Affirmative Action Overturned: A Physician Laments 'We Are Not There Yet'

Cleveland Francis, MD


June 30, 2023

I always wished that the term "affirmative action" had been changed to "intentional action."

I grew up in a racially segregated Southern town and attended poorly funded, segregated high school and college. After college, I applied to 12 medical schools around the country and was turned down by all. I was admitted to the College of William & Mary for graduate studies in biology. After completion of my master's degree, I applied to the Medical College of Virginia (now VCU), which no doubt used affirmative — or intentional — reasoning in accepting my application.

I became a cardiologist, as did my Black roommate, Archer Baskerville, who was also admitted through intentional action. We got through medical school on our own accord with hard work and sacrifice, just like our classmates.

Medical schools will not graduate students who do not meet the standards. They should be allowed to give the many who otherwise have no opportunity to compete a chance to learn those standards.

I went on to start my own multiethnic cardiology practice in Northern Virginia because no one would hire me. I was an active member of the community, and we saved thousands of lives. But I wouldn't have been able to do that without affirmative or intentional action on the part of the medical school.

Have we arrived at equality in our educational system where race and gender can be removed from consideration in providing opportunities to thousands of otherwise-qualified students? A majority of the Supreme Court thinks so, but my answer is a resounding no: We are not there yet!

It took hundreds of years to lean in this direction, and it will take many more to counterbalance this leaning. This is what institutional racism is all about. It becomes so incorporated that even well-intentioned practitioners cannot see it anymore.

If you start a race behind and run as fast as the leader, you can never catch up. We are not talking about replacing the leader; we are just asking to be allowed to join the race.

The centuries of poor education and opportunities denied can never be made up, but society can make an effort to improve the lot of those left behind.

Is no one concerned about the many years of all-White, all-male college classes that dominated our society? This resulted in what we see in medicine, government, and law to this day: the same racially dominant mix. As a society, we have to change this picture because it cannot represent the future.

If people live in poverty and in unsafe places, the community should provide them opportunities to get out of those situations rather than waiting on natural progression over time.

In an unequal system, merit alone is not enough to guarantee equality.

The Supreme Court ruling is a sad occasion. I do not want or need reparations; I only ask for fair opportunities.

Cleveland Francis, MD, is the former president and founder of Mount Vernon Cardiology Associates. Francis is also a songwriter and performer. He was a recording artist on the Capitol Nashville Country Music Label (1992-1995), and his music has been featured at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. 

The views expressed by the author are those of the author alone and do not represent the views of the Inova Health Care System.

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