As the U.S. Supreme Court reconsiders the role of race in college admissions, California prepares to mark a key anniversary. Twenty years ago California voters banned racial and ethnic preferences in college admissions, government hiring, and government contracting.
The 1996 Proposition 209, the California Civil Rights Initiative, marked the first time American voters had any say in affirmative action matters. Preference advocates attacked the initiative and are now mounting a surge.
Governor Jerry Brown, never a fan of 209, has filed briefs against the measure. State Attorney General Kamala Harris derides Proposition 209 as “a lessening of California’s commitment to student body diversity as an essential component of a comprehensive collegiate education.”
University of California bosses also maintain that Proposition 209 somehow harms “diversity,” but they do not mean simply the presence of diverse ethnicities, which has long been the reality on California campuses. By diversity they mean the student body should reflect the racial and ethnic proportions of the population. That will never happen at UC or anywhere else because of factors such as academic eligibility, personal differences, effort and choice.
A key issue, as Foon Rhee of the Sacramento Bee explains, is “the underrepresentation of blacks and Latinos at UC campuses, and the overrepresentation of Asians.” Asians represent 14.4 percent of the California population, but they account for 36 percent of the fall 2015 UC enrollment. Under diversity dogma, that means there are “too many” Asians.
Last year a proposed Senate Constitutional Amendment (SCA) 5 would have given voters the chance to restore racial preferences in state university admissions. Legislators quickly recognized it as an attack on Proposition 209 and a new kind of Asian Exclusion Act. The measure passed the Senate but did not emerge from the Assembly.
Enter California’s new Senate boss Kevin De Leon, who claims he wants to help students based on economic need, but there’s a catch. He doesn’t mean all students, regardless of race or ethnicity. As De Leon recently told the Sacramento Bee editorial board, he means poor minority students. What he proposes is a preference system for economic aid, which defenders of Proposition 209 quickly spotted.
“How about more poor kids, no matter their race or ethnicity?” responded Joe Hicks and David A. Lehrer of Community Advocates in Los Angeles. “Who will tell the poor kids who aren’t racial or ethnic minorities that they won’t be admitted because they aren’t disadvantaged in the right way?”
As Hicks and Lehrer pointed out, California’s public universities already recruit disadvantaged students without regard to their race and ethnicity. The real problem is that the state’s government monopoly K-12 system is clearly failing to prepare students for college.
At some high schools in the Sacramento area, 90 percent of graduates will need remedial math and English in college. All of these students are supposedly qualified for admission into the California State University system, with a 3.0 grade point average on college prep courses or sufficiently high test scores. Even so, the editorial board of the Sacramento Bee blasts Proposition 209, as the “chain saw” that slashed African-American college enrollment.
As Thomas Sowell noted in his 2013 book Intellectuals and Race, however, after Proposition 209 took effect declines in minority enrollment at UCLA and Berkeley have been offset by increases at other UC campuses. More important, the number of African Americans and Hispanics graduating from the UC system has increased and the number graduating in four years with a GPA of 3.5 or higher rose 55 percent.
By Sowell’s count, the number of blacks and Hispanics with degrees in science, technology, math, and engineering rose 51 percent, and the number who earned a Ph.D. rose 25 percent. So the ballot measure has hardly been the disaster its opponents claim.
They might summon the courage to drop the word “not” from the original language of Proposition 209.
Craft a measure that says the state shall discriminate on the basis of race and ethnicity in college admissions, government hiring, and government contracting. Put that proposition on the 2016 ballot, and let the voters express their preference.
Lloyd Billingsley is a policy fellow and communications counsel for the Independent Institute. He is the author of Bill of Writes: Dispatches from the Political Correctness Battlefield, and the new crime book Shotgun Weddings.