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The Legacy of Affirmative Action
Supreme Court decisions reverberate in the community

by Howard J. Shorr
Oregon City, Oregon

The University of Michigan affirmative action Supreme Court cases has been decided and there appears to be excitement and discontentment among different groups about the rulings.

In articles that have appeared since the decisions, there has been scant mention of the experiences of students of color who attended college in the post-Bakke era in the 1980's. This is the 25th anniversary of that case and their experiences need to be explored so the present Supreme Court decisions can be placed in an historical context. Furthermore it is important to explain how affirmative action mirrors society. In 1981, historian Nell Painter of Princeton University wrote in the New York Times, "To hear people talk, affirmative action exists only to employ and promote the otherwise unqualified, but I don't see it that way." What Painter wrote twenty-two years ago is still an issue today.

There is a lot written about the many struggles that occurred over the creation of Ethnic and Women Studies programs nationwide in the late 1960's and 1970's. I remember as a student at the time that school officials, some professors and a few students dismissed these programs as unimportant.

I started teaching at Theodore Roosevelt High School in the Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles a few months after the Bakke decision in 1978. Boyle Heights became a Chicano majority in the 1960 census with a mixture of immigrants and native-born people. Of the estimated 90,000 residents, most were renters, and the community included three housing projects with five freeways.

Theodore Roosevelt High School was 98% Latino and overcrowded with about 3,500 students. I taught U.S. History, Government and the History of Boyle Heights classes during the 1970's and 1980's. A high percentage of my students were children of immigrants and many became the first in their family to attend college. Most of them had the historical memories of the East Los Angeles "Blow Out's" in 1968, the Chicano Moratorium in 1970 and the Vietnam War. There existed a strong sense of community in East Los Angeles, reinforced by a common ethnicity and history, but also by the dark side of the INS sweeps in the 1970s and 1980s.

Some universities nationwide started in the late 1970's/1980's to recruit a small percentage of students of color. College admissions officers came to Roosevelt and other high schools looking for potential students. Some students now had a chance to attend a university that just a few years earlier wouldn't have sought them out. Some admissions officers did not discuss the problems that students of color would later face in college. Instead there was a feeling that students of color were used to fill unspoken quotas. But there were wonderful admissions officials like James Montoya (Director of Admissions at Occidential College, Vassar College and Stanford University) who were very supportive to the students.

My students' lives were forever changed when they entered college. I had a tradition in my class that former students would come to Roosevelt and speak about their college experiences. Many of their stories were very uplifting, but some of the students also discussed the discrimination that they encountered in college.

The percentage of students of color was even smaller then now. They felt a backlash that emerged after the Bakke case. Some of the other students wouldn't live in the same dorm room with my former students because they might be gang members who carried weapons. Also certain professors questioned their ability on assigned work, accusing them of plagiarism. One former student who attended a U.C. school wrote, "For the first time I knew what being a "minority" was like, and it wasn't pleasant. I was still very much an outsider and I needed to connect with other Chicanos." Despite these stories, my former students also revealed their networks of support among their peers and encouragement and mentorship from faculty and staff.

Though in their forties, my former students understand their place in history and some have passed on their experiences to their children. A former student wrote, "Until the playing field is even, we need affirmative action and we are not there yet."

The legacy of affirmative action still divides people not only at schools but in society. Today we live in a different world and can only understand the issues of affirmative action today, if we it look at it in an historical context.

About the author: Howard Shorr lectures on diversity, teaching methods, Latinos, and community history at universities and public schools. He was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to South Africa, another fellowship to South Korea and four National Endowment to the Humanities Summer Seminars. Shorr served on the American Historical Association U.S. History National History Standards Committee and teaches at Clackamas Community College in Oregon City, Oregon. Howard Shorr can be reached at <>,This article previously published in

Published in In Motion Magazine August 5, 2003

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