Affirmative action programs — integration programs for higher education — were won out of the Civil Rights Movement and the explosive social upheavals of the late 1960s. They are the only proven method to have even partial success in counteracting institutional, systematic racism in this society and in the admissions process itself. The UC system’s admissions criteria rely mainly on standardized test scores and student GPAs, which reflect and reinforce social inequality. “Meritocracy” is a myth.
Countless more Latina/o, black, Native American and other underrepresented minority students deserve to be at UC Berkeley and in the UC system. But without affirmative action, the admissions process is saturated with racism and results in their exclusion. Proposition 209, the ban on race-conscious affirmative action programs, passed in 1996 through deception, manipulation and plain old appeals to white racism. When it was implemented, black, Latina/o and Native American student enrollment, especially at UC Berkeley and UCLA, plummeted and still has not recovered. California’s public universities have become resegregated. Proponents of this dismal reality, such as Ward Connerly, claim that this is a positive development and that “supporting segregation need not be racist.”
In reality, by opening up the campuses and establishing the right to public higher education for all, affirmative action programs have always benefited oppressed minority students but also poor, working-class and middle-class white students. These are but a few of the reasons BAMN is committed to overturning Prop. 209 and to restoring affirmative action, and that requires building the new civil rights and immigrant rights movement.
The recent Senate Constitutional Amendment No. 5 aims to exempt the University of California from the limitations of Prop. 209 via approval of a statewide ballot referendum. This has been tried before, and it failed.
BAMN opposes SCA5 going forward because the statewide ballot referendum is a losing strategy. Electoral strategies such as ballot measures consistently result in outcomes that fail to reflect the majority of Californians’ desire for equality. The electorate — those who really vote — is older, whiter and more conservative than the population as a whole. An August 2013 report by the Public Policy Institute of California found that “likely voters” continue to be disproportionately white, comprising 44 percent of California’s adult population but 62 percent of likely voters. SCA5 has no chance of winning despite California’s status as a majority-minority state. The ballot box, in California and nationally, is frequently one of the last venues to reflect social change and progress.
The dynamism of the youth-led civil rights movement — an integrated movement in which Latina/o and other immigrant youth are marching and fighting alongside black Asian, and anti-racist white youth — is the force that is changing California in a progressive direction. This movement, building on the power of the 2006 mass immigrant rights marches, won passage of the California DREAM Act and put the issue of immigrant rights at the center of the national agenda. The leaders of this movement are in large part disenfranchised in the electoral process because many of us are undocumented, immigrants or too young to vote.
SCA5 is conceived of by politicians as a commonly used, cynical electoral strategy to increase voter turnout for Democratic Party candidates from the Latina/o and black districts in the 2016 elections with full knowledge that the initiative itself will fail. We should not subject our movement to this manipulative tactic and suffer an unnecessary defeat.
Our democratic, political and civil rights should not be up for a vote. Our right to attend flagship public universities should not be up for a vote. The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to issue a ruling on Schuette v. BAMN in June. In this case, heard in October, BAMN argued that the radical Reconstruction amendments have a specific and historic role in protecting the political rights of oppressed minorities over and against a more privileged majority. Statewide referendums have historically been used by opponents of civil rights as an end run around civil rights victories. On this basis, Proposition 2 in Michigan and Prop. 209 in California violate the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment and are therefore unconstitutional.
The real strength of our argument against Michigan’s Prop. 2 and California’s Prop. 209 was represented by more than 2,000 Latina/o and black D.C.-area high school students and from across the country who walked out and marched to the U.S. Supreme Court in a proud assertion of their equality.
The massive immigrant rights movement that rocked the nation in 2006 is the social and political force that has the power to move everything forward. There was no popular vote to defeat the racist and anti-immigrant Border Protection, Anti-terrorism, and Illegal Immigration Control Act of 2005. Two million people marching in Los Angeles and millions more across the country killed that bill. These questions have always been determined by the strength of our movement.
The decisive factor in the upcoming Schuette v. BAMN decision will be the continued development of an integrated youth leadership to lead the struggles on our campuses and in our communities. If we are expressing our power and mobilizing mass action against the appointment of Janet Napolitano as UC President in order to double underrepresented minority student enrollment in the UC system and against the privatization policies being put forward by the UC Board of Regents, then that will do more to restore affirmative action programs, overturn Prop. 209, and qualitatively move the whole question of immigration reform forward than any electoral tactic. BAMN will be mobilizing at the next UC Regents meeting, on March 19 to 20, at UCSF Mission Bay. We invite everyone to join us and build this movement.
David Douglass is a UC Berkeley and national BAMN organizer.