A fit of spring-cleaning led Eric Brooks to a box of old newspaper clips from 1997. That’s when he was the lone Black student enrolled in the incoming law school class at the University of California, Berkeley, following the end of affirmative action admissions.
He didn’t read them. That box doesn’t hold pleasant memories.
“I felt bad for myself at the time because of my situation, but worse for the people who were denied admission,” said Brooks.
Ten years later, the numbers of underrepresented minorities at UC have rebounded at the undergraduate level, although they haven’t kept pace with high school graduation rates. But more Blacks and Hispanics are also going to lesser-known branches of the 10-campus system and fewer to the flagships of Berkeley and UCLA.
Meanwhile, the movement toward race-blind admissions is spreading. Florida, Texas and Michigan have rewritten their admissions rules. Ward Connerly, the UC regent who started it all, is taking his campaign for race-blind admissions to as many as five more states next year, including Colorado, Missouri, Oklahoma and Arizona.
“If things unfold the way I am predicting they will unfold,” Connerly said, “I think we are witnessing the end of an era.”
The debate over affirmative action begins with how you define affirmative action.
To Connerly, it’s a system of “racial preferences” that drive a wedge between people. To his opponents, it’s a way to recognize that not everyone starts with the same advantages.
The debate came to UC in 1995 when, in a bitterly contested 14-10 vote, the system’s governing Board of Regents voted to stop looking at applicants’ race, effective for graduate students in 1997 and for undergrads the following year.
In 1996, Connerly took the movement statewide with Proposition 209, which banned consideration of race in public hiring, contracting and education.
A similar measure passed in Washington state in 1998, and Texas affirmative action policies fell in 1996 with a federal appeals court ruling.
In Florida, Connerly launched a campaign similar to Proposition 209. Then-Gov. Jeb Bush opposed the measure as divisive but implemented his own “One Florida” plan eliminating the use of race or gender in higher education and government hiring.
The tide seemed to turn in 2003 when the Supreme Court, ruling in two University of Michigan cases, said race could be used as a limited factor in college admissions.
But Connerly and his supporters countered with a successful initiative last fall banning consideration of race in Michigan admissions.
What has it all meant?
Florida figures released last fall showed Black students made up 13.7 percent of enrollment in state universities, compared to 14.2 percent when One Florida was implemented in 1999.
At the University of Texas at Austin, minority enrollment dropped after the 1996 federal court ruling, but has since rebounded. Last fall, 1,914 Black students enrolled compared to 1,911 in 1996.
University of Michigan officials say they won’t defy the ban on race-based admissions, but they won’t give up on diversity.
“We don’t believe that we can deliver a 21st-century education if we’re not a diverse learning community,” said Julie Peterson, associate vice president for media relations and public affairs.
The year Brooks enrolled, 14 Black students were admitted to UC’s Boalt Hall School of Law, but none attended. He’d been admitted the year before but deferred admission, making him the last Black student admitted under the old affirmative action policies.
Last fall, 13 Black students enrolled, a big increase from 1997 but still below the mid-’90s totals of 20 or more.
And with more Blacks and Hispanics graduating from high schools now than 10 years ago, the gap between those numbers and UC enrollment has widened.
“The bottom line on Proposition 209, from where I sit, is it has continued to suppress enrollment,” said Ed Tom, director of Boalt admissions.
But does it matter if the numbers of Black students dip at elite campuses?
“Not to me it doesn’t,” said Connerly. “As long as all of our kids have an equal chance to get an education.”
Interestingly, Asians, who did not benefit under affirmative action, now make up 36 percent of admissions, up from 33 percent in 1997. That makes Asians overrepresented since California is roughly 44 percent White, 35 percent Hispanic, 12 percent Asian and nearly 7 percent Black.
Connerly thinks the growth in Asian admissions since ’97 shows they were being discriminated against under the old system.
But Van Nguyen, a Berkeley student of Vietnamese descent and member of a task force studying the impact of dropping affirmative action, also sees discrimination in the new system.
“I don’t think it’s a liberal-conservative issue,” he said. “It’s really, Do you believe in equality? Do you believe in access? Do you believe in everyone having an equal shot to get to Berkeley? If you believe that then we need to really rethink this (Proposition) 209 issue.”
Brooks recalls sitting on the law school steps reading bar exam passage rates broken down by race. “I remember thinking: `Well, that’s going to be fun when I take the bar,’” he said. “‘It’s either going to be 100 or zero.’”
In 2000, he did pass the bar. He became active in diversity issues, serving on the state bar’s ethnic minority relations committee.
Brooks sees a way for affirmative action to consider merit, but he doesn’t think it’s time to banish the concept. “I think that it’s useful in that it remedies past discrimination,” he said.
But Connerly thinks “most Americans are with me. They realize that this thing has probably outlived its usefulness and it’s just a question of how it’s going to end and when it’s going to end, not whether it’s going to end.”
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