Say it with me: Affirmative action is against the rules for California public schools. Say it again. Whirl it around in your mouth.
Affirmative action is against the rules for California public schools.
Maybe say it in a different way? UC Berkeley’s understaffed, overworked admissions staff cannot explicitly consider race and ethnicity when deciding who gets accepted into our elite institution.
Affirmative action doesn’t exist in California. The result? Nobody gets to use it as an argument for why people from marginalized communities don’t deserve to be here — plain and simple.
The other result? Many people from marginalized communities who do deserve to be here don’t get that opportunity.
Back before the majority of the class of 2021 was even born, in the now-ancient year of 1996, the good people of California approved Proposition 209 which banned affirmative action. Known as the California Civil Rights Initiative, Prop 209 was endorsed by then-governor Pete Wilson, who two years prior had won his gubernatorial campaign running on a racist anti-immigration platform, which puts it in good company.
Since then, anti-affirmative action proponents will tell you, six-year graduation rates for Black students have increased. Sounds like cause for celebration, sure, but don’t be fooled. Six-year graduation rates for Black students were increasing before 1996, and that rate of increase slowed considerably after Prop 209 passed. It’s a classic case of take-social-progress-and-make-it-go-slower formula that Americans clearly hold so dear, and makes obvious the drawbacks of Prop 209.
Barring any really pleasant surprises, the demographics of newly admitted students who overrun this campus in 2017 will probably, as a whole, largely mirror those of the current body of students.
Roughly 8 percent of Californians identify as Black and 4 percent of UC Berkeley students do. Roughly 40 percent of Californians identify as Latinx, and less than 15 percent of UC Berkeley students do. If you guessed that UC Berkeley’s statistics stray even further from California’s when it comes to STEM fields, well congratulations! You win, and everybody loses.
Public schools hold a moral obligation to educate the public — all of it. When whole segments of the public clearly have less access to UC Berkeley, for example, the school falls short in realizing its public mission.
If marginalized communities lack the resources and support to succeed, then somewhere along the line, the public education system needs to take that into account, and contextualize achievements against the backdrop of a history of oppression and contemporary roadblocks that a large part of the UC Berkeley student body could never understand.
When the UC system claims to be trying that, it usually falls short.
A 1976 program called the Early Academic Outreach Program sends UC officials around California to public schools in low-income communities of color and provides additional resources and information that those students traditionally don’t have access to. But this program existed even before affirmative action was banned for public schools and has only a limited effect.
Last summer, the UC President and all 10 chancellors filed an amicus curiae brief (or brief in support of) the University of Texas’ use of affirmative action that was being reviewed by the Supreme Court. Ultimately, the Supreme Court upheld affirmative action in Texas, though that didn’t change California policy one bit.
But little-known and underfunded programs and nice-but-toothless briefs of support barely scratch the surface of rectifying unequal access to resources, and a system comprised of the theoretically smartest researchers and thought leaders in the world should be able to come up with more creative solutions that might finally and dramatically reduce inequality in admissions.
So maybe, in coming years, as UC Berkeley releases its admissions letters and emails, the students opening them might actually reflect the diversity of the state this campus purports to serve.
Or maybe not.