California’s affirmative action ban must be repealed

A group of black students stand in front of Sproul Hall. Large yellow text at the top reads "BLACK AT CAL."
Katherine Qiu/File

On Jan. 30, the ASUC Senate passed a resolution standing in firm opposition to the historic Proposition 209, a California ballot initiative that removed race as a factor in college admissions. In 1996, California voters approved Prop. 209, slashing enrollment of Black students across California colleges. From 1997 to 1998, admission rates to UC Berkeley for Black students dropped from 50 percent to just 20 percent, falling to 13 percent by 2015.

But the effects of Prop. 209 on UC Berkeley’s campus are already apparent. On a given day, a Black student may go through an entire day of classes and never see another Black student, which can be demoralizing. Being the only person in a room who can share your experiences is alienating. Even worse, being asked to speak for your entire race because of the ignorance of an instructor or a peer is a demoralizing prospect that no student on this campus should have to face. The lack of diversity at UC Berkeley affects Black students and the learning environment for all students, and it’s time for this climate to change.

The number of Black students enrolled at UC Berkeley has declined since the proposition was implemented, despite an increase in applications. According to a fact sheet from the UC Office of the President, Black students made up 6.7 percent of all enrolled California freshmen in 1995, and that figure dropped to 3.7 percent in 1998. White students saw enrollment drop from 29.5 percent to 28.2 percent during the same period.

In a post-Prop. 209 world, UC Berkeley and its students must fight to do all that we can to support Black students and increase our presence on this campus. The campus Office of Planning and Analysis recently reported that 188 students, just 3.1 percent, identified as Black/African American in the fall 2018 freshman class. The diversity of the student body plays a significant role in helping students feel more welcome on a given campus. If we want our Black students to succeed and feel welcome at UC Berkeley — the supposed “jewel in the crown” of the University of California — we must open the gates of admission to more students who represent the diversity of California. Students, faculty and administration must take strides to undo the damage of this undue proposition.

We must also recognize that not all students start in the same place or have access to the same resources. Black students face constant scrutiny, racism and inequities from an early age. A common criticism of efforts to repeal Prop. 209 is that race-based affirmative action is inequitable, that it will drive down the enrollment percentages of other groups and that we should consider socioeconomic affirmative action instead.

But UC Berkeley is already socioeconomically diverse compared to other universities. In the 2017 academic year, 38 percent of enrolled UC Berkeley undergraduates were eligible for Pell Grants, compared with just 13.3 percent at the University of Virginia. Black students are subject to financial constraints more often than their peers at top universities. In fact, in the same period, Black students made up almost 62 percent of Pell Grant recipients nationwide. This means that Black students cannot always access the same private academies, elite testing programs and other supportive services that help create competitive applicants to top universities such as UC Berkeley. After recognizing these disparities, we cannot stand by and ignore Black students in the name of race-blind admissions.

Just last fall, UC Berkeley ranked as the worst UC for Black students by a USC Race and Equity Center study. Now is the time to act on an especially critical issue. The steps UC Berkeley needs to take to create a more diverse campus are clear. The chancellor’s office has recently announced plans for an Undergraduate Student Diversity Project aimed at “expanding diversity in the undergraduate student body and increasing the enrollment of underrepresented, low socio-economic status, and first-generation-college students.”

Although the effort is a step in the right direction, there must also be plans for the university to fund student-led recruitment and retention efforts. Until the repeal of Prop. 209 at the state level, the university is bound by the law. As a result, the burden of recruitment and retention efforts falls on the students who run organizations such as bridges and the Black Recruitment and Retention Center. These students have the responsibility of reaching out to prospective applicants and doing what they can to ensure that these students are supported. The university can assist with this by meeting the asks of these organizations and providing funds that help them successfully carry out their mission.

Second, the students, the ASUC, the university and even systemwide leadership must advocate for the immediate repeal of Prop. 209. This is the highest-impact strategy, the success of which will give the campus a real chance at reaching pre-1996 diversity levels. Only at that point will the damage of this measure begin to be undone.

Amir Wright is a junior and an ASUC senator representing the Black community at UC Berkeley.