Hispanic American civil rights activist Linda Chavez (born 1947) gained political attention for her conservative view that government policies such as affirmative action do a disservice to Hispanics and other minorities by perpetuating racial stereotypes. Originally a Democratic supporter, her ideas about civil rights and education reform were embraced by the Republican administration of president Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. After an unsuccessful bid for public office herself, Chavez became a prominent political commentator with writings such as her 1991 book, Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation.
Driven by a desire to destroy negative stereotypes of Hispanic minorities in America as helpless, illiterate, and impoverished, activist Linda Chavez has fought to do away with government attitudes and programs that treat Hispanics as a homogenous unit. However, the conservative remedies she has supported, including the elimination of affirmative action and racial quota systems in various areas of society, have met with hostility from liberal politicians and civil rights activists in the Hispanic community. Originally a Democrat, Chavez switched her affiliation after finding more support for her ideas in the administration of Republican President Ronald Reagan, where she served as an advisor and White House staff member in the 1980s. Although her own attempt to win elected office was unsuccessful, as a political commentator and writer she has remained a prominent figure in the national debate on racial policy.
Chavez was born into a middle-class family in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on June 17, 1947. Her parents, both devout Catholics, came from different racial backgrounds; her mother was Anglo-American and her father was Hispanic. Racial prejudice was not a concern of her early years. The city of Albuquerque was predominately Hispanic, and so she did not encounter difficulties because of her race there. Her father was proud of his heritage as a descendant of seventeenth-century Spanish settlers and also took pride in his country, which he served as a soldier during World War II. But these were qualities that were considered part of private life, not subjects for the public sphere. Her father's quiet approach to his racial identity was influential in Chavez's own ideas later in her life.
Saw Reform Possibilities in Education
Chavez first came into contact with racial prejudice when her family moved to Denver, Colorado, when she was nine. The negative attitudes about minorities that she witnessed there inspired her to join in civil rights movements supporting the causes of Hispanics, African Americans, and women when she was a teenager. She also became to determined to excel in her schoolwork in order to overcome the low expectations of her as a Hispanic. After graduating from high school, she attended the University of Colorado, where she decided to pursue a career in teaching. Having tutored some Mexican American students through the college, she knew that teaching was a sometimes difficult job, but one that could play an important role in social reform. During her undergraduate studies, she was married to Christopher Gersten in 1967, but kept her maiden name. In 1970, she graduated from the University of Colorado with a bachelor's degree.
Chavez went on to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA), where she began a graduate program in English literature. She soon became frustrated, however, with the way she was treated by faculty and students because she was Hispanic. In one particularly negative experience, Chavez was given the task of teaching a course on Chicano literature, even though she initially resisted because of the lack of published material in the area. When the department insisted she go through with the course, she put together an appropriate reading list, but found many students in her class were unwilling to read the books or pay attention during her lectures. This disheartening situation reached a peak when some students she had failed in the course vandalized her home in an act of vengeance. Chavez left the university in 1972 and moved to Washington, D.C., with her husband.
Active in Education Issues
In the nation's capital, Chavez did not return to teaching but did remain active in educational issues. She worked with the National Education Association (NEA), the largest teachers' union in the country, and served as a consultant on education to the federal government's Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. In addition, she became an active member of the Democratic National Committee, participating in the promotion of a number of liberal causes. She eventually landed a position with the nation's second-largest teachers' union, the American Federation of Teachers (AFT), which was known as an influential force in education policy. Chavez became a well-known voice on the topic of education reform in her role as editor of the AFT's publication, American Educator. She began to attract notice among conservative politicians in Washington with her editorials calling for a renewed emphasis on traditional educational standards. Throughout the 1970s, Chavez also became increasingly dissatisfied with liberal views on the position of minorities in America. In her personal experience, she felt that liberals sought her out simply because of her symbolism as a Hispanic, not for her own ideas. Similarly, she felt that national programs that did not allow minorities to advance based on their own merits, but gave them financial assistance or employment preference solely because of their race, was demeaning. Hispanics should not be stereotyped as helpless minorities who could not get ahead without government aid, but should be encouraged to succeed through individual effort, she maintained.
With the election of Ronald Reagan to the presidency in 1980, Chavez found growing sympathy for her ideas among conservatives. She became a consultant for the Reagan administration in 1981, and in 1983 she was appointed by the president to serve as director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The commission was a nonpartisan body responsible for evaluating the government's success in implementing and upholding civil rights laws. Chavez criticized certain aspects of the country's civil rights laws, however, and strongly denounced the affirmative action programs that had been designed to ensure that minorities were represented in certain fields of employment. While she argued that her goal was to foster an unprejudiced environment that evaluated individuals solely by their ability, regardless of race, liberal activists accused her of supporting Republican efforts to dismantle the government's role in ensuring civil rights to minorities.
Views Supported by Republicans
Finding herself lacking support from most Hispanic activists and Democrats, Chavez officially joined the Republican Party after being hired onto Reagan's White House staff in 1985. As director of the Office of the White House Public Liaison, she was the most powerful woman on the staff. Her position gave her an increased level of influence with the president, and she also worked to lobby Congress and a variety of public groups to accept administration policies. She left this post after less than a year's time in order to run a campaign in Maryland for a U.S. Senate seat. Republican Party officials were enthusiastic about her run for senator, hoping that her image as a Hispanic, woman, and married mother of three children would win votes away from the single, white Democratic contender, Barbara Mikulski.
But Republican hopes that Maryland's primarily Democratic voters would abandon their party preference for a more conservative candidate were unrealized. The state's citizens were distrustful of Chavez's short residence in Maryland and her shift in political philosophy. Behind in the polls, the Republicans began a negative campaign, during which Chavez further alienated voters when she criticized Mikulski's unmarried status and her staff insinuated that the Democrat had ties to lesbian groups. After a major defeat on election day, Chavez decided to remove herself from the political arena.
Book Fuels Debate on Race
She returned to social and educational issues by becoming president of the organization U.S. English. The nonprofit group's aim was to gain the official recognition of English as the national language. After discovering the prejudices against Catholics and Hispanics of the founder of U.S. English, however, she resigned in 1988. Over the coming years, Chavez established herself as policy expert and political commentator. The Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a conservative think-tank, made her a fellow, and she became a regular contributor of editorials on politics to periodicals. She also published a book on her ideas, Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation in 1991, bringing her renewed attention from politicians and the press. The work reaffirmed her belief that affirmative action and other programs that focused on the lower socioeconomic levels of Hispanic society created an unrealistic and unflattering picture of Hispanics as a group. As had been the case throughout her career, Chavez's words were controversial with many, but nonetheless had the effect of bringing about serious discussions about the state of the nation's attitude toward minorities. She was the focus of a number of book reviews and also gained the national spotlight when she appeared on television programs such as The McNeil/Lehrer News Hour.
Despite the criticism she has received from many liberal and Hispanic American groups for her conservative views, Chavez has emerged as one of the most visible and influential figures fighting for civil rights and educational reforms. Her thought and example as a successful political personality has made her a role model for some in the Hispanic community, inspiring a growing number of politicians in the minority group to join the Republican Party in the 1990s. Chavez's insistence that racial equity cannot be accomplished by government policies based on stereotypes has given the American public and its leaders additional considerations in the debate on government's role in the welfare of minorities.
Further Reading on Linda Chavez
See also Arias, Maria, "Making People Mad," Hispanic, August 1992, pp. 11-16; Brimelow, Peter, "The Fracturing of America," Forbes, March 30, 1992, pp. 74-75; Chavez, Linda, Out of the Barrio: Toward a New Politics of Hispanic Assimilation, Basic Books, 1991; Grenier, Jeannin, "The Women Versus Woman Race," Ms., November 1986, p. 27; and Telgen, Diane, and Jim Kamp, editors, Notable Hispanic American Women, Gale Research, 1993.