When Luis Alejo applied to college at the University of California, Berkeley, admissions counselors could consider his race; when he applied to law school, it had become invisible.
It was only after a string of rejections led him to beg for a face-to-face interview with an admissions officer, Alejo said, that he won a spot at the University of California, Davis, law school, launching a career that in 2010 elevated him to the state Assembly.
The year Alejo was preparing for law school, voters altered his prospects by passing Proposition 209, California’s ban on race-inclusive admissions policies. Alejo and others unsuccessfully fought the initiative, a losing battle that he described as a formative political experience.
“All our fears came true,” said Alejo, a Democrat from Watsonville. “Once it went into effect, we saw dramatic drops in the numbers of students of color being able to attend some of our most prestigious graduate and professional schools.”
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Nearly two decades after California voters banned affirmative action, the debate has re-emerged in the Legislature with new players and different stakes. It has spotlighted the augmented presence of Latino and Asian American lawmakers, voted into office by a markedly more diverse electorate, and ignited anger and tension between the two groups.
“If it weren’t for affirmative action, I, Kevin de León, wouldn’t be here today,” Sen. Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, who will soon become the first Latino leader of the Senate, said in January.
The day de León gave that speech, Senate Democrats advanced SCA 5, a measure to put reversing California’s race-conscious admissions ban on the ballot. The ensuing backlash was swift and unexpected. Asian American lawmakers faced a groundswell of opposition from Asian American constituents concerned about losing out on university spots.
Leadership shelved the proposal, touching off racially tinged reprisals. A group of Latino and African American lawmakers informed Sen. Ted Lieu, D-Torrance, they were withdrawing their support for his congressional run. And African American and Latino lawmakers withheld their votes from an unrelated bill by Assemblyman Al Muratsuchi, D-Torrance, allowing it to fail on the floor.
“I feel I was targeted because of my race,” Muratsuchi said.
While the strife has bruised lawmakers, it has also sent a message to constituents about turmoil among California Democrats.
“I think for the part of the public that’s paying attention, voters and nonvoters alike, it looks like the Democrats are a party in a bit of disarray right now,” said Jaime Regalado, a professor emeritus of political science at California State University, Los Angeles. “Part of that is the disagreement among the racial and ethnic caucuses.”
The vote-counting dynamics in the Legislature have shifted significantly since the Senate passed the affirmative action bill. The body has suspended three Democratic senators facing federal charges, depriving Democrats of the two-thirds majority needed to place constitutional amendments on the ballot. The window allowing Democrats to have voters re-evaluate affirmative action may be closed for now.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, pointed to other ways legislators could tackle college enrollment, such as investing more in public universities. But he noted those solutions also require the type of unity that, in this debate, eluded Democrats.
“Coalition building, even around how to increase funding for enrollments, requires that people stick together and not divide in the way we saw here,” Steinberg said. “There’s too much at stake and there’s too much common ground,” he added, “and wedge politics have consequences.”
Now Democrats say they must find a way forward on an issue that remains deeply important to members of the caucus, particularly those who say they would not be where they are today without race-conscious admissions. For some of those lawmakers, the issue is personal.
“Many of us recognize we are beneficiaries of affirmative action,” Alejo said, “and so it’s our responsibility to make sure there are opportunities for the many students who come behind us.”
The current generation of lawmakers includes a bloc of members who trace their political awakening in part to the unsuccessful fight to preserve race-conscious admissions. California’s political culture has “changed substantially” since then, said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, but the struggles of minority students endure.
“You have a lot of people in our age range whose political career came out of this fight we had and lost,” said Gonzalez, a first-term Democrat from San Diego. Even with strides in minority representation, she added, “to suggest suddenly, in admissions, that race and gender should not be a factor, when it is in every other part of your life, is discounting reality.”
Demographically, California’s electorate and its Legislature look distinctly different today than they did in 1996, when voters forbade racial preferences in passing Proposition 209. As the state and the nation have become more diverse, federal judges have dealt multiple setbacks to affirmative action proponents, with the United States Supreme Court last week upholding Michigan’s affirmative action prohibition.
“Our population is a very dynamic one, changing rapidly, and that’s partially what’s driving this,” said Ward Connerly, Proposition 209’s sponsor. Lawmakers backing race-conscious policies “want to build a Latino middle class,” Connerly said, “and Proposition 209, they believe, is inhibiting their ability to do that because they want to do it using racial preferences.”
In the years since 1996, the California Latino Legislative Caucus has become a potent force, its clout reflecting the booming numbers of Latino constituents as Hispanics have surpassed whites to become the single largest ethnic bloc in California. Last year marked a prolific turn for immigration-related bills, including a long-sought measure offering driver’s licenses to immigrants in the country illegally.
Similarly, the growing ranks of Asian American voters have paralleled the ascent of Asian American legislators – Assemblyman Ed Chau, for example, represents the state’s first majority-Asian district. With increased representation comes an amplified voice for Asian American constituents.
“When I went to college, there were no Asian Americans in the Legislature,” Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco – who during his days as a Berkeley student activist (he graduated in 1992) sought better educational access for Asian American students – said in a 2013 interview with The Bee. “When we would go up and do visits, there really was no relation there.”
As those population trends have played out, University of California officials say the share of African American students has fallen while the rate of Latino enrollment has lagged behind population growth.
“Across the university, the percentages of African Americans and Native Americans enrolled in 2012 remained lower than the corresponding percentages in 1995,” University of California president Janet Napolitano wrote in a Washington Post op-ed this week. “The percentage of Latino students has increased but not enough to keep pace with the explosive growth of Latino high school graduates.”
The problem is most acute, university officials say, at the elite campuses.
The University of California, Berkeley, admitted fewer Latino and Chicano students in 2013 than in 1996, their combined admission rate ticking up from 16.4 percent in 1996 to 17.5 percent in 2013. At the University of California, Los Angeles, the percentage of black admitted students tumbled from just under 6 percent in 1996 to 4.1 percent in 2013. In the same time frame, Asian American admissions rose to 35 percent at UC Berkeley and 33 percent at UCLA.
The University of California cited those trends in a 2012 court filing supporting race-conscious admissions at the University of Texas. The document noted a “precipitous decline in minority admission” since Proposition 209 took effect and argued that minority admissions have failed “to keep pace with the growing population of underrepresented minorities in the applicant pool.”
“We have a growing divide across our campuses in terms of the racial and ethnic mix, and unfortunately that decline tends to place the most students of color and the most diversity on the campuses that are perceived to be less prestigious,” said Nina Robinson, the University of California’s associate president for policy.
In her four decades as a professor of black studies at California State University, San Diego, Assemblywoman Shirley Weber watched as race-based recruitment, officially sanctioned on-campus programs for students of color and targeted scholarships disappeared. As a result of Proposition 209, Weber said, California’s public universities are losing their edge on private colleges or out-of-state universities.
“What’s happening is we’re experiencing a brain drain,” Weber said. “Many of our very bright kids of color are being recruited to institutions outside of California.”
Broader strains on California’s higher education system help explain the SCA 5 controversy, said Karin Wang of Asian Americans Advancing Justice Los Angeles. As the state’s population has grown and funding for the university system has diminished, the competition for coveted spots at the universities has intensified.
“There’s just not as many opportunities, and that’s why you have this zero sum game where there’s only so many seats,” Wang said. “The diversity on the current campuses, that’s a very real issue. But why aren’t we looking at the decreasing number of seats for the increasing number of students?”
Legislators and advocates are quick to point out that the Asian American community is not a monolith. Some Asian nationalities have high rates of poverty and lower educational attainment levels than others. While much of the pushback came from Chinese Americans, that community is also socially complex and difficult to reduce to generalities.
“Within the Chinese American community, the most vocal opposition was in a more specific subset,” including those more likely to be Mandarin speakers or recent immigrants, according to Vincent Pan of the San Francisco-based organization Chinese for Affirmative Action. “For every Chinese American who has been vocal against SCA 5, they’ve been very loud, but there’s also lots of folks who support it.”
To some Republicans, the strife shows the first cracks in what could become outright fractures in rock-solid Democratic control of the state Legislature. Peter Kuo, an Asian American running for Senate as a Republican, has campaigned on the issue, inviting supporters to a “No on SCA 5” event with Senate Republican leader Bob Huff, R-Diamond Bar.
“I think what you may be seeing is an awakening by Asian Americans who have been voting a certain way or leaning a certain way, and they’re starting to rethink their alliances as it starts to fit something important to them, which is higher education,” Huff said.