Editorial: No quick fix for troubling issues of race at University of California campuses

State Sen. Ed Hernandez’s proposal to ask voters in November to repeal Proposition 209, the 18-year-old law that prohibits affirmative action at the state’s public universities, died last week.

Or rather, it was killed by Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez, who said Monday that, though the legislation passed in the Senate, the Assembly wouldn’t be taking action on it.

The decision to pass on Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 was preceded by days of outrage by Asian American students and their families, who saw this as a direct hit to their gains on University of California campuses.

Republican politicians, hoping for political advantage, helped fan the protests. The controversy threatened to create a rift between Asians and Latinos, key to the Democrats’ base.

Hernandez, a Los Angeles-area Democrat, says he intends to hold hearings on the issue around the state. A level-headed discussion of aspects of University of California admissions is much needed.

The bill’s demise was a blessing of sorts – at least for the Democratic Party. It brought up too many uncomfortable facts to live a long political life.

Proposition 209 didn’t turn out to be quite the conservative bugaboo that liberals feared. During the 1996 campaign, opponents likened the proposition to something the Ku Klux Klan might have dreamed up.

While the end of affirmative action might have shifted minority students around the University of California system, most notably from Berkeley and UCLA and into other UCs, it didn’t stop the long-term upward trend in the growing percentage of Latino or Asian American students in the system’s ethnic makeup.

That probably has a lot to do with measures the University of California has used to find other ways to diversify its student body, including looking at the socio-economic status of prospective students, and whether they are the first in their family to attend college.

Meanwhile, white students continue to decline on UC campuses, a trend that began before the passage of Proposition 209. Students defined as white account for barely more than a quarter of the students at UCs, about even with Latino students, according to data provided to The Bee by the University of California’s Office of the President.

If there was some white flight in the last two decades, it was to out-of-state colleges. California’s private nonprofit colleges took advantage of Proposition 209 restrictions at the UCs to diversify their own student bodies and become less-white campuses.

But what probably has more to do with the shift is that there are simply fewer white students to admit: The white population in California has been long declining.

Meanwhile, Asian and Latino students continued to increase their numbers from 1996, at UCs and in the general population.

Undoubtedly, Asian students have made the largest gains at UCs. So when there is discussion of using racial preferences at UCs, it effectively pits Latino students against Asian American students, and makes for touchy public debate.

It’s one worth having, so long as we also talk about one of the real failings of the University of California – the inability to increase representation of African American students.

The African American student population dipped dramatically after the UCs stopped using race as a factor in admission, which they did a couple of years before Proposition 209, but then regained ground only to remain flat, at just about 4 percent.

Part of that is due to population declines, but also that out-of-state colleges, which can use racial preferences in admission and student aid, lured away top African American students to diversify their own campuses.

That states are fighting over a still-small pool of African American students speaks to a bigger problem that repealing Proposition 209 won’t solve: Society in general continues to fail this population, particularly with inner-city schools that aren’t up to par.

That’s a problem that needs addressing, to be sure.

But it’s bigger, and much more complicated, than the simple political fix that SCA 5 offered.

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