By Sam Laird
How would you describe your experience at UC Santa Cruz?
Ainye Long and Naomi Demsas answered that they often feel "isolated," "ignored," and "alone" as students of color at UCSC.
Since her freshman year, Long said that the black population has fluctuated between two and three percent of a student body of 14,000.
"You really have to work hard at finding community to do well here," said Long, who previously served as Commissioner of Diversity for the Student Union Assembly.
Demsas, a fourth-year student from Stevenson, spoke to the difficulty of being one of few students of color in her classes.
"There’s always this feeling that people expect you to represent your whole race," she explained. "When certain questions are asked, everyone just turns and looks at you. I wish that was an exaggeration, but it isn’t.
"This is a beautiful campus but some days it’s really hard [to be a student of color]," Demsas continued. "Those are the days when I put on my headphones, my sunglasses, and my hoodie, and I just fade out the world."
The face of the University of California has changed since 1996, when 54 percent of state voters passed the California Civil Rights Initiative-more commonly known as Proposition 209-which prohibits the use of affirmative action in any public entity.
Affirmative action is designed to increase opportunities for minorities in employment, contracting, and college admissions. Supporters say that the policy is a necessary step toward achieving a diverse and equal society, while those against it argue that using race as a determining factor denies some otherwise qualified people in order to meet racial quotas.
"The goal of 209 was to take us right back to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which said it was illegal to treat people differently on the basis of race, ethnicity, and gender," said Glynn Custred, Cal State Hayward anthropology professor, who coauthored the initiative.
Opponents of affirmative action have taken their cause beyond California and have managed to make headway by advertising a racially-blind society where opportunities won solely on personal merit.
The issue has thus been thrust into the national sphere, as the United States Supreme Court is currently wrestling with the legitimacy of race-based decisions in public education.
But amidst the debate, one thing is for sure-Proposition 209 has had a profound impact on higher education in California since it was officially implemented at the undergraduate level in 1998.
The UC: Ten Years Later
Ten years after state voters passed Proposition 209 the University of California’s minority-student enrollment has seen a considerable decline, especially at its two most prestigiously selective campuses-Berkeley and Los Angeles.
The gap between the percent of minority students who enroll in UC schools versus the percentage of minority public high school graduates in the state has grown as well.
In 1997, black, Latino and American Indian students made up 39 percent of California public high school graduates, and 18 percent of UC freshmen. Eight years later, the same three minority groups comprised 46 percent of the state’s high school graduates but only 19 percent of UC freshman, meaning the gap had swelled from 21 percent to 27 percent.
Pamela Burnett, current director of admissions at UC Davis, served as associate director of admissions at UC Berkeley in 1996, during the height of the statewide struggle over Prop 209.
"After 209, the hardest thing was to make sure that we achieved the University of California’s policy to seek out and enroll a student body that…encompasses the broad diversity of backgrounds characteristic of the state," Burnett said. "This was already hard, but when 209 passed, it made our jobs even more difficult and sometimes seem impossible."
The number of black students enrolled as freshmen at UC Berkeley has decreased from eight percent to three percent since 1997.
The numbers are even smaller at UCLA, where only 100 black freshmen enrolled in fall of 2006, making up just two percent of the entire freshman class. By comparison, UCLA’s freshman class was four percent black in 1973, the first year for which such information is available.
The percentage of Latino freshman has dropped at both campuses since 1997 as well, even though the percentage of California public high school graduates who are Latino has grown from 30 to 38 percent over the same time period.
Ward Connerly served on the UC Board of Regents for 12 years until his term ended in 2005. As the nation’s most prominent anti-affirmative action activist, he is often considered the driving force behind Proposition 209.
Connerly thinks that blaming decreased minority enrollment numbers solely on Prop 209 is a cop-out that doesn’t help to encourage black and Latino students to work as hard as others. He argues that the presence of "profound opportunity gaps" before college is the real reason behind lowered enrollment numbers.
"The lesson for minority students is that if you have any expectation of going to a place like Berkeley or UCLA, you’re going to have to take education extremely seriously and compete against whites and Koreans and Vietnamese who take it very seriously," said Connerly, who describes himself as mixed race.
Others, including former UC Regent Ralph Carmona, believe that these "opportunity gaps" are precisely the reason why affirmative action is so crucial in higher education admissions.
"Proposition 209 says that race and ethnicity don’t matter, that grades and test scores are what’s important. But grades and test scores are highly influenced by the economics of our society," Carmona said. "There are parents who are paying $40,000 a year to prepare their kids for college with private counselors and advisors. That’s the kind of society of we live in, and there are big disparities."
Three more states have adopted nearly identical policies since Proposition 209 was passed in California, and that number is likely to grow. Connerly recently announced his intention to explore similar campaigns in as many as nine states for the 2008 national elections.
His efforts have already paid off. In 1998, 58 percent of Washington State voters passed Initiative 200 to ban affirmative action. In Michigan, another 58 percent of voters cast ballots in favor of Proposal 2 to do the same in 2006. And Governor Jeb Bush ended affirmative action in Florida’s public universities by executive decree in 1999.
This past December, Connerly revealed plans to visit Arizona, Colorado, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, and Wyoming before actually deciding how many campaigns to pursue in 2008. He told City on a Hill Press that while he does not envision there being enough resources to put initiatives on the ballot in all nine states, he expects to launch campaigns in three to five, and to know which by the end of February.
"I think we’re witnessing the end of an era in American life where race preferences were allowed," Connerly said. "The day is rapidly upon us where we say ‘what the hell were we thinking of?’"
While supporters of affirmative action feel that such bans will hinder the goal of leveling the academic playing field, they do acknowledge Connerly’s ability to recognize demographics and influence voters.
"Ward is speaking to the average voter in America, who is a white guy in the 40-something age range," said Carmona, who served alongside Connerly on the UC Board of Regents for two years. "And when you’ve got a black guy like Ward basically saying that this is an issue about cultural deviance and unqualified black people who don’t want to work hard enough, he carries a lot of credibility with voters and captures the fear and worry of much of the American public."
Connerly has often repeated that he will not quit until affirmative action is banned nationwide.
"Three down, 20 to go," Connerly said, referring to the 23 states that allow voters to decide laws through ballot initiatives.
Seattle, Louisville, & the Supreme Court
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to hear two cases that will be the first involving race-conscious decisions at educational institutions since 2003’s Grutter v. Bollinger. In that case, a white woman filed suit against the University of Michigan Law School, claiming that she had been denied acceptance because of lower standards for black, Latino, and Native American applicants. The Court consequently handed down a landmark ruling, deciding that the school’s policy of using race as a factor in admissions was constitutional and necessary.
The two current cases-from a parents’ group in Seattle and a parent in Louisville, KY-challenge whether districts can make race a factor when assigning students to public schools. The cases will also be the first involving race-conscious decisions since President Bush appointed conservative Justices John Roberts and Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court.
Most observers agree that the court is likely to rule in favor of the parents in both cases, but it cannot be determined whether rulings to outlaw the race card in elementary school admissions will be broad enough to apply to higher education.
Eva Patterson, president of the Equal Justice Society, a national advocacy organization for social and racial justice, believes that a broad ruling against race-conscious decisions would be "devastating" and "a backward step for our society."
"With Roberts being appointed Chief Justice and Alito replacing [former Justice Sandra Day] O’Connor, it was an ominous sign that they took the Seattle and Louisville cases," Patterson said.
Many feel that a Supreme Court ruling against both districts will betray of one of the most famous cases in American history.
"The right wing is trying to undo Brown v. Board of Education," Patterson said. "There is a school of thought that thinks Brown v. Board was wrongly decided."
You can count Ward Connerly among this group.
"I think you can almost trace the degradation of education for blacks to the racial education movement when [The United States] broke up black schools and took black kids out of their neighborhoods on the flawed premise that their education would somehow improve by sitting next to a white kid," Connerly said.
Goodwin Liu, a professor at UC Berkeley’s School of Law-whose areas of expertise include education policy, civil rights, and the Supreme Court-disagrees with Connerly’s goal of disbanding affirmative action.
"[Educating a population] habituated to interacting with people of different races is a major part of literacy when it comes to operating in a diverse society," Liu said.
If this not done, he argued, then our society would remain increasingly diverse, but become even more divided by race.
"The most immediate effect would be that our public schools and universities would be as segregated as ever," Liu said of the Supreme Court possibly ruling against affirmative action. "The broader cultural effect would be a signal from the highest court in the land that, as a society, we ought to give up on integration."