Jewish Journal


by  David A. Lehrer

April 4, 2014 | 2:10 pm


As readers of this blog know, eighteen years after Proposition 209 banned racial preferences in selecting students to the University of California and California State Colleges and Universities, there has been a campaign to reverse course and gut Prop. 209. SCA 5, a Senate Constitutional Amendment which would have allowed race and ethnicity preferences to return to admissions decisions at the state’s public institutions of higher education--the nine campuses of the University of California (UC) system and the 23 campuses of the California State University (CSU) system--- was advanced by State Senator Ed Hernandez.

Last week the measure died for this legislative year when Speaker of the Assembly Perez returned the bill to the Senate without Assembly action. Facing vociferous opposition from various segments of the public, he pulled the measure back, and pledged to form a task force to discuss whether California should change the way it admits students to public universities. The task force is to include representatives from the University of California, California State University and the community colleges among others.

The hope that Perez’s action prompted--- that there might be a dispassionate and thoughtful analysis of the data and that the heat surrounding SCA 5 might yield to sober analysis and a discussion of what “is” was dashed in very short order.

SCA 5 was and remains a solution in search of a problem---despite claims by champions of racial preferences to the contrary--- both the University of California and California State University systems enjoy greater diversity today than prior to the adoption of Prop 209.

The data on diversity from the UCs are indisputable and support the position of the SCA 5 opponents. In 1996 the percentage of all California resident freshmen enrolled who were African American was 3.8%, by 2013 they were 4% of enrollees. Latinos jumped from 13.8% to 27.5% of enrollees and Asian students increased from 36% to 40%.

The only groups to have “decreased” in percentage terms is whites, who went from 38% of enrollees to 24% and American Indians (1% to .5%). African American and Latino freshmen from California high schools have increased at the UCs by 160% from 1996 to 2013 (4,334 to 10,831).

At CSU’s campuses the change is largely similar. Black, and Latino American freshman enrollees from California high schools have jumped from 10,041 to 28,323 (an increase of 182%); as a percentage of the total student enrollment Latinos jumped from 21.4% to 33.9% and Asians from 17.1% to 18% (although African American enrollment as a percentage of the whole declined from 7.6% to 5%). As at the UC, whites decreased appreciably from 47.4% to 30.4% of the enrolled population.

In terms of “diversity” in its broadest sense, University of California’s nation-leading enrollment of Pell Grant students indicates a diversity of socio-economic strata on campus that is probably unparalleled in the country. Over 40 percent of the enrolled students at the UC and the CSU campuses are Pell Grant recipient students (i.e. most often undergraduates with family incomes under $20,000-$30,000).

The University of California has spent as much as $85 million per year on outreach to disadvantaged kids of all backgrounds. In part because of the massive outreach efforts, the Hispanic dropout rate in California has dropped by more than half in the fourteen years after the passage of Prop. 209. Four year graduation rates for African American and Hispanic students have nearly doubled.

It has been widely and accurately reported that the state’s Asian American community, in particular, Chinese Americans, were very active in opposing SCA 5. They rightfully perceived that they would likely have been the big losers if the amendment had succeeded. The turnout of Asian American citizens at rallies and meetings in opposition to SCA 5 was unprecedented—whether in Silicon Valley, Los Angeles or Sacramento. Legislators were bombarded by tens of thousands of messages, letters and emails.

The Latino Legislative Caucus and the Legislative Black Caucus issued a joint statement last week, following the death of SCA 5, announcing their continued support for it (understandable) and decried those who oppose SCA 5 as “disingenuous ultra-conservative partisans intent on denying equal opportunity for all Californians.” It also asserted that there has been “a tremendous and precipitous decline in the number of African Americans, Latinos and other underrepresented communities in higher education”---manifestly untrue.

To label entire communities of Californians who have raised rational and reasonable concerns about the future education of their children as bigots is incendiary hyperbole and false. How wrong-headed that attitude is becomes transparently clear when set against the comments of President Obama in a speech last year to young Black graduates at Morehouse College. He virtually endorsed the thinking that underlies the broad opposition to SCA 5----he is not a “disingenuous ultra conservative partisan”:

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…

Parenthetically, an earlier version of SCA 5 which was cast as legislation (SB 185 in 2011) and not a constitutional amendment, was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. He is also not a "disingenuous ultra-conservative partisan."

A discussion about how to expand the opportunities for African American students whose numbers at Berkeley and UCLA remain low, is welcomed, but it cannot take place in an environment where thirty four members of the legislature (the Black and Latino caucuses) have concluded that anyone who disagrees with their position is a retrograde bigot. In the days since SCA 5 was defeated and the caucuses made their statement, the debate and the impassioned rhetoric remain high. The national media has accorded the issue a lot of attention insuring that it isn't going away; even more reason for an open and honest and dispassionate discussion.

The two caucuses owe the people of California an apology.

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