November marks the tenth anniversary of the passage of Proposition 209–the 1996 California voter initiative that eliminated consideration of race and gender in contracting, hiring and admissions practices. The anniversary is a bitter one for activists concerned about equal opportunity. “Prop 209 took away one of the few effective tools we as a society had to counter race-based exclusion. We’re paying for it now,” says Julie Su, litigation director of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC) in Los Angeles.
Jarring statistics about UCLA’s freshman class this year testify to Prop 209’s devastating impact on diversity in higher education. Only 100 African-Americans enrolled–2 percent of the 4,802 total and twenty-five fewer than last year. Twenty of those 100 were recruited athletes. This year’s number is the lowest in more than thirty years–particularly troubling considering that the percentage of African-American applicants who meet minimum requirements to be considered eligible for admission to the University of California system has risen steadily in the past decade. “That is the strongest evidence of an anti-civil rights and anti-equal opportunity measure,” says the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
The crisis at UCLA has sparked an angry outcry from alumni, community leaders and students. In May the African Student Union organized a walkout of about 300 students, who left their classes and marched to the chancellor’s office to demand that something be done. According to Karume James, 21, a recent UCLA graduate, their message was simple: “Why are there no black people here?” In June the Alliance for Equal Opportunity in Education, a coalition of organizations including the NAACP, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Urban League and the UCLA Black Alumni Association, demanded an overhaul of the admissions process, alleging that UCLA’s flawed practices had harmed black enrollment as much as Prop 209.
Such efforts resulted in some significant changes. In July the UC Regents voted to conduct a study of the ten-year effects of Prop 209, and two months later UCLA announced that it would move toward adopting a more holistic review of applications, similar to that used at UC Berkeley, where an applicant’s entire file is considered within the context of educational circumstances, opportunities and challenges. Many activists view UCLA’s move as a step in the right direction but feel that holistic review alone is not enough to counter race-based exclusion. (According to Su, Berkeley adopted holistic review only after African-American, Filipino and Latino high school students, represented by civil rights groups including APALC, filed a lawsuit in 1999 alleging that its admissions process was discriminatory. Holistic review has not made a significant difference at Berkeley, where only 3.3 percent of this fall’s freshmen are African-Americans.)
Many community activists strongly believe that Prop 209 should be repealed. Reverend Jackson says, “Of course there’s a need for a repeal. We need to revive a commitment to equal access and equal opportunity and the dream of a one-big-tent America–one big tent and no one in the margins.” Representative Diane Watson of Los Angeles, an advocate of greater access to education, notes that there have been some state efforts in the past ten years to increase diversity regardless of the passage of Prop 209, but since education is under state authority, California voters would have to pass an initiative in order to repeal the proposition. Watson says, “I am shocked and ashamed that we still have a prohibition against the use of affirmative action in terms of admission to the University of California. We fought it tooth and nail in 1996, and I would like to see it repealed–and we will be doing everything we can to repeal it.”
No concrete moves to roll back Prop 209 have as yet been taken, however. Most energy right now is directed toward gathering data and toward fighting conservative attempts to extend its scope. A coalition led by Bay Area organizations called Impact 209 has been polling Californians about their attitudes toward Prop 209; so far, their research has shown that most voters did not know what they were voting for ten years ago and are unaware of its effects in the years since.
Students and community activists agree that the ideal of “color blindness” that has come to dominate the way race is discussed (or not) in this country has presented the most difficult challenge to raising awareness about Prop 209’s regressive effects on diversity. Eva Paterson, president of the Equal Justice Society and an African-American Berkeley Law School alum, believes there’s a dire need to get the issue of race back on the table. “Color blindness is an absurd concept,” she says. “The only way I can live in a color-blind society is if I have a bag over my head.”