Reverse California’s ban on affirmative action

STATE ISSUES: A repeal of Proposition 209, California’s ban on affirmative action, is socially equitable and economically responsible.

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Widening inequality in the United States and California will only become inevitable if it is taken for granted. To reclaim social mobility for the most disadvantaged among us, proscriptive legislative solutions to counteract the damaging effects of institutionalized discrimination are necessary. California’s Senate Constitutional Amendment No. 5, which would reverse the state’s affirmative action ban, will combat race-based inequality by improving access to an elite education for qualified students of color.

The amendment  would repeal key parts of Proposition 209, a ballot measure passed in 1996 that prohibits state institutions from considering race, ethnicity or gender in public education and employment. The amendment was introduced to the state Senate in December by Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, and will appear before voters on the ballot if approved by the California Legislature.

Since Prop. 209 passed, the decline in enrollment of minority students at UC schools — especially black students — has been dramatic. At UC Berkeley alone, admission rates for African Americans has faced a staggering drop. In 1995, about 50 percent of African American students who applied for admission to UC Berkeley were accepted. In fall 2013, that figure dropped to about 10 percent, compared to the overall admittance rate of 20.8 percent. Now, only 3.4 percent of students on campus are black.

Since the ban took effect in California, the campus admissions offices at UC schools have been burdened with a dual task. They’ve tried to continue serving the public mission of the UC system and crafting a student body reflective of the state’s demographic makeup while also providing a vibrant and stimulating academic environment where a mixing of backgrounds would lead to an richer exchange of ideas. But how could the admissions office provide for a diversity of students if it is barred from considering race — which is so deeply intertwined with experience, class and perspective?

Enrollment numbers make it clear that the “holistic review” of applicants practiced by UC Berkeley’s admissions office since 2001 hasn’t been successful in making things fair for underrepresented minority students who have persevered against institutionalized lack of access to education and systemic discrimination in general. To truly reverse this dangerous trend toward inequality, more students of color must be given the opportunity to attend a four-year college. The amendment will finally put the state back on that course.

Affirmative action is more than desirable — it is essential to efforts to combat social inequality. It is a positive and proscriptive, if only partial, solution to toxic social inequalities that would otherwise continue to ossify. It’s time that California put itself back on a path toward social equity. We hope that the California Legislature approve the amendment and sends it to the ballot, where voters will hopefully undo the harm that Prop. 209 has done.