The concept of affirmative action was born three decades ago during the civil-rights movement, and it has had considerable impact on US academia. The idea seemed eminently just: to make redress for years of racial and sexual discrimination by giving special consideration in employment, education and contracting decisions to increase the presence of minorities (understood in this book as Native Americans, African-Americans, Latinos and Asian-Americans).
In the early stages, giving special consideration meant accepting a block of students with lower scores in aptitude tests. In large lecture classes the effect was not especially noticeable, but in quality liberal arts colleges with small discussion classes, the result was difficult to disguise. Diversity, a word spoken with awe in the early days of affirmative action, was quickly achieved but had none of the intended consequences. In the early years, black Americans lunched alone, as did Native Americans and Latinos, and this detachment is not uncommon today.
The hard-won goals of the movement are now threatened by a Supreme Court decision that has limited affirmative action, and by the passage in 1996 of Proposition 209, a California ballot initiative against the practice of affirmative action. The time for training wheels is over, remarked Ward Connerly, an African-American businessman from Sacramento, a member of the University of California Board of Regents and a supporter of Proposition 209.
Boalt Hall is the site of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley. At Boalt in 1967, 2 per cent of the freshman class consisted of minorities. By 1971, the minority percentage was 34. The apex was reached in 1990, when 11.4 per cent of the freshman class was black, 21.4 per cent Latino and .8 per cent Asian-American. Then, after several years of "race-blind admission", only one black student enrolled in the 1997 freshman class.
Andrea Guerrero was a member of the last class admitted to Boalt Hall under the policies of affirmative action. Her book is a timely insider's report that maintains an admirably restrained tone, even as it chronicles the collapse of an idealistic attempt to open wider the doors of higher education. She has not attempted to write a general history of affirmative action, nor to analyse rigorously the development of admissions criteria.
Instead, she brings out the loneliness of the single minority student of 1997. Boalt was one of the first institutions forced to implement affirmative action policies and one of the last to be forced to remove them, and she tells her story from the point of view of those who benefited from these policies and those who suffered from their removal.
Whatever sense of outrage Guerrero may have felt about the fortunes of affirmative action at Boalt, she keeps to herself or mutes it by her attention to detail and a tone that varies between even-handed and flat.
It is an irony that the attack against affirmative action was led by a black regent, and that whites who are suing institutions of higher learning are invoking premises designed to help underdogs. In any event, it is a game played for high stakes because, as Berkeley's chancellor Chang-Lin Tien said: "The lack of a college education in the 21st century will shut people out of the mainstream."
Howard Young is professor of Romance languages, Pomona College, California, US.
Silence at Boalt Hall: The Dismantling of Affirmative Action
Author - Andrea Guerrero
ISBN - 0 520 22893 6 and 23309 3
Publisher - University of California Press
Price - £35.00 and £13.95
Pages - 247