LA Times Op Ed About Prop 209, August 26, 2006 


(printed under editor's title, "At UC, Race Must Matter")

By Jeffrey S. Lehman

Los Angeles Times, August 26, 2006


A new school year is upon us, and Californians are wondering again whether their university admissions system is broken. Out of 4,852 students expected to start as UCLA freshmen in September, only 96 — 2% — are African American.  To a great many people that is clear evidence of a problem, but the solution is not clear at all.

Five years ago the University of California regents repealed UC’s Resolution SP-1, which in 1995 mandated rigid colorblindness in admissions.  The policy remains in force, however, through Proposition 209, the 1996 voter initiative that banned consideration of race in public programs. 

When SP-1 and Proposition 209 were adopted, I was the dean of the University of Michigan Law School. In that role I helped to defend my school’s use of affirmative action in admissions, a policy that the Supreme Court upheld in 2003. 

My experience taught me that most Americans cherish two important ideals. They value colorblindness, preferring that large institutions not consider race when allocating significant opportunities.  And they value integration, wanting their best institutions to include people from all backgrounds. 

Unfortunately, those values are in conflict.  The national admissions pool at the most selective universities reflects the cumulative impact of American history, sociology and economics, public investments and private choices. Because those variables are not race-independent, a colorblind admissions process is unlikely to produce meaningful racial integration.

For ten years, Proposition 209 has proved that point.

Here are the essential statistics: According to the Census our country is 14% Latino and 13% African American, and California is 35% Latino and 7% African American. Operating under Proposition 209, the entering classes at Berkeley and UCLA since 1996 have tended to be 11% to 14% Latino and 2% to 4% African American.

 The latter numbers are so low that there is no longer a “critical mass” of African Americans on these two highly selective flagship campuses. “Critical mass” means a group of sufficient size that each member is able to be an individual, to disagree publicly with other members of his or her group, to be freed — at least partially — from the burdens of always being perceived as a spokesperson for his or her race.

 This matters because college is a critical time for students to come to terms with the complexity of race in America. Most great universities today are living laboratories in which students grapple with difficult questions of identity and inter-group relations. They strive for balance between comfort with their own racial identities and openness to people who are different from themselves. They struggle on a regular basis with issues such as hate speech, self-segregation and cultural assimilation.  Their ability to do so effectively is influenced by campus racial demography; without a critical mass of African American students, the “laboratory” does not work as well.

 Experts believe that within a group of 20 to 50 students, the presence of three African Americans is a key transition point, where black students can speak more freely as individuals and other students can better appreciate how racial identity is complex, multidimensional and unpredictable.   When campuses the size of Berkeley and UCLA have African American populations of only 2% to 4%,  students of all races only rarely experience that transition point. They have an educational experience that is meaningfully different from the national norm.

In any given year one school (such as Berkeley) might be able to recruit a few more black students, leaving fewer for its competitors.  But recruiting initiatives at the level of individual universities cannot alter the aggregate reality.  

 While the number of African American students who are well prepared to do the work at these colleges has grown rapidly over the past few decades, the total number from all races has been exploding too. The net result is that highly selective universities have become even more selective. Without conscious attention to race in admissions, meaningful integration is not possible.

Outside California, selective universities use the kind of conservative affirmative action that the Supreme Court endorsed in the Michigan litigation. They renounce quotas; they consider only applicants who are academically prepared to do the work; they examine candidates as whole persons, asking what each applicant will contribute to the intellectual life of the institution, including racial diversity as one factor among many.

 In California, ten years of experience with Proposition 209 have laid the groundwork for reform. First, it is time for a new ballot initiative that would amend Proposition 209 to authorize the kind of conservative affirmative action that has become the national norm. Second, it is time for California to lead an effort to face the underlying challenge head-on.

Affirmative action is a compromise — giving up on colorblindness in order to obtain integration.  Today’s challenge is to create a society in which meaningful integration can be achieved without affirmative action. Such a society would be committed to dramatically reducing the educational effects of residential segregation, school isolation, socioeconomic disadvantage, and crippling racial stereotypes. It would invest heavily to make genuine opportunity within an open and integrated community the true birthright of every child. 

In the Michigan decision, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor expressed hope that we might reach such a society by the year 2028. Perhaps the next steps could be taken in California.

Jeffrey S. Lehman is a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, professor of law and former president of Cornell University.