March 25, 2014

Our View: Bill would not solve racial disparities at California public universities

The controversy over State Sen. Ed Hernandez’s now-dead proposal to ask voters to repeal Proposition 209, the law that prohibits affirmative action at the state’s public universities, threatened to create a rift between Asians and Latinos. But it’s an uncomfortable discussion we need to have.

State Sen. Ed Hernandez’s proposal to ask voters in November to repeal Proposition 209, the 18-year-old law that prohibits affirmative action at the state’s public universities, died last week. Or rather, it was killed by Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, who said that, though the legislation passed in the Senate, the Assembly wouldn’t act on it.

The decision to pass on Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 was preceded by days of outrage by Asian American students and their families, who saw this as a direct attack on their gains on University of California campuses.

Republican politicians, hoping for political advantage, helped fan those protests. The controversy threatened to create a rift between Asians and Latinos, both key Democrat constituencies. The bill’s demise likely made the Democratic Party breathe easier. But this is an uncomfortable discussion we need to have.

Proposition 209 didn’t turn out to be quite the conservative bugaboo liberals feared. During the 1996 campaign, opponents likened the proposition to something the Ku Klux Klan might endorse. While the end of affirmative action might have shifted minority students around the University of California system, most notably from Berkeley and UCLA into other UCs such as Merced and Riverside, it didn’t stop the long-term upward trend in the growing percentage of Latino or Asian American students in the system’s ethnic makeup.

That probably has a lot to do with measures the University of California has used to find other ways to diversify its student body, including looking at the socioeconomic status of prospective students, and whether they are the first in their family to attend college.

But the biggest factor is simply that the UC student body reflects the state’s population as a whole, meaning there are fewer white students to apply or admit. That trend began before the passage of Proposition 209. Students defined as white account for barely more than a quarter at all UCs, about even with Latino students, according to data provided by the UC’s Office of the President.

If there was white flight in the past two decades, it was to out-of-state colleges. California’s private nonprofit colleges took advantage of Proposition 209 restrictions at the UCs to diversify their student bodies and become less white campuses as well.

Meanwhile, Asian and Latino students continued to increase in numbers from 1996, at UCs and in the state’s general population.

Undoubtedly, Asian students have made the largest gains at the UCs. So any discussion of using racial preferences at UCs effectively pits Latino students against Asian American students, and makes for a touchy public debate. We can have that discussion, so long as we also talk about one of the real failings of the UC system – the small percentage of African American students at the UCs. The percentage hasn’t changed much in the past 15 years, and remains about 4 percent.

Part of that is because of population declines, but also because out-of-state colleges, which can use racial preferences in admission and student aid, lured away top African American students to diversify their campuses.

That states are fighting over a still-small pool of African American students speaks to a bigger problem, and repealing Proposition 209 won’t solve it: Society continues to fail this population, particularly with too many inner-city schools that aren’t up to par. That’s a bigger, more complicated issue than the simple political fix offered by SCA 5.

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