Affirmative Action & the Recent Supreme Court Decision, A multicultural perspective

Elizabeth Pérez Azérad, MD

RIISE Multicultural Advisor


No doubt, I am a beneficiary of affirmative action.  Because of my educational journey I have a deep interest in the recent Supreme Court decision upholding Michigan’s ban on affirmative action for use in the college admission process. As a Mexican-American growing up in a largely Anglo-Saxon community in Texas during the ‘70’s and ’80’s, there was rarely a week that went by that I wasn’t referred to as the ‘smart little Mexican girl’ or ‘an asset to her people.’ After being accepted to Stanford University I commonly suffered the intimated comments about why my classmates’ non-minority friends hadn’t been accepted.  Other classmates choose a different explanation, “you can’t possibly be Mexican, you are too smart!”  By the time I had entered medical school at the University of Chicago, I didn’t feel as marked as a minority applicant, at least not for the color of my skin.  True, I was the only female of the three Hispanics entering in a class of 100.  Having proved my worth as a Stanford graduate, I was more noteworthy as the only class member who was also a mother.

Graduation, Stanford University June 1990 with parents, grandmother and sister

Graduation, Stanford University June 1990 with parents, grandmother and sister


In spite of these painful memories, I am grateful for the opportunities I received as an applicant under affirmative action.  One could assume that after so many decades in place, affirmative action and the protections afforded by the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment would no longer be needed – case closed, job well done.  At least that is how I am interpreting the recent Supreme Court decision.  How is it that, from my vantage point as a well-resourced minority resident of Westchester County, I feel like an exotic and rare individual because I am a highly educated Mexican-American female?  Perhaps my choice of neighborhoods has something to do with this but just maybe, affirmative action is still relevant and needed.  With these notions in mind, I’d like to examine what we stand to lose in the states that choose to follow Michigan’s example by voting to eliminate race and gender as considerations in the college admission process. Specifically, I want to consider what will be lost in regard to the role of diversity in promoting complexity and flexibility of thought processes in our classrooms and, as an extension, what we have to lose as a democratic society.

Note: If you need a primer on affirmative action, visit this web site.

In researching this piece I reached out to Drs. Aaron Thompson and Joe Cuseo PhDs., authors of “Diversity and the College Experience” (Kendall Hunt Publishing).  They graciously weighed in with their vast academic support of the value of diversity in our academic settings.

First a little background on this important decision. On April 22, the Supreme Court voted 6-2 to uphold a voter-approved change to the Michigan State Constitution that prevents public colleges from using affirmative action as a factor in its admission decisions. Specifically, race and gender are covered by this ruling so admission committees in the Michigan public institutions are still free to use other factors, such as a student’s legacy status, athleticism, geography, area of study, etc. in their decision process regarding a student’s application.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor, in her strongly worded 58 page dissent was joined by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to say that this ruling infringed upon groups’

rights by allowing Michigan voters to change

“the basic rules of the political process … in a manner that uniquely disadvantaged racial minorities …This refusal to accept the stark reality that race matters is regrettable. As members of the judiciary tasked with intervening to carry out the guarantee of equal protection, we ought not sit back and wish away, rather than confront, the racial inequality that exists in our society.”

According to the New York Times, the University of Michigan is reporting that the ban on affirmative action has already resulted in a 25 percent drop in minority representation among the state’s university-level student body, even as the proportion of college-age African-Americans in the State has gone up

I want to state clearly that, although I was fortunate to have an independent school education and have made the commitment to strive for one for my children, I believe that every American has a right to the quality of education that I received, be it public or private. This is why, as a person who most definitely benefitted from policies that were born out of affirmative action, I can say that I am outraged that our nation’s highest court would uphold a ban that will no doubt open the door for other states to vote against the use of affirmative action. However, I am not shocked as the June 2013 Supreme Court decision weakening the 1965 Voting Rights Act is still fresh in my mind. I’m not only upset with our Supreme Court; I am also upset with our media.  As important as it was to report about the recent disparaging remarks of Clipper’s owner Donald Sterling, I am disheartened that so little attention has been given to Schuette v the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, the name of this court case.

Univ. of Chicago Medical School Graduation 1998, with parents

Univ. of Chicago Medical School Graduation 1998, with parents

Rather than continue from a position of anger and outrage, I’d like to turn to the scholarly research of Drs. Cuseo and Thompson.  Simply put, I benefitted from all the points they raise about diversity in our classrooms. I also hope that I played a small role in helping my classmates experience diversity of background, thought and experience as a member of their student body.

Dr. Cuseo, Professor Emeritus, Psychology Educational Advisor, AVID for Higher Education had the following to say about diversity in our classrooms,

“By interacting and collaborating with members of diverse groups, we create a win–win situation: we learn a lot from them, and they learn a lot from us.”  He continued “diversity encourages multiple perspective-taking, opening our mind to the variety and subtlety of factors that need to be considered when examining a complex problem or issue.”

The following quote strikes me as one of our major societal concerns as we educate our young people.

“Considering the complexity of our global society, diversity helps us… become aware of our perceptual ‘blind spots’ and avoid groupthink—the tendency for tight, like-minded groups of people to think so much alike that they overlook flaws in their own thinking—leading them to make poor choices and faulty decisions.”

Dr. Cuseo added that students who live in a diverse environment will benefit from the following qualities.

thinking complexity – ability to think about all parts and from all sides of an issue

reflective thinking – ability to think deeply about personal and global issues

critical thinking – ability to evaluate the validity of their own reasoning and the reasoning of other

intellectual and social self-confidence – ability to relate to and converse meaningfullly with people from a variety of backgrounds

Reflecting on my own education, I agree with Dr. Cuseo’s research about the value of diversity and what it has afforded my viewpoints.  As the Health & Wellness Coordinator of the Lakota Children’s Enrichment, I constantly check and recheck the assumptions that I have about a given situation that, at first glance, may seem obvious. Rather than jump to a fast decision about a given scenario, I recognize that I must approach a problem from various angles in order to formulate a program that will fit and serve the community.  I encountered one such example recently while visiting the Pine Ridge Reservation when I learned that the incidence of Sudden Infant Death is higher than the national average.  Ignoring a perceptual ‘blind spot’ I could immediate launch a program to promote, “Back to Sleep” a program endorsed by the American Academy of Pediatrics.  How much would this help, however, if other variables, such as a cultural preference to co-sleep and poor bedding, were also factors?

Medical School Graduation 1998, with daughters

Medical School Graduation 1998, with daughters

I also reached out to Dr. Aaron Thompson, Professor of Sociology at Eastern Kentucky University, Executive Vice President and Chief Academic Officer at the Council on Postsecondary Education and co-author with Dr. Cuseo.

Dr. Thompson stressed that diversity matters in the college setting because it enhances our students’ worldliness and career options as it prepares them to face the challenges of our global economy.  Concerning worldliness he states that

“College might be the first time you have had the opportunity to have real interaction with people from diverse groups.”

This is particularly important to me given the fact that Americans are choosing to live in more homogenized communities and the divide between rich and poor is getting wider. This not to say that there are not rich and poor among all the minority groups in our country. It is a concern that I have in regard to how Americans are choosing to live and the ramifications it could have for us to understand each other.

Senior Skit 1998 with medical school classmates

Senior Skit 1998 with medical school classmates

Indeed the economic disparity in our country is one argument that is used by detractors of affirmative action who believe that a class-based affirmative action system should replace a race-based model; however, the two are not mutually exclusive. I hope that socio-economic status is being used as an indicator by college admission panels to bring a wider diversity to the college experience.

Dr. Thompson also said, “Diversity prepares students for future career successbecause “successful performance in today’s diverse workforce requires sensitivity to human differences and the ability to relate to people from different cultural backgrounds.”  He continued to say that the percentage of America’s working-age population comprised of members of minority groups is expected to increase from 34 percent to 55 percent by 2050.  Finally Dr. Thompson said that diversity prepares students for work in a global society.

“No matter what profession you enter, you’ll find yourself working with employers, employees, coworkers, customers and clients from diverse backgrounds—worldwide. By experiencing diversity in college, you are laying the groundwork to be comfortable working and interacting with a variety of individuals of all nationalities.”

In my assessment of the recent Supreme Court decision upholding Michigan’s electorate the right to decide whether race and gender are relevant to the admission process, I am disappointed for several reasons.  Principally, I agree with Justice Sotomayor’s concern about the weakening of the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment when she says, “without checks, democratically approved legislation can oppress minority groups.”  At the end of the day, I wanted to believe that we are a better Democracy than what this decision implies. In regard to education, I am concerned that this decision will limit the educational options for minority students and limit the openness and richness of thought that I assumed were hallmarks of our university systems.  As our economies become more globalized and movement of people and thought becomes easier, I fear this decision will not only deepen racial divides in our country, it will also make future Americans more myopic than we already appear to the greater world.


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