerable to racism.” Because affirmative action is blind to class distinctions, “those least disadvantaged were helped first, advanced because many others of their race were more disadvantaged.” Rodriguez argues that the more revolutionary (and effective) course of action would have been to focus on reforming primary and secondary schools.
Rodriguez is writing as a kind of historian/sociologist, demonstrating yet another narrative form he is comfortable using. He is expanding his argument for an intersectional approach to the problem of institutional barriers to higher education. Though Rodriguez is known as a conservative writer, his argument against affirmative action reveals that one of his fundamental concerns is that this policy is not comprehensive enough, since it does not help the poor. The danger of this argument, however, was well-articulated by Le Anne Schreiber in her New York Times’ review of Hunger of Memory: “The pity is that Mr. Rodriguez’s very personal reservations about bilingual education and affirmative action will be conveniently taken up by some conservatives who do not also share his very personal concern for the people those programs are intended to help.”
Rodriguez admits that he is guilty of having accepted the benefits of affirmative action, even after speaking out against it. (“I permitted myself to be prized,” he writes.) He writes that he seeks forgiveness—the forgiveness “of those many persons whose absence from higher education permitted me to be classed a minority student.” He doubts, however, that such people will ever read his writing.
Yet again Rodriguez’s writing evokes a deep longing for connection with lower-class people. In some ways, this tone matches the form of pastoral literature (Rodriguez’s specialty), which celebrates agricultural life. Yet, instead of celebrating laborers, Rodriguez feels guilty for having accepted benefits he believes should have been conferred on lower-class people.
Rodriguez further details his argument that affirmative action is only a superficial solution. He writes that, “the academy was prepared to do little more for such [minority] students” beyond admitting them. Universities began accepting students who did not have the tools to succeed in college and, thus, “the conspiracy of kindness became a conspiracy of uncaring.”
The concerns Rodriguez articulates are incredibly prescient. Even today, many minority and first-generation college students protest that they do not feel supported by institutions of higher learning.
Thus far, Rodriguez has been addressing the status of affirmative action in the 1960s. He now shifts to discussing the occurrences of the 1970s—the most significant of which, he writes, was a tendency of nonwhite students to believe that it was possible for them to “[belong] at once to academia and to the society of the disadvantaged.” This is a false premise, Rodriguez argues: “Activists encouraged students to believe that they were in league with the poor when, in actuality, any academic who works with the socially disadvantaged is able to be of benefit to them only because he is culturally different from them.” He uses the example of the word Chicano, which was adopted by Mexican American activists in the 1970s. Among communities of lower-class Mexican Americans, this word was used in an “affectionately vulgar” manner, and was considered offensive when used by strangers. Activists reanimated the word with “pride and political purpose,” turning it into a public word (much to the shock of non-activist Mexican Americans). Thus, Rodriguez writes, the student-activist “taught his listeners to imagine their union with many others like themselves. But the student easily coined the new word because of his very distance from Chicano culture.”
Clearly, Rodriguez’s opposition to affirmative action and the reform movements that ushered it in is extremely nuanced. His argument against such policies is deeply rooted in his conception of public versus private life and his understanding of how language operates within this paradigm. Unfortunately, both conservatives and liberals who have marshaled Rodriguez’s writing in favor of their respective causes have exhibited a tendency to flatten the nuance of Rodriguez’s arguments. For example, the fact that Hunger of Memory is considered part of the Chicano canon is incredibly ironic given the subtle argument against the public use of this word that Rodriguez articulates in this passage.
At this point Rodriguez issues a disclaimer: he writes that he is “not the best person to evaluate the Third World Student Movement” he has been describing because his relationship to these “self-proclaimed Chicano students” was a deeply uneasy one. He was envious of their fluent Spanish, for example, yet he “distrusted the implied assertion that their tongue proved their bond to the past, to the poor.” These students, Rodriguez implies, were deluding themselves by thinking that their education had not fundamentally changed them.
Despite Rodriguez’s envy of the connection these Chicano activists have with their Mexican heritage, Rodriguez distrusts that such a connection has any deeper meaning, since he believes that a connection that tries to cross temporal, geographic, or class boundaries will become unrecognizably distorted. He believes that these activists have good intentions, but are somewhat deluded about their own position in the world.
Rodriguez was glad to get away from these student-activists, he writes. He went to Britain for a year to study as a Fulbright Scholar and then “rushed to ‘come home’”—only to realize that, even with his parents, he “remained an academic—a kind of anthropologist in the family kitchen.” At this point, Rodriguez accepted a teaching position at Berkeley, where he once again had to “face” minority students. He recalls how a group of Hispanic students once visited his office, requesting that he begin teaching a minority literature class. He tried to convince the students that minority literature doesn’t really exist—“Any novel or play about the lower class will necessarily be alien to the culture it portrays, I rambled.” He recalls that the students looked at him with scorn, and that, from that point onward, he was seen as a comic figure, “a ‘coconut’—someone brown on the outside, white on the inside.” However, many of his fellow faculty members remained convinced that Rodriguez would be able to serve as a counselor to minority students. The reality was, Rodriguez writes, that the students he connected best with were middle-class (presumably white) students. Yet he still received invitations to speak about the problems facing socially disadvantaged people: “I heard myself introduced at conferences as a ‘Chicano intellectual,’” he writes. “(And I stood up.)”
In recounting the story of the would-be minority literature class, Rodriguez is again redefining what has come to be a commonly understood term. While many people understand minority literature as literature written by and about people of color, Rodriguez makes an argument that all literature is high literature—that is, all literature fundamentally belongs to the higher classes of society and thus cannot accurately represent the experiences of the poor. This is a troubling argument in that Rodriguez seems not only to conflate class with race (minority literature is not necessarily about poor people), but also to inherently dismiss the ability of nonwhite, non-educated, lower-class people to create literature. Another important aspect of this passage is the discomfort Rodriguez expresses at allowing others to label his identity. As a writer, it is important to Rodriguez to be in control of language, so the fact that he has allowed people to define him as, for example, a Chicano intellectual is disturbing to him (a fact that is emphasized by Rodriguez’s evocative use of parentheticals).
Rodriguez shifts focus to discuss the white student protests that occurred during his years in graduate school. Most of these protests were about American intervention in Southeast Asia (namely the Vietnam War), but white students were also reacting to the decline in value of a college diploma on the job market. Regardless, Rodriguez writes, it was ludicrous for white, middle-class students to play the victim. Though he himself protested the war in Vietnam, he argues that, for too many people, their protest was based on self-pity and that, fundamentally, students had lost sight of the fact that “higher education implie[s] privilege.”
Rodriguez’s argues that university students are in a place of inherent privilege, which “disqualifies” them from certain protests. The question of what kinds of protests are acceptable for college students to make persists today in questions about the value of safe spaces, free speech, and the university’s role in student life.
Closing the essay, Rodriguez reflects on the deep uneasiness he began to feel in the mid-1970s as he began to apply to permanent teaching positions post-graduate school. He received countless prestigious offers, but couldn’t shake the feeling that he was only being offered these positions because he was a “minority.” He recalls a pivotal conversation with a fellow graduate student, who was depressed because the only job offer he’d received would require him to move away from his young daughter. When Rodriguez admitted to his colleague that he had, in fact, gotten an offer from Yale but hadn’t made up his mind about it, the colleague replied, “You’re the one who gets all the breaks.” Rodriguez was angered by this comment and found himself defending affirmative action, to his own disgust. The colleague, who was Jewish, dismissed him saying, “There isn’t any way for me to compete with you. Once there were quotas to keep my parents out of schools like Yale. Now there are quotas to get you in. And the effect on me is the same as it was for them.” In this moment, Rodriguez realized that, though he wanted the life of an academic, he had to protest the unfair place the university had become. He declined all the offers he’d received. When he called his parents to inform them, his father, upset, said, “I don’t know why you feel this way. We never had any of the chances before.” Rodriguez writes: “We, he said. But he was wrong. It was he who had never had any chance before.”
This vignette is one of the few moments in the book when Rodriguez recounts an extended, specific memory. As such, it stands out even more dramatically as a critical moment in Rodriguez’s life. This passage is also noteworthy because, in his conversation with his father, Rodriguez complicates the idea of the American dream: that a child’s life in America should be better than his immigrant father’s. Rodriguez, however, rejects the idea that he should receive advantages his father never had solely because his father never had them. Though the conversation between Rodriguez and his father is brief, it nevertheless engages with a classic question of immigrant literature: the familial pressure placed on first-generation Americans to make something of themselves.