Believe and Achieve: A message to underrepresented minorities, women, and all of us who are different

“I don’t rent to people like you.”

That was the landlord’s response to a first-year graduate student when he inquired about a rental apartment advertisement. A priest asked a bride, “Why are you marrying a foreigner?” who may be interested only in citizenship. An immigration officer detains an individual for close to two hours because that person couldn’t possibly be the legal owner of a United States passport, have a doctoral degree, and be employed by a prominent institution.

A professor from an underrepresented minority group reached a significant administrative position, only to be told in a meeting by an older colleague that he was clearly chosen because of his ethnicity. A man of an underrepresented minority group (could have very well been a woman) sits around the table discussing issues and suggests a solution to a thorny problem. Nobody reacts. A white male makes the same suggestion a few moments later only to have the same idea be celebrated as brilliant. A prominent, very well-to-do individual tells a man in a prominent powerful position that being a U.S. citizen from Puerto Rico is simply not the same. Puerto Ricans are not “real” citizens and “they are lazy.”

Yes, all of these incidents are real and are a sample of my own experiences from 1972 to literally last year.

If the above happens to a white-looking, well-educated, middle-class Puerto Rican — Puerto Ricans, almost by definition, are a mix of white, black, and Taino Indians — I can only imagine the experience of African-Americans and all women, among others. I certainly like to think that making it this far reflects some talent on my part. It certainly took thick skin, self-confidence, and hard work. But nothing could have been possible if I had not been given the opportunities to prove myself. Unfortunately, those opportunities are still denied to many.

To think that all is fine and that discrimination, bias, and bigotry are relics of the past is to live in a fantasy, or certainly a different world from the one I live in. Back in 1998, I delivered an address to MIT minority students, and sadly, I find the words that I wrote back then are still valid. The talk was titled “Believe and Achieve: Success is Earned, Not Given at MIT.” As was true back then, I suspect that many will agree, and others will honestly disagree (minorities and non-minorities alike) with my thoughts. My hope is to stimulate thinking on an issue that I personally hold very close at heart. 

Following are slightly modified excerpts of that old talk, with Georgia Tech in mind.

Many of the arguments against policies of inclusion go like this. First, those policies imply admitting students who may, on paper, have weaker academic records. Two, minorities commonly have larger failure rates. Three, given the previous statement, presumably Georgia Tech is harming these individuals by setting them up for failure. And finally, we must protect our so-called “standards.”

Any self-respecting institution of higher learning makes all admissions based on a combination of objective and subjective criteria. On their own, exams such as the SAT, GRE, etc., are incomplete predictors of academic success and proven to be biased in a variety of ways. If indicators such as the SAT were correct, I would not be here today. Top universities try to honestly evaluate the whole person, to seek the virtues and gifts of intelligence, drive, honesty, hard work, discipline, variety of experiences, and leadership. We seek a student body that will make us proud, that will succeed in a complicated, demanding, and diverse society. All our students more than qualify. They come with records that are a litany of multidimensional accomplishments. They are here because they are good, and because they have the potential that we need to enrich the Tech community. To the students: do not let anyone tell you otherwise.       

The argument about higher failure rates is a distracting tactic. Frankly, if I start stratifying various groups, I can prove anything I want. The important statistic is that all failure rates are insignificant relative to the success rate. This is an argument to empty the glass when it is mostly full, and start all over again. I would rather focus my energies on stopping the leaks, but keeping the precious fluid that fills my glass.

The third argument is my favorite. Paraphrasing: We (those who know better) want to protect your fragile egos and hence will not allow you to play in the big leagues. Give me a break! What I want is opportunity. All of us who are underrepresented minorities and women, myself included, are more than capable of taking care of ourselves. We want to play. We will control our destiny.        

Years ago, women and minorities were practically nonexistent on the Georgia Tech campus. Was the place any better then? No. Our standards are higher than ever, our accomplishments even higher. That the corridors of Georgia Tech now show some variety in color and gender is for the better, in all dimensions.        

Let me be blunt, policies of inclusion are not a gift, and they are not a way to redress past wrongs. They are a way to create a level playing field. They are designed to make sure that opportunities are available to talented and qualified individuals. But the playing field is NOT yet leveled, and opportunities are not always offered to the best people. I am very proud that Georgia Tech has an unwavering commitment to the diversity that makes this place a better learning environment.

Some opposition to diversity programs is malicious; most is honest and well-intentioned. All works to undermine individuals’ self-confidence. If you are a member of an underrepresented group, do not let that happen. Be alert! All of our students are here because they are good and Georgia Tech thinks they have all the ingredients for success. No student or individual should ever waste time second-guessing how they got to Georgia Tech. If you are a student, staff member, or faculty member from a minority group, spend your energy doing your work. Success is all that matters, and the only answer to the doubters.

- Rafael L. Bras






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