California set to renew affirmative action in admissions

Lawmakers approve referendum on reversing 1996 ban, although with tempered expectations

June 26, 2020
Sather Gates at Sproul Plaza, UC Berkeley
Source: iStock

California lawmakers have agreed to hold a referendum on restoring affirmative action to their state university system, reflecting the US’ still-surging demand to confront racial bias in education and beyond.

Following a 30-10 vote in the state Senate largely along party lines, California voters will be asked in the 3 November general election to reverse the ban on race-based considerations in student admissions that they imposed in a 1996 referendum.

Repealing that ban will not solve racism, assembly member Shirley Weber, a Democrat, said in leading her half of the legislature in its 60-14 endorsement of the ballot question that’s widely expected to win voter approval.

But lawmakers “have a responsibility to figure out every way that we possibly can to impact that”, said Professor Weber, a daughter of Arkansas sharecroppers and professor emerita of Africana studies who taught for 40 years at San Diego State University.

Her tempered expectations reflected an environment in which public recognition of racial injustices is clearly growing nationwide, but admissions preferences are getting recognised as a less-than-definitive tool for addressing them.

Still, a study earlier this month from the University of Washington made clear that underrepresented minorities fared worse in college admissions in California and several other states once they started rescinding affirmative action policies in the 1990s that were first popularised in the 1960s.

The University of California system’s leadership endorsed the repeal after lawmakers voted for it. Professor Weber told her colleagues she was encouraged to move ahead with the repeal when she encountered white students at the flagship campus in Berkeley who pleaded for more diversity in their ranks. Berkeley’s chancellor, Carol Christ, told an online forum that she “saw our diversity really plummet” after the 1996 ban.

Black students now account for just 4 per cent or less of total enrolment in the 10-campus California system, below even their 6 per cent share of the state’s overall population.

California’s white population also has shrunk since 1996, now down to a minority share statewide. Asian-Americans, who represent about a third of all University of California undergraduates – the largest share of any race and more than twice their share of the state’s overall population – played a leading role in opposing the new referendum.

“We have a very complex population in the state, and it’s constantly changing,” said Gary Orfield, a research professor of education, law, political science and urban planning at the University of California, Los Angeles, who welcomed the return of affirmative action but had limited expectations for it.

Affirmative action could help bring black students closer to parity in University of California enrolment, Professor Orfield said. But, he noted, wide income-based societal disparities, including rampant segregation in housing and schooling, was the bigger problem for blacks and Hispanics, who are now the state’s single largest racial group.

That’s raised some concern that a return of affirmative action in University of California admissions might further exacerbate income-based divisions in higher education, by enticing cash-strapped campuses to admit more wealthier black students.

Extreme examples include the Ivy Leagues, which enrol about half as many black freshmen as their share of high-school graduates, yet even smaller shares of the nation’s low-income students.

The California legislature’s Asian Pacific Islander caucus did join some Asian community groups in endorsing the repeal, calling it a move toward equal opportunity. But dozens of other Asian-American groups warned the return of affirmative action “will only perpetuate the blatant practices of racial balancing against Asian-American students in California”.

That mirrors arguments in the ongoing affirmative action lawsuit against Harvard University on behalf of Asian-American plaintiffs, whose share of the Harvard undergraduate student body also is well above their share of the US population.

A federal judge ruled last autumn that Harvard’s affirmative action processes do not violate the rights of Asian-American applicants, even though it leaves them generally needing much higher academic performance to gain admission.

The decision is under appeal, and the Trump administration has sided with the plaintiffs, in a case that eventually could produce a Supreme Court ruling paring back the ability of colleges to use affirmative action practices.

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