Op-Ed | A shade off

by Anthony J. Cortese

Imagine you sit on the admissions committee of a major medical school where only one slot remains available for the 2023 entering class. You must select between two candidates: one Latino, one white—both qualified.

Liam, the white student, is the son of an affluent lawyer. He scored 507 out of a possible 528 points on the MCAT; his GPA is 3.76. The son of a poor immigrant from Mexico, Jesse has the same MCAT score and GPA. Liam graduated from UCLA in four years with a pre-med major and a minor in business. Jesse graduated from Cal Poly San Luis Obispo in five and a half years with a biology major.

Whom do you choose? Do you expand the opportunities for minorities to compensate for previous discrimination?

“Affirmative action is reverse discrimination,” one person opines. “We should select the most qualified person. We should not discriminate against an applicant simply because he’s affluent.”

“I’m disgusted with these social programs that liberals are shoving down our throats,“ remarks another. “The government has no right fiddling in the business of private schools. Liam graduated from one of the nation’s most prestigious universities while Jesse matriculated through an obscure school and took much longer to graduate. ”

“But Jesse has had fewer opportunities than Liam,” another remarks. “Given the same entitlements, he would have scored higher than Liam. I’m sure Jesse took longer to graduate simply because he had to work to help support his family.”

“Since there are fewer minorities in the healthcare field,” someone states, “We must give Jesse this opportunity.”

“It bothered me to hear stereotypes about minorities.”

Someone who had yet to speak finally chimes in, “Let’s use a mile footrace as example: Two runners, one white, one black. The race begins. The white runner dashes out for an early lead. The black runner, as it turns out, has a 20-lb. iron ball attached to a chain around his ankle. He can barely move; yet he perseveres. Someone yells, “That’s not fair!”

“The official unlocks the ball and chain but even so the black runner remains far behind. It’s still not fair even though both runners now are unfettered. Equal treatment is not enough. We must compensate for previous inequality.”

The argument continues, the dialogue full of passion, adamancy and outrage. No consensus emerges.

The “committee members” are actually SMU students role-taking in my “Minority-Dominant Relations” class offered through the Sociology Department and Ethnic Studies program. We examine ethnic groups with unequal power in the US. In order to delve into social inequality, students scrutinize their own assumptions, stereotypes and prejudices.

“It was a tense and painful discussion,” says a Black female. “Some of us carried on our debate after class and into the next day at the student center. Some began to recognize attitudes in themselves that they didn’t know existed. “

“It bothered me to hear stereotypes about minorities,” states a Latino on the football team. “But that’s part of the learning process in this course.”

As students debate, I remain in the background, walking quietly among discussion groups, watching, listening, taking mental notes. I have engaged in such observation all my life, as the son a Mexican American mother whose family is from San Miguel de Alto, Jalisco and a father who had immigrated to the US from Sicily and had never graduated high school.

Democracy is more than majority rule— more than a mama puma, her cub and a white-tailed deer voting on what to have for lunch. It is also the protection of minority rights to prevent dominion of the minority by the majority. Diversity ensures respect for distinctive identities and protects those at greatest risk of being displaced and alienated internally within the US. On September 17, 1787, the Constitution's framers codified minority rights by structuring equality between states in the Senate (and representation of state populations in the House).

Apparently, SCOTUS never seemed to mind that affirmative action for white males has traditionally prevailed in society’s economic, political, military, educational, law enforcement and criminal justice institutions. Legacy admissions continue affirmative action for white males. Large, pervasive and disproportionately high rates of student loan debts perpetuate social stratification.

Diversity is not a zero-sum game. Society suffers when diverse elements are excluded from decision-making processes and leadership positions.

Lack of diversity harms both individual victims of exclusion and society at large. The harm to individuals, especially children, includes damage to psyches (depression, internalized anger, lowered self-esteem). There are also physical harms (high blood pressure, rapid shallow breathing, insomnia). Finally, lowered monetary and social opportunities pressure minorities to recoil from exclusive and discriminatory settings and become guarded and vigilant. If you do not have a seat at the table, you are probably on the menu.

Diversity is not a zero-sum game. Society suffers when diverse elements are excluded from decision-making processes and leadership positions. The most serious harm is at the macro societal level. Societies have used affirmative action for white males to stereotype categories of people as unintelligent, dangerous, or menacing. Such labels have been used to justify slavery, segregation, removal of indigenous people and genocide. Lack of diversity is perhaps most treacherous when its effects are slow-developing, largely unnoticed and toxic like carbon monoxide.

The lack of diversity is dysfunctional; it silences and marginalizes minorities depriving communities of their voices and contributions. The goal of the First Amendment is to energize speech and dialogue. A society without diversity curtails the spirit of the debate of ideas. It reveals to minorities nothing of which they are not already aware. It censors minorities and emboldens the majority with entitlement. Lack of diversity has damaging consequences, conveys exclusive uncertainty for youth, and desensitizes a society with ramifications that can extend from crucial injustice to outright atrocity. If we fail to take affirmative steps, the social unrest and violence proceeding the murder of George Floyd while in police custody will inescapably pale in terms of what lies ahead.

Anthony J. Cortese is Professor Emeritus of Sociology, Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences, SMU, Dallas Texas and sits on the Board of Directors of SMU’s Retired Faculty Association. Cortese has served as Director of Chicano Studies, Colorado State University and Director of Ethnic Studies and Director of Mexican American Studies at SMU.

Other opinions worth noting:

Fining kids by the Illinois criminal justice system needs to end
by Officer Dave Franco (Ret.)
From my perspective, after 31 years in law enforcement and now as an adjunct professor teaching Juvenile Justice Administration at Wright College in Chicago, failure is when people involved in the justice system are left without the means to create a better future for themselves and their families. Across communities, those means can take many shapes. ...

Life is always changing
No doubt life is always changing. If you don’t like the weather it will change, eventually. It’s been hot most all over but cooler weather will come. In most of the country, cooler weather will be welcomed sooner rather than later. ...

Foreign policy issues are complicated
"In times of war, the enemy gets a vote." Those words are particularly relevant today, as tensions build between the U.S. and Russia.

But this all seems eerily familiar.

As Americans, we need to ask ourselves how we would feel if Russia ...