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In California, the Dream of Racial Preferences Never Dies

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In California, the Dream of Racial Preferences Never Dies

The Wall Street Journal May 20, 2020

Democrats in Sacramento try again to repeal Prop. 209.

Political conservatives are often accused of wanting to “turn back the clock,” but in California it is progressives who are leading an effort to return to the bad old days of state-sanctioned racial discrimination.

In 1996 voters passed Proposition 209, a ballot initiative that prohibited the consideration of race and gender in public education, employment and contracting. It was the ban on race-based admissions at the University of California system that ruffled the most feathers on the left. Opponents predicted that, without preferential treatment, black and Hispanic enrollment would decline overall and virtually disappear at the system’s most elite schools, UCLA and Berkeley. Yet in the intervening quarter-century, that hasn’t happened.

Richard Sander, a UCLA law professor, has chronicled enrollment trends throughout the UC system. He told me by phone this week that while black and Hispanic enrollment did drop initially at the more selective campuses, the dip was both short-lived and less than had been anticipated. Moreover, for those same minority groups, enrollment overall in the UC system, which had been declining, “went up pretty much right away and is now up stunningly over the pre-209 levels.”

Even more important, an end to racial double standards in admissions was followed by a dramatic increase in the number of college degrees awarded to blacks and Hispanics, including in the more challenging disciplines. When Mr. Sander compared the outcomes of minorities who had entered the UC system under racial preferences with those who entered after those preferences where banned, he found a 55% increase in the number of black and Hispanic freshman who graduated in four years and a 51% rise in black and Hispanic students who earned degrees in science, technology, engineering and math. The number of blacks and Hispanics graduating with grade-point averages of 3.5 or higher rose by 63%.

If you are someone whose foremost concern is narrowing the academic achievement gap, these results are welcome. More minority students are attending schools where they can handle the work at the pace it’s being taught, and as a result many more of them are graduating. Proposition 209 ended a system that was using underprivileged minorities as window dressing, essentially setting up bright students to fail by funneling them into schools where they were overmatched academically through no fault of their own. Why should a student be struggling at UCLA, and thus possibly forced to drop out or switch to an easier major, when he could be thriving at UC Riverside in a subject he most wants to study?

The fallout from Proposition 209 also taught us that black and Hispanic educational prospects aren’t the only ones throttled by racial preferences. High-achieving Asian-American students were also casualties. UCLA and Berkeley officials had long denied that they artificially capped the number of Asian admissions to achieve more racial balance on campus, but after schools could no longer take an applicant’s race into account, Asian enrollment at both campuses spiked. Draw your own conclusions.

What’s revealing is how little weight any of this carries with political progressives who obsess over social inequality yet remain hostile to policies—such as race-blind college admissions—with a track record of reducing it. Nor do they seem to care that race-conscious policies punish Asian-American students for academic overachievement in the same way that Ivy League schools once turned away Jewish applicants supposedly for being too studious.

In 2014 Democrats in Sacramento moved to overturn Proposition 209, but the effort was blocked by Asian-American Democrats and activists who balked at returning to a process where their children could legally be discriminated against for having the nerve to excel in school. Now progressive lawmakers are at it again. A bill that would put a repeal of Proposition 209 on the ballot in the fall was introduced in March and is working its way through the committee process. Given that the state’s governor, Gavin Newsom, is a liberal Democrat whose party holds supermajorities in both the state Assembly and Senate, passage isn’t out of the question. Voters would then decide Proposition 209’s fate via a ballot measure in November.

Gail Heriot, a California-based member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a professor at the University of San Diego School of Law, told me that the opponents of Proposition 209 are probably counting on a large anti-Trump turnout on Election Day to give them an edge. But she also expects to see the same Asian-American resistance we saw six years ago. “It’s a little hard to organize during the lockdown, but the same people who rose up in righteous indignation last time have put together a petition [urging lawmakers to vote against the bill] that already has 27,000 signatures.” Given how long Asian students have been an afterthought in our national discussion about racial preferences, this is progress.

After the University of California system ended racial preferences in admissions, the number of black and Hispanic students who graduated in four years rose by 55%. An earlier version of this column cited an incorrect graduation figure.

This piece originally appeared at the The Wall Street Journal (paywall)


Jason L. Riley is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and a Fox News commentator. Follow him on Twitter here.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images