State senator Ed Hernandez means well; most politicians do. The problem, however, arises between the idea and implementation of it. California’s Senate Constitutional Amendment No. 5 (SCA5) exemplifies this kind of misguided situation; the bill will undo the progress achieved in the past two decades by challenging Proposition 209.
Sponsored by Hernandez, SCA5 will eliminate the portions of Prop. 209 that prohibited the state from discriminating against certain individuals or groups based on “race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public education.” Basically, SCA5 allows University of California and California State University admission offices to give preferential treatment to certain racial groups during the college admissions process, a practice that is known as affirmative action.
In 1996, voters passed Prop. 209, which banned UC and CSU campuses from considering race or ethnicity during the admissions process. For nearly 20 years, Prop. 209 stood its ground against numerous lawsuits and court cases. Then, SCA5 came along.
On January 30, the California Senate quietly passed SCA5 with a vote of 27 to 9 and the measure moved on to the California Assembly. After a month and half, it became clear that the bill did not have the required two-thirds majority to pass, so Assembly Speaker John A. Perez sent the initiative back to the Senate to keep it alive. The bill is not currently dead because Hernandez looks for a 2016 re-emergence.
There is no doubt that the intention behind SCA5 is good: to increase minority representation in California higher education. However, the entire amendment is based on false statistics and a flawed approach.
In a January press release, Hernandez and his staff wrote,“As a result [of Prop. 209], there has been a precipitous drop in the percentage of Latino, African American and Native American students at California public universities.”
However, according to data released by the UC system, the percentages of Native American and African American freshman enrollment at UCs have remained about the same from 1996 to now, while the percentage of Latino/Hispanic students has doubled from 13.8 percent to 28.1 percent. Clearly, Prop. 209 has not led to a “precipitous drop” in minority enrollment; in fact, quite the opposite has occurred.
Proponents of SCA5 also argue that minority enrollment in California universities is disproportional to the total percentage of underrepresented minorities in the state. Janet Chin, media spokeswoman for Hernandez, said that SCA5 will “ensure that universities reflect the diversity of the state.” However, the glaring flaw in this logic is that there is no definite way to determine when the diversity of UCs reflects that of the state.
The only standard that UCs and politicians can fall back on—and one that Chin seems to be suggesting—is to make minority admission percentages mirror their state population percentages. No matter how one chooses to spin it, this means imposing racial quotas, even if it is an under-the-table quota.
Under racial quotas, the university allocates a certain number of spots to certain racial groups. The idea is to compensate for the discrimination faced by the families of underrepresented minorities in the past by guaranteeing them a set amount of spots. However, the practice of doing so has become known as reverse discrimination, in which historically discriminated racial groups receive preference and historically more privileged racial groups are discriminated against.
This is an illogical way to solve diversity issues. Discriminating against certain racial groups in favor of others has never been and will never be the solution to rectifying the past discrimination. We cannot fight inequality with inequality.
Furthermore, giving certain racial groups an advantage during the admissions process harms the people whom it intends to benefit. When less qualified students are admitted into a rigorous academic environment for which they are ill-prepared, they are more likely to struggle and less likely to succeed. This misplacement of students in appropriate learning environments is known as the “mismatch theory.”
The mismatch theory is supported by the increase of minority graduation rates after the passage of Prop. 209. In a 2011 Duke study, researchers found that after Prop. 209 passed, minority enrollees in California public universities had higher rates of graduation. They concluded that “affirmative action bans result in better matching of students to colleges,” since students who were admitted were academically more suited to their educational environment and thus found more success in higher education.
Arguing against SCA5, however, solves nothing unless we find another solution.
According to the California Department of Education, Latino students made up 52 percent of the total K-12 student demographic, but only 30 percent of UC applicants. Asian American students, on the other hand, comprised 11 percent of the K-12 student demographic but constituted 29 percent of UC applicants.
Clearly, the disparity in underrepresented minority enrollment in UCs comes from the number of underrepresented minority students who apply to UCs in the first place, not from the percentage of these students that UCs admit.
The answer, then, is that we must close the academic achievement gap between racial groups by investing more in the public K-12 education of underrepresented minorities. We must start from the bottom up, motivating and supporting these schoolchildren so that they reach their full academic potential and apply to college with the same academic background as their peers. Starting from the beginning is the only way to solve any kind of problem, and diversity is no exception.
In fact, Governor Jerry Brown proposed a 9.5 percent increase on K-12 spending in the 2014-2015 state budget summary. His actions illustrate a step in the right direction. The next step forward is to ensure that the increase in K-12 funding goes to the programs that support and improve the education experience of underrepresented minority students.
Meanwhile, SCA5 is a top-down solution presented by short-sighted politicians. In truth, the bill fails to address any of the underlying factors for the racial disparity in UC and CSU systems. It fails to start from the root of the problem.
While the debate about affirmative action rages on and the words “diversity,” “inequality” and “discrimination” are thrown around as ammunition from both sides, one thing is clear: SCA5 is not the answer to our diversity problems. Not now, and not ever.