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Affirmative Action in California
A step towards social, economical, and educational equity.
This piece delves into the current debate surrounding affirmative action policies in the state of California. In the United States, a person’s skin color or gender has the ability to determine the resources that are available to that individual. Reinstating affirmative action in California eliminates the reality of using skin color or gender to hinder a person from accessing resources.
The disastrous present that we are currently living in is a stark reminder of the inequality upon which America is founded. Despite the proposals of grand ideas such as the living wage and universal healthcare, our country continues to bask in the “glory” of struggling for, but not quite gaining, the success of the American Dream. It is beyond overwhelming for the young generations to realize that they stand on soil that is nourished by greed, political extremities, and racist ideology. However, the frustration that comes from living in this country fuels our fight for just policies that protect everyone, not just the white man. In the words of American activist Jane Addams, “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.” This “good” is fair treatment. It is also equal opportunity. Most importantly, it is appreciation for the diversity that we are fortunate enough to experience.
As much as we believe that we no longer make choices based on race or sex, these two classifications are often the basis for hiring and admission decisions, economic opportunities, and social-welfare. The signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was monumental in the fight for non-discrimination within structures, but it has not stopped institutions from exerting their power over minorities and marginalized groups. When President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Executive Order 11246, which required federal contractors to use affirmative action, he called on the Department of Labor to target the construction industry with regional plans to meet certain hiring goals. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy defines affirmative action as “positive steps taken to increase the representation of women and minorities in areas of employment, education, and culture from which they have been historically excluded” (Fullenwider). This policy was furthered in 1972 when the order was implemented in all institutions regarding the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. The administration proposed affirmative action strategies as a way to enact change in institutions that were not complying with the mandates of the previously mentioned Civil Rights Act. It was seen as a push for these establishments to make a stronger effort to remove their exclusionary practices. In 2020, affirmative action has been miscommunicated as preferential selection, which is the “selection on the basis of race, gender, or ethnicity” (Fullenwider). This term is incorrect as it supports the notion that these characteristics are the sole determinants in decisions regarding one’s opportunity for success. Affirmative action simply implies that race, gender, and ethnicity will be taken into consideration along with all other qualities of a person in order to provide equity of opportunity to minorities and marginalized groups.
California has had a rocky past in enacting affirmative action policies within their universities. In the 1970s, the University of California, Davis Medical School attempted to remedy racial inequality in admissions by reserving sixteen out of one hundred spots in their entering classes for minority students. While it was an honest attempt at a solution, it was met only with backlash that resulted in legal action. Allan Bakke took this action when he was denied admission to the program twice, despite his test scores and grades being higher than almost all of the other admits in his class. Bakke claimed, the fact that he was white was the only reason that he was not offered admission, and he succeeded in bringing his assertion to the Supreme Court in 1978 in the case of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. The case became a question of a violation of equal protection under the Fourteenth Amendment as well as the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Along with the ordering of the school to admit Bakke, Justice Lewis F. Powell, Jr., argued that the racial quotas the institution utilized were a direct violation of both the Equal Protection Clause and Title VI of the previously mentioned Civil Rights Act (Oyez). However, the court did rule that it was permissible to include race in the criteria for admission decisions. In opposition to this logic, the state of California passed Proposition 209 in 1996, which essentially “eliminates state and local government affirmative action programs in the areas of public employment, public education, and public contracting to the extent these programs involve 'preferential treatment’ based on race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin” (Legislative Analyst’s Office). This amendment revoked programs and funding that aimed to provide more resources and support to the disadvantaged groups that can benefit from affirmative action. The biggest effects of Prop. 209 are seen in “magnet schools'' that are designed as “racially isolated minority schools” that provide counseling, tutoring, and financial aid based on minority or marginalized status (Legislative Analyst’s Office). These schools that are meant to provide resources to those who would otherwise not receive them have seen a significant decrease in funding since the passage of Prop. 209. The University of California and California State University systems also saw major changes in the way they conduct their holistic admission process. This has been shown to have a negative effect on the admission rates of Black and Latinx students specifically at the University of California, Berkeley; “Between 1997 and 1998, UC Berkeley’s proportion of Black students fell by half and has yet to recover. The proportion of Latinx students fell similarly, and though Latinx students now compose a majority of California’s graduating high school seniors, they constitute less than 16% of UC Berkeley undergraduates” (Daily Californian, 2020). It is quite obvious to remark that taking away funding and decreasing the educational opportunities of minorities is contradictory to the problem that we are trying to solve. Opposers to affirmative action often see these programs as unfair advantages to those that benefit from them, but we have to remind ourselves that these are not advantages. Minorities will never have advantages over the white population. They may receive more support and guidance from targeted outreach and retention efforts, but our society prevents these individuals from competing on a level playing field, so to speak. Affirmative action does not put one group at a disadvantage in comparison to another, but rather seeks to provide the disadvantaged with the equity that they deserve.
Californians have a chance to pave the way for equal opportunities for all with the Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5 in November of 2020. ACA 5 would amend the Constitution of California to repeal Prop. 209 and allow considerations of both equity and race in our country as a whole, but more specifically in public schools and colleges. Opponents of the amendment argue that restoring affirmative action will not succeed in providing equity, but it is clear to supporters that any change in support of non-discrimination is a step closer to a better humanity.
A big concern with ACA 5 is that it will displace high-achieving Asian students who are typically more affluent and educated. However, it is logical to assume that in the case of the UC system, admission panels can actually improve the representation of Southeast Asians and marginalized Asian communities because they would be allowed to consider both ethnicity and race in their decisions (Daily Californian, 2020). The amendment can also serve to boost academic performance of both students of color and all students in several ways. In the status quo, “Approximately 77% of students in public schools are students of color, while 65% of teachers are white,” (Education Trust-West, 2020). Studies have shown that having teachers of color can allow students of all races to form more reliable connections with their teachers, and in consequence, learn better (Cherng, Haplin, 2016). In a study conducted by Joel Mittleman, a PhD candidate in Sociology at Princeton University, it was found that, “Students of color with same-race teachers earn higher GPAs, spend more time on homework, and have higher expectations for themselves attending college” (Mittleman, 2016). As if that wasn’t enough of an incentive, it has also been found that exposure to at least one black teacher while in grades 3-5 reduced black high school dropout rates by 31% (Gershenson, Hart, et al, 2017). Although far more research would need to be done in order to solidify these results, the findings of these studies provide a lot of promise to the future of affirmative action.
Given recent events, it seems that the time is now to bring this substantial decision back into the eyes of the public. Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, who is the creator of the bill, remarked that, “the ongoing pandemic, as well as recent tragedies of police violence, is forcing Californians to acknowledge the deep-seated inequality and far-reaching institutional failures that show that your race and gender still matter,” (John Myers, 2020). Assemblywoman Weber could not be more transparent in her analysis. We are constantly reminded that racism and sexism control every aspect of our institutions, and because of this we are preventing our own diversity from flourishing to its full potential. When thinking about discrimination on the basis of race, it is oblivious to claim that our country is “race-blind” in its roots. We wonder why the COVID-19 mortality rate for Black Americans is 2.5 times higher than that of Asians and 2.3 times higher than that of Whites (Goldin, 2020). We scratch our heads at the fact that the high school dropout rate for Hispanics is almost double that for Whites, while “Blacks are 50% more likely to drop out, and Native youth have the highest rates of non completion,” (Goldin, 2020). The problem is right in front of us, and yet we spend our lives simply pondering a solution instead of creating one.
As mentioned previously, affirmative action does not “prefer” one race or gender over another; It simply gives opportunities to people other than the white man. When a qualified applicant walks out of an interview, they should not have to convince themselves that their answers will hopefully make up for the fact that they are not a white male. A hopeful high school senior anticipates college decision letters, and they should not have to tone down their ambition based on previous acceptance rates of their race or ethnicity. While a black fourth grader is listening to their teacher talk about the history of California, they should not have to look around the room and wonder why they hardly see any students or teachers that look like them. Although affirmative action is certainly not going to eradicate America of the plague of discrimination, it is a much needed step in recognizing that race is, and has always been a factor in a person’s success in this country. November 2020, Californians have the ability to restore not only a desired equality, but also a much needed faith in humanity. It is imperative that we take this chance to use our voices to spread the good to all of our brothers and sisters.
CA should pass ACA 5, end Prop. 209. (2020, June 18). Retrieved June 30, 2020, from https://www.dailycal.org/2020/06/18/ca-should-pass-aca-5-end-prop-209/
Fullinwider, R. (2018, April 09). Affirmative Action. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/affirmative-action/
Gershenson, S., Hart, C. M., Hyman, J., Lindsay, C., & Papageorge, N. (2017). The Long-Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers. The Long Run Impacts of Same-Race Teachers, 3, 15. doi:10.3386/w25254
Goldin, N. (2020, June 17). How COVID-19 is worsening America's racial economic divide. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from https://www.atlanticcouncil.org/blogs/new-atlanticist/how-covid-19-is-worsening-americas-racial-economic-divide/
Halpin, P. F., & Cherng, H. (2016). The Importance of Minority Teachers: Student Perceptions of Minority Versus White Teachers - Hua-Yu Sebastian Cherng, Peter F. Halpin, 2016. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.3102/0013189X16671718
Mittleman, J. (2016, June 17). What's in a Match? Disentangling the Significance of Teacher Race/Ethnicity. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2796150
Myers, J. (2020, June 11). Plan to restore affirmative action in California clears hurdle after emotional debate. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from https://www.latimes.com/california/story/2020-06-10/affirmative-action-california-proposition-209-repeal-election
Prioritizing Racial Equity - The Education Trust. (2020, June 21). Retrieved June 30, 2020, from https://west.edtrust.org/aca-5/
Proposition 209: Prohibition Against Discrimination or Preferential Treatment By State and Other Public Entities. (1996, November). Retrieved June 30, 2020, from https://lao.ca.gov/ballot/1996/prop209_11_1996.html
Regents of the University of California v. Bakke. (n.d.). Oyez. Retrieved June 30, 2020, from https://www.oyez.org/cases/1979/76-811
Author: Kayla Heinemann
Editor: Muika Yohannis
Contributors: Abdalrahman Elmahdi and Tex Wambui
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