Dawson Bell, Detroit Free Press, September 5, 2006
Berkeley, Calif. — Michigan has a question for California: Was it a good idea to prohibit, as your voters did in 1996, the use of race- and gender-based affirmative action by public schools and government agencies for hiring, contracting and admissions decisions?
Ten years ago, the issue raged in California just as it does now in Michigan in the run-up to the Nov. 7 election and a vote on the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative, or MCRI.
Like backers of the MCRI, proponents of the nearly identical California Civil Rights Initiative, known as Proposition 209, promised a pathway to a colorblind society. Its opponents forecast an end to opportunity for women and minorities.
A decade later, some results are tangible: fewer African Americans at elite state universities and an apparent reduction in cost for road contracts awarded without consideration of race and gender.
But would California do it again?
“In a heartbeat,” said Ward Connerly, the former University of California regent who led the campaign to pass 209. Connerly is also a principal organizer of the MCRI campaign.
Even opponents agree that Californians aren’t ready to repeal the proposition.
But Eva Paterson, who heads a coalition dedicated to doing away with 209, said she thinks that California voters someday will realize their mistake.
“There are fewer opportunities for minorities and women,” Paterson said. “California is worse off.”
Evidence cuts both ways
Hard evidence about the effect of 209 is fragmentary and hard to interpret.
After its enactment, black and Hispanic enrollment declined sharply at the University of California system’s elite schools — Berkeley and UCLA.
At UCLA, this fall’s freshman class includes just 96 African Americans (about 2%) — a 30-year low. Other reports have documented drops in minority and female faculty on some campuses and suggested a decline in the number of government contracts awarded to minority- and female-owned businesses.
But other research shows that overall minority enrollment at the elite schools has stabilized at lower levels, that overall minority enrollment is at or above pre-209 levels and that system-wide, California was among the national leaders in degrees awarded to nonwhite students.
Still, African Americans, 6% of California’s population, did not keep pace with the increases in the attainment of college degrees by white, Asian or Hispanic Californians during the last 10 years.
On a broader scale, many of the traditional measures of progress — income, educational attainment, poverty rates — show that progress for California’s minorities and women has outpaced that of whites and men during the last decade.
According to data from the California Demographic Research Unit:
- The median income for women rose slightly more than that for men between 1995 and 2003.
- The growth in median household income for blacks, Hispanics and Asians between 1995 and 2004 was significantly higher than it was for whites.
- Poverty rates fell sharply for blacks, Hispanics and Asians while rising for whites between 1996 and 2004.
Hans Johnson, an economist at the Public Policy Institute of California, urged caution in linking the passage of 209 to those changes. The ban applied only to public schools and government agencies, Johnson said. In the larger, private California economy, affirmative action remains common — as it would in Michigan if the MCRI were adopted.
The Discrimination Research Center, an affirmative-action advocacy organization founded in Berkeley in 1998, found fewer women in construction trades and attributed that to 209. But the authors cited shortcomings in data and acknowledged that even post-209 “women are better represented in the construction industry in California than nationally.”
On the other hand, the race and gender composition of the California state government workforce has changed little.
Whites and African Americans, both shrinking portions of the population, are also a declining portion of the state workforce; Hispanics and Asians, both increasing, occupy a larger share.
Connerly said the measure of 209’s success is in the way individuals are treated.
“The vision should be, ‘Did you have a fair and equal chance to compete?’ “
More important, he said, is that 209’s biggest impact was cultural.
“The weight of the law was no longer in favor of using preferences. That is an attitudinal change that may take decades to be absorbed. But it’s in the fabric of everyday life now.”
Berkeley: Ground zero
If 209 produced culture shock anywhere, it was in the San Francisco Bay area, on and around the campus at UC-Berkeley. The school, one of the nation’s most highly regarded public universities, was ground zero for 209 opposition and has been the incubator for the nascent repeal movement.
The number of black and Hispanic students enrolled at Berkeley fell sharply after 209 passed — from 7.2% of all freshmen in 1995 to 3.2% three years later.
Since then, the number of black incoming freshmen has remained low, but Hispanic enrollment has returned to its former level at Berkeley and UCLA, and has grown system-wide. Opponents of 209 contend, however, that both blacks and Hispanics remain underrepresented.
At UC-Berkeley, students can enroll in a “Prop. 209 Project” section of Ethnic Studies. Its objective: develop a strategy to repeal 209. In April, the university hosted a daylong symposium called Overturning 209. Organizers called California’s post-209 condition one of crisis.
Among more than a dozen students interviewed on campus a few weeks after the event, none knew it had taken place.
Berkeley students, in fact, reflect the attitudes of many Californians on the issues of race, gender, affirmative action and Proposition 209: They are of mixed minds.
Julian Thomas, an African American from San Diego who graduated this year with a degree in biology, said he sometimes felt isolated as a black student.
He also experienced the sting of bigotry, including once from a white female classmate who passed him on the sidewalk off campus and failed to recognize him. She clutched her purse tighter. Later, when she fell behind in the laboratory, she asked him for help.
Still, if the campus and its host city — a hyper-liberal enclave where stop signs are vandalized to read “STOP (DRIVING)” — were the whole California electorate, those advocating to overturn 209 might win.
But Berkeley is not California.
“Most of the people” in the rest of the state “think the people in Berkeley are a bunch of nut balls,” said Karen DeVrieze, who lives and works in southern California.
The role of discrimination
It’s hard to tell how widely shared those views are in a population of 37 million.
A summary of a recent poll, commissioned by opponents of 209, found that voters believe discrimination remains a problem and that government should do something about it.
David Mermin, who helped conduct the poll, said 15% of Californians responded that 209 had affected their lives negatively; 18% said the effect was positive, and 58% saw no difference.
But Paterson, a UC Berkeley-educated attorney, and other repeal advocates said public amnesia about 209 presents opponents with an opportunity to start fresh and avoid mistakes they made in 1996.
“The other side had a simple message,” Paterson said. “Discrimination is wrong; stop doing it. We never settled on a single message.”
Joe Hicks disagrees.
Hicks is a lifelong Californian who became a communist after he was radicalized by the Watts race riot of 1965. In 1996, Hicks was among Paterson’s top allies.
“You simply can’t make the case that racism has gotten worse in California in the last 10 years,” Hicks said. “There has been no decline in the status of black people in California.”
Detractors of 209 disagree.
And African Americans remain staunch supporters of affirmative action in California, as they are in Michigan.