Alison Yin / EdSource
UC Berkeley students in front of Sather Gate in pre-virus days.

As the movement to repeal the state ban on affirmative action reaches a crucial decision point, speculation is rising about the possible long-term impact on the enrollment of various racial and ethnic groups and low-income students at California’s public universities

Legislation to reverse the ban was approved by the state Assembly earlier this month and is awaiting action by the State Senate, where it needs a two-thirds approval by Thursday. If that happens, the Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5  (ACA 5) would go to the voters statewide on Nov. 3, on the same ballot as the race for U.S. president.  Its outcome could be helped by a progressive turnout against President Donald Trump and by recent protests against police brutality.

The amendment’s main goal is to revoke Proposition 209, which was approved by voters in 1996. The end of Prop 209 would mean, among other things, that race could once again be considered by California’s public universities in recruiting efforts and admissions decisions. The proposed amendment’s backers clearly hope that the number of Black and Latino university students will rise at the University of California and the California State University. But they say they do not seek any set percentages of ethnic minorities enrolling. (In fact, U.S. Supreme Court decisions before and after Proposition 209 ban such quotas but otherwise allow race to be a factor in college admissions.)

In a recent statement supporting the change, the UC Board of Regents noted that the proportion of “underrepresented” groups – mainly Latino and Black students — “has not kept pace with the diversity of students in California K-12 schools or with the overall California population.”

Opponents, especially activists in the Chinese American community, say they fear the measure will lead to a drastic reduction in the number of Asian American students at UC’s nine undergraduate campuses. Asian and Pacific Islanders now comprise 33% of UC undergraduates, the largest share of any racial group.

Some critics say the amendment would allow universities to prioritize race over other social factors in admissions and the result will be fewer low-income Blacks and Latinos enrolled as schools push to bolster those racial numbers regardless of family incomes.

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber (D-San Diego), author of ACA 5, told EdSource that she is not focused on specific percentages but said that a worthy goal would be for the enrollment of Black undergraduates across UC to reach at least the percentage of Blacks of all ages in the state’s population. That would mean going from current 4% at both UC and CSU to about 6.5%.  She described that as approaching “a fair share.”  

If the standard were population parity, the share of Latinos could rise from 25% of UC undergraduates now to 39%. Latinos at CSU, with 44%, already surpass that population guideline. (Whites comprise 22% of UC undergraduates and 21% of CSU’s, compared to 36% of the state’s population.)

Weber said a return of affirmative action would not be mandated with any set rules but would be “a permissive program” that allows race to be explicitly included in actions and discussions. Well before students actually apply to the universities, the change would permit K-12 schools and universities to start tutoring, recruiting and scholarship programs targeting underserved groups like young African American boys and men in middle and high school, she added.

“My assumption is that the support services will increase” for those groups in those formative years “to level the playing field.”

After Proposition 209 went into effect, the state’s universities took steps to recruit more racially diverse student bodies without breaking the law. They boosted admissions to qualified students from low-income households or in the first generation in their families to attend college. UC expanded the ways students become eligible for admissions, allowing students in the top academic 9% of their local high schools.

Still, African American students reached about 5% of UC’s enrollment before 1996, dipped to 3% in some years after and have not gotten above 4% since.

 A similar effort to repeal Proposition 209 passed the State Senate in 2014 but opposition by Asian Americans led to it being blocked in the state Assembly. This time is likely to be different, experts say, since a Democratic supermajority now controls the state Senate and the UC Regents recently endorsed the change. And if it gets to the November ballot, a more liberal and racially diverse electorate than in 1996 will be voting.

“I think it’s going to pass,” said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. He noted that the decisions are being made amidst nationwide protests against police brutality that have become the “biggest social movement for racial justice in 50 years.”

Still, Orfield, who supports ending Proposition 209, said he did not expect dramatic changes in university enrollments. “My guess is that it will change the outcomes by a relatively small amount.” But even a small increase in Black, Latino and Native American students at the universities “would be welcome.” Ideally, such a change would go along with increased overall enrollments and capacities at the universities, he said.

UC president Janet Napolitano described Proposition 209 as “a barrier” to enrolling more Black and Latino students. She said she hopes their proportions come close to that among high school graduates across the state. (Using that more youthful measurement, Latinos’ 55% is significantly larger than in the state’s overall population.) “While not necessarily a one-to-one match, we would come closer to looking like the population of students we should be educating,” she said in an interview.

Asked whether that could hurt other groups, she emphasized that UC has expanded the number of California undergraduates in recent years and should continue to, so that possibly raising the ranks of some racial groups would not limit others. Admissions do not have to be “such a zero-sum game,” she said.

CSU chancellor Timothy P. White said that his system also supports the proposed amendment. In a recent letter to Weber, he wrote that the ban on affirmative action has had “a negative impact on access to higher education, as well as retention and degree completion for historically underserved students in California, particularly those from the African-American community.”

Its supporters said that Proposition 209 was needed to stop quota systems that were resulting in reverse discrimination. Pete Wilson, California’s governor at the time of the vote, and UC regent Ward Connerly were major champions of it. Opponents of its repeal say an end to race blind admissions will mean that universities will try to match state population ratios, even if they don’t admit it. Such quotas would violate court decisions, they say.

Jason Xu, vice president of the Silicon Valley Chinese Association Foundation, said he expects Asian/Pacific islander enrollment at UC will be pushed down from the current 33% to about 15%, their share of state population. “It may not happen the first year, but I think eventually, over five years, that will happen,” he said.

Across CSU’s 23 campuses, Asians and Pacific Islanders this year comprised 16% of undergraduates, close to the statewide population share while Latinos hit 44%, five percentage points higher than their share of the state’s population.

Wenyuan Wu, executive director of Californians for Equal Rights, the Connerly-founded group that helped pass Proposition 209, said she could not predict the “exact changes” in the student bodies but said the return of affirmative action would move it more closer to “mirror the general demographics,” regardless of students’ academic merits. She said a better solution to relatively low Black and Latino enrollments at UC would be to improve K-12 educations long before students apply to college.

Shaun Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California’s Race and Equity Center, said he could not predict any specific changes at public universities if affirmative action returns but expects “a numerical difference for sure.” Universities “will no longer have the excuse that they can’t do better in recruiting Black students because of Prop 209. They relied on that excuse for too many years,” said Harper, an education and business professor who strongly supports a return of affirmative action.

However, Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation in Washington, D.C. is worried that low-income students may suffer from the proposed changes. Kahlenberg, who opposes the repeal of Proposition 209, noted that UC over the past 25 years “has sought to create racial diversity indirectly by giving a leg up to economically disadvantaged students — many of whom are African American and Latino.”

If Proposition 209 is repealed, he predicted that the UC system “will probably revert to doing what most elite universities do: admitting relatively wealthy students of all colors.” As a result, the student body is likely to become richer than it is today, said Kahlenberg.

“Because it is much cheaper to provide racial preferences to upper middle class Latino and African American students than it is to do the hard work of recruiting economically disadvantaged and working-class Latino and African  American students, I fear that many of these progressive reforms could be diluted if 209 is repealed,” he wrote in an email to EdSource.

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  1. Ben 2 weeks ago2 weeks ago

    If you are Asian, have no doubt who is the biggest threat to hard work and meritocracy. This strongly democratic bill is intended to repress Asians and worse, to directly limit your children’s future. Please reject this proposition.

  2. Jace 3 weeks ago3 weeks ago

    So, repealing the ban on racial discrimination is a win for inclusivity? Forgive me, but that seems pretty backwards. We had a whole civil rights movement to get that law passed to begin with. Make no mistake, repealing proposition 209 is a step towards a racially segregated America. If this goes through, it will be legal to deny people access to schools and other public services because of their race.

  3. Quinten Tunstall 3 months ago3 months ago

    So the solution to racism is to literally install a system of systematic racism that will openly and blatantly discriminates against white and Asian people? It’s ridiculous how blind the people who want this are. You can’t scream about being anti racist while putting in a system that focuses on your race gender and whatever you want to turn into a protected class.

  4. hannah 4 months ago4 months ago

    I believe we need to have some balance. Generally speaking, we want to give everyone equal opportunity, not equal reward because the reward should be earned. I would recommend CA to shift money from illegal immigrants to have some special classes for those kids from poor families but working/studying hard. We need to put our citizen/legal kids first. Otherwise, we will have more social problems and potentially destroy what has been built for so many years.

  5. Areti 4 months ago4 months ago

    Bottom line is that every group is being discriminated against because Asians take a disproportionate number of spots. This should’ve ended a long time ago. Prop 209 is their friend.


    • Chris Stampolis 4 months ago4 months ago

      Areti, is your concern with Asians or with Asian-Americans? Big, big difference. Young human beings of Asian heritage who were born in California and who live in California simply are our young community neighbors. Human beings of Asian heritage who were born in China and who have lived in China for their entire lives certainly have individual human dignity, but should not continue to block out thousands of spaces for international students in our … Read More

      Areti, is your concern with Asians or with Asian-Americans? Big, big difference.

      Young human beings of Asian heritage who were born in California and who live in California simply are our young community neighbors. Human beings of Asian heritage who were born in China and who have lived in China for their entire lives certainly have individual human dignity, but should not continue to block out thousands of spaces for international students in our public universities that result in the exclusion of qualified lifelong Californians. When more than 23,000 undergraduate students from China take spaces that could have gone to 23,000 qualified Californians – regardless of ethnic heritage – we have given away the equivalent of an entire UC Campus to students from another country.

      The entire UC system allocated c. 300 spots to Mexican nationals last year, but >23,000 spots to Chinese nationals. We are selling our UC system to wealthy Chinese Communist families. Journalists need to hold each UC Regent personally accountable for a comment on that reality, so we stop living in fear of repercussions from our own leaders for not being journalistically compliant.

  6. Jabberwolf 4 months ago4 months ago

    So let me get this straight.

    Democrats want to create install a system of discrimination based on race.Some measures and standards for some races, and other measures and standards for others. Yeah, and then they complain about systemic racism ?!

  7. Bo Loney 4 months ago4 months ago

    Online classes open unlimited spots for students to follow their dreams and score where they score. Open the flood gates. Stop the brick and mortar educational bottleneck. Let the people have their constitutional right to their pursuit of happiness that technology can now provide.

  8. Chris Stampolis 4 months ago4 months ago

    Larry, you quote Janet Napolitano in your article "Admissions do not have to be “such a zero-sum game." The quote by itself is a decent journalistic start, but it is nowhere near enough of an effort on your part. I encourage and challenge you to follow up with Napolitano and supplement with interviews with every UC Regent. Just because the Chancellor says it does not "have to be" a "zero-sum game" does not mean that it … Read More

    Larry, you quote Janet Napolitano in your article “Admissions do not have to be “such a zero-sum game.”

    The quote by itself is a decent journalistic start, but it is nowhere near enough of an effort on your part. I encourage and challenge you to follow up with Napolitano and supplement with interviews with every UC Regent. Just because the Chancellor says it does not “have to be” a “zero-sum game” does not mean that it is not a “zero-sum game” this year in 2020 and realistically for at least the next 30 to 50 years. Why 30 years? It takes that long to create a new UC campus, the California student-age population is growing quickly and there are no written plans for new UC campuses.

    There currently are nowhere near enough UC spots to enroll all qualified students based on GPA and test scores. There are even fewer available spots per capita at the more competitive admission UC campuses such as UCLA, UC San Diego, UC Berkeley, UC Davis. So, yes, of course this is a “zero-sum game” for every current Kindergartener in California. Their clocks have started. They each have 11 years, five months, seven days to prepare their admissions portfolio for their application deadline date of November 30, 2031 and Chancellor Napolitano has no written plans under consideration at any level of UC governance to expand the number of admissions spots.

    So… more Kindergarteners alive now than were alive among the Kinder-cohort that just graduated high school this month (June 2020). However, no additional spots planned at UC and the Regents already voted in writing to set aside more spots for international students in the current Kindergartener cohort compared to this year’s admissions group. It’s just data. It is just facts. And, while I generally support Napolitano’s policy efforts and I respect her lengthy political history, please do not let her evade the numbers in an attempt to sidestep a comment on the political reality.

    With the Regents having officially approved an increase in the number of international students to be admitted to UC for the class of 2036 (today’s kindergarteners – the high school class of 2032), with more Kinder human beings alive per capita compared to this year’s admits, and with a desire to admit additional California students to UC whose academic profiles otherwise would not have qualified for admission this cycle, where does one fit the tens of thousands of extra admits?

    I am not opposed to affirmative action. I am opposed to well-paid leaders who evade the data discussion because of political discomfort. Build trust. Talk honestly. Face the zero-sum game. Which current admits would be declined to let in someone else? Waiting 50 years to enact equity (2070) is not a reasonable plan – but it appears to be the current plan in the absence of any written expansion plans.

    Your embedded graphs above are excellent visual representations of the reality.

  9. Will J 4 months ago4 months ago

    The graph seems to show enrollment close to the regional demographics? Only in California would that be seen as a problem.

  10. Jim 4 months ago4 months ago

    This article shows its bias by reporting the wrong numbers. UC and CSU only control admittance numbers, not enrollment. Higher performing African American students often are accepted by schools that they prefer or offer better packages. Admittance rates are the goal post, not enrollment.

  11. Paul Muench 4 months ago4 months ago

    The outcome of the November ballot could be an interesting turning point in the history of California. If the amendment passes by a large enough margin it could be a precursor to a lot more progressive legislation. Like school integration? That wold be a major change.