In January, California lawmakers attempted to revive affirmative action programs in public universities that were previously banned by Proposition 209 in 1996. The initiative was dropped due to unexpected backlash from the minority community that has historically supported affirmative action initiatives.
State democrats proposed Constitutional Amendment 5 (SCA 5) which would have exempted universities from Prop 209’s order: “The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.”
The amendment easily passed in the democratically-controlled Senate and could have gone before voters as early as November, but it was the democrats that folded on SCA5 after opposition began to rise from within the party, specifically from the Asian-American community.
State Senators Ted Lieu of Torrance, Carol Liu of La Canada Flintridge and Leland Yee of San Francisco, who originally supported SCA 5, said they had heard from thousands of constituents’ concerns about the amendment in the weeks following their votes.
Many of their Asian-American supporters told the senators they were afraid that racial preferences in the UC and California State University admissions process would shut their children out of prestigious colleges like UCLA and UC Berkeley, where more than half of students are Asian or Asian-American.
“As lifelong advocates for the Asian-American and other communities, we would never support a policy that we believed would negatively impact our children,” the lawmakers said in their letter to Assembly Speaker John Pérez, dated March 11.
However, many still believe race should be considered in college admissions. Some Asian organizations, including the Southeast Asian Resource and Action Center, Chinese for Affirmative Action, and Filipino Advocates for Justice in Union City and Oakland, advocate for policies like affirmative action, clarifying that not all Asian ethnicities are well represented in higher education.
Pérez said he did not have enough support to put the constitutional amendment before voters this November. He said lawmakers will create a task force to study the issue of access in higher education.
“This is really driven most by my interest in making sure we come up with the best policy,” Perez told reporters during a news conference. “As it’s currently written, I don’t think SCA 5 gives us that.”
Many members of the CSUN community are disappointed with the outcome of the events.
Monye Durham, president of CSUN’s Black Student Union, said that she thinks that reinstating affirmative action would have been a good for black students throughout the state.
“We aren’t represented at all on these campuses,” Durham said. “I know when I came to here in 2011, CSUN had the biggest population of black people in a public school in California. I think it was like 8 percent back then and that’s not even a lot.”
Durham believes that affirmative action programs might be the only way.
“There’s always a convenient way to eliminate [black students] from the running to get into these schools, and it seems that affirmative action is the only way that we could get in,” Durham said.
She is also very disappointed in the lack of unity with the Asian-American community to support these efforts.
“It’s disheartening because at the end of the day, all minorities should stick together, because if we stick together we end up being the majority,” Durham said. “So when you get a group that is going through similar struggles and has gone through similar struggles, them not supporting this amendment is wack.”
Pan-African Studies professor, Marquita Pellerin, said she also would have supported SCA 5.
“I would have supported it primarily because affirmative action is designed to address the injustices caused by our nation’s historical discrimination against people of color and women. That type of discrimination takes place in all of our nation’s institutions including higher education,” Pellerin said. “In light of that, this particular approach to affirmative action would have been able to grant equal access to minority students to our state colleges and universities.”
Pellerin said that she is surprised by the lack of support from the Asian community.
She also said that there is a major concern that affirmative action programs will give students that are not qualified access to higher education.
“I think part of it is an uninformed concern about the introduction of racial quotas and decreased academic standards,” Peller said. “Affirmative action does not state that universities can implement racial bias, racial quotas or decreased academic standards.”
She also believes that a big reason that students of color are not represented in our state colleges is because of problems in the recruiting process.
“California is very diverse. In fact, we see the number of minority students graduating high school in that state continuously increase, however, the number of students entering in to colleges and universities in the state are decreasing,” Pellerin said. “There needs to be increased programming or efforts that seek out qualified minority students because those qualified students are going to college, they just aren’t going to college in the state of California because of the lack of equal access.”
Central American studies professor Freya Rojo said that they can always increase the presence of minority students on campuses but does not feel that Latino students are underrepresented at CSUN.
“It has a lot to do about where we are,” she said. “We are in the valley and the valley is very diverse.”
Rojo said specialized programs like Central American studies, which is the only program of its kind in the country, also brings a lot of diversity to the campus.
She believes that it will take more than just passing an amendment to foster true diversity state-wide.
“It’s not just stating in a document that there is affirmative action but actually putting it into practice and having resources for minority groups,” Rojo said.
CSUN graduate Edward Park said while he sees the benefit affirmative action might have to certain groups, he feels that everyone should have an equal chance of getting into college and finding jobs.
“I don’t think race or ethnicity should matter, it should be purely academic,” he said.
Park said that everybody should be held to the same standards.
“Giving more priority to certain groups is not good. Lowering the standard for someone is not fair,” Park said.
He also made the argument that now since it’s possible for students to afford college through financial aid and the Extended Opportunity Program everyone has a fair chance of getting accepted to college and affording it.
“Unless it’s like an Ivy League school, if there’s a reason someone didn’t get into college nowadays, it’s due to either poor grades or overcrowding,” Park said.
Another CSUN graduate, Symone Andrew, believes that she personally may have benefited from affirmative action programs if they had been in place when she was applying for college.
Andrew graduated high school top of her class with a GPA above a 4.0 and a resumé filled with extra curricular activities, yet was not admitted to her dream school of UCLA, instead she chose to go to CSUN.
“I feel like if affirmative action was in play, I definitely would have been admitted,” Andrew said. “I was definitely qualified but for whatever reason I wasn’t given the chance.”
Andrew now attends law school at the University of the District of Columbia in Washington, DC, which is a historically black university. She said even there she is disappointed with the lack of minority students as most of her classmates, professors, and administrators are white.
“We need to find a way for minority students to be competitive in applicant pools for admissions so that they can be represented at colleges,” Andrew said. “We can’t ignore the fact that the number of minority students in higher education is dismal and needs to be addressed.”