Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of a Michigan voter initiative that banned the use of racial and ethnic preferences in admissions to public higher education (Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action). The Michigan initiative was patterned after California’s Proposition 209, which was adopted here in 1996 (but implemented in 1997) and banned racial and ethnic preferences in our public institutions of higher learning.
Serendipitously, the court’s opinion came down within weeks of a passionate debate in California about the continued vitality of Proposition 209 as it applies to the University of California (UC) and the California State Universities (CSU).
A constitutional amendment introduced in 2012 by Sen. Edward Hernandez (D-West Covina), known as SCA 5, would have allowed the state’s public institutions of higher education to resume using the racial and ethnic backgrounds of applicants in making admissions decisions.
The measure died last month when Assembly Speaker John A. Perez (D-Los Angeles) returned the bill to the Senate without Assembly action. And despite claims by champions of racial preferences to the contrary, SCA 5 appears to be a solution in search of a problem, as both the UC and CSU systems enjoy greater diversity today than prior to the adoption of Proposition 209.
In 1996, the last year prior to Proposition 209’s implementation, 3.8 percent percent of all California resident freshmen enrolled in the UC system were African-American. By 2013, they made up 4 percent of enrollees. Latinos jumped from 13.8 percent to 27.5 percent of enrollees, and Asian students increased from 36 percent to 40 percent.
Whites, meanwhile, went from making up 38 percent of enrollees to 24 percent.The proportion of American-Indian freshmen enrolling at UC campuses also fell, from 1 percent in 1996 to 0.5 percent in 2013.
The total number of African-American and Latino freshmen coming to the UCs from California high schools increased by 160 percent between 1996 to 2013 (4,334 to 10,831), while overall enrollment rose by 42 percent during the same period.
CSU’s campuses have undergone a similar change. Black and Latino freshman enrollees from California high schools have jumped from 9,557 (in 1996) to 28,323 (in 2013) an increase of 196 percent; CSU’s enrollment of freshmen rose by 102 percent during that period. As a percentage of the total student enrollment, Latinos jumped from 21.4 percent to 33.9 percent and Asians from 17.1 percent to 18 percent. (African-American enrollment at CSU schools, as a percentage of the whole, declined, from 8 percent to 4.6 percent). As at the UC, caucasian enrollment decreased appreciably: In 1996, they made up 47.4 percent of the CSU enrolled population in 1996, but that dropped to 30.4 percent in 2013.
Furthermore, the University of California leads the nation in enrollment of students receiving federal Pell Grants, which are awarded based on financial need. This suggests that UC campuses are probably more socioeconomically diverse than any other campuses in the country. More than 40 percent of the enrolled students at the UC and the CSU campuses are Pell Grant recipients, which means that these undergraduates most often come from families with annual incomes of $20,000 to $30,000.
Despite these data, the Latino Legislative Caucus and the Legislative Black Caucus issued a joint statement following the death of SCA 5 announcing their continued support for it (understandable) and then decried those who oppose SCA 5 as “disingenuous ultra-conservative partisans intent on denying equal opportunity for all Californians.” They further asserted that there has been “a tremendous and precipitous decline in the number of African-Americans, Latinos and other underrepresented communities in higher education.”
The second claim is manifestly untrue, and it is incendiary hyperbole to label as bigots those who have raised rational and reasonable concerns about a difficult policy issue.
At the national level, at least, people appear to recognize the complexity of the situation. Last week’s Supreme Court decision saw Justice Stephen Breyer, a stalwart of the liberal wing of the High Court, voting with the majority that upheld voters’ right to eliminate race-based affirmative action.
And President Barack Obama, hardly a “disingenuous ultra-conservative partisan,” sounded very much like the opponents of SCA 5 when he spoke last year to the young black graduates at Morehouse College:
“Barriers have come tumbling down, and new doors of opportunity have swung open, and laws and hearts and minds have been changed to the point where someone who looks just like you can somehow come to serve as president of these United States of America. ... If you stay hungry, if you keep hustling, if you keep on your grind and get other folks to do the same, nobody can stop you.”
Assembly Speaker Perez pledged to form a task force to discuss whether California should change the way it admits students to public universities. Indeed, a discussion about how to expand the opportunities for African-American students, whose numbers at UC Berkeley and UCLA remain low, is welcomed. But it cannot take place in an environment where 34 members of the legislature (the black and Latino caucuses) label their opponents as retrograde bigots. These tough issues need to be debated with honest data and respect for differing viewpoints.
David Lehrer and Joe Hicks are president and vice president, respectively, of Community Advocates Inc. (cai-la.org), a nonprofit advocacy organization.