Last week, a proposed constitutional amendment, SCA 5, passed the state Senate with a two-thirds vote. If the Assembly takes similar action, the people of California will soon be voting on whether to reimpose racial and ethnic preferences on the University of California and the California State University systems. This is an astounding step backward.
And yet, to read the press release of the measure's main sponsor, Sen. Ed Hernandez of Los Angeles, one would think the Legislature has taken a bold step against bigotry and discrimination by proposing to nullify key provisions of Proposition 209, enacted by the voters in 1996. Prop. 209, in the clearest and most unambiguous language possible, simply banned discrimination: "The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment ... on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin."
Prop. 209 is neither difficult to understand nor to implement - it simply means that, at least in terms of public education, the state's universities, colleges and community colleges have to be colorblind.
Hernandez made up what he boldly asserts, that "there has been a precipitous drop in the percentage of Latino, African American and Native American students at California public universities ... campuses becoming less diverse and qualified high school graduates being overlooked and ignored under Proposition 209."
There is practically nothing in Hernandez's statement that is accurate, and yet two-thirds of the state Senate bought his line.
It is indisputable that both in absolute numbers and percentages, minorities that attend the University of California have increased and exceed the levels of minority admissions from the pre-Proposition 209 days. At the University of California in 1996 - the last year prior to Prop. 209's adoption - blacks accounted for 4percent of overall admissions (1,628); in 2013 they accounted for 4.3percent of admissions (2,705); they are approximately 6.6percent of the California population. Chicanos and Latinos comprised 14.3percent of admissions (5,744) in 1996 and are 27.8percent (17,450) of admissions in 2013; they make up about 38.2percent of the population. Asians made up 32percent (12,995) of admissions in 1996 and are 35.9percent (22,536) in 2013; they make up about 13.9percent of California's population. Whites have plummeted percentage-wise from being 41percent (16,465) of admissions in 1996 to 27.9percent (17,516) in 2013; whites make up about 39.4percent of the population.
In the California State University system, the increase in minority enrollment and decline in the white ratio generally parallels UC's - Latinos up from 21.4percent to 33.9percent; Asians up from 17.1percent to 18percent; whites decline from 47.6percent to 30.4percent. The enrollment percentage of African Americans has
declined from 7.6percent to 5percent, although the actual numbers increased from 17,539 in 1995 to 18,175 in 2012, unlike the UC system.
Extrapolated from the most recent numbers available, approximately 72percent of the Latino high school graduates in California who are UC- and CSU-eligible are admitted to either the UC or CSU system schools. So much for Hernandez's assertion that "qualified high school graduates (are) being overlooked and ignored under Prop. 209." Parenthetically, approximately 52percent of the state's eligible white students are admitted to UC or CSU schools.
Despite Hernandez's hyperbolic rhetoric, the UC system virtually leads the country in its admission of talented, socio-economically disadvantaged students - independent of race or ethnicity - poor kids who need a leg up. In 2011-12, 41percent (74,933) of the enrolled students at UC and CSU were Pell Grant recipient students (i.e. most often undergraduates with family incomes under $20,000).
At a time when minorities are qualifying for and being admitted on their merits to the state's public universities and colleges - independent of race or ethnicity - in record numbers, and disadvantaged applicants are being admitted in extraordinary numbers, SCA5 will reinject divisive considerations of race and ethnicity into the mix. There simply are no data substantiating "grievances" needing such an extraordinary remedy.
Does the Legislature really want to return to allocating admissions on the basis of race and ethnicity? Whose numbers would be reduced and whose increased, and why? Does the Legislature want to tell white families in California that their kids' admissions percentages will be further reduced than they already have been post-2009? Do they plan to advise Asian families that their children are "over-represented" - 13.9percent of the population of California yet 36 percent of those admitted at the UC?
The systems of holistic, colorblind admissions and accommodation for socio-economic disadvantage employed by UC and CSU have done an impressive job of balancing fairness, access and academic standards. They have followed the right, and only fair, path forward. Hopefully, the Legislature will not undermine what has been accomplished and stir up a potentially volatile pot.
David A. Lehrer is president of Community Advocates (www.cai-la.org), a human relations think tank. Richard J. Riordan, former mayor of Los Angeles and former state secretary of education, is chairman of Community Advocates; Joe R. Hicks is vice president.