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University of California Urges U.S. Supreme Court to Uphold Affirmative Action

Just call us the Bleeding Heart State:

Yesterday, leading up to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in Texas that will determine once and for all the constitutionality of considering race in university admissions, California Attorney General Kamala Harris joined the nation's most prestigious public university system -- the University of California -- in supporting a race-sensitive admissions process. (Oh, and the Obama Administration chimed in, too.)

Both Harris and UC President Mark Yudof submitted heartfelt legal briefings to the Supreme Court, making the case that California's voter-approved ban on affirmative action has...

... very noticeably hurt diversity on campus, and all the "educational and societal benefits" that would have come with it.

California may appear true-blue liberal to the rest of the States, but our voters often lean conservative on social issues: As with gay marriage in 2008 and marijuana legalization in 2010, the majority of Californians voted against race-based admissions way back in 1996 -- making us the first state to do so.

Repeated attempts to overturn Prop. 209 have since failed in California's Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. The case has never made it to the U.S. Supreme Court.

So, with the upcoming ruling in Texas, affirmative action proponents on the West Coast see a golden opportunity to establish a minority-friendly precedent in America's highest court. Writes Harris:

If the efforts of California's public institutions of higher education continue to be unsuccessful at achieving the needed diversity of their student bodies without resort to race-conscious admission methods, California's voters may choose to abandon the choices reflected in Proposition 209. If they do, California will need the flexibility and deference permitted by Grutter.
Kamala Harris, part black herself, says that "meaningful diversity on university campuses benefits not only students, but society as a whole."
Kamala Harris, part black herself, says that "meaningful diversity on university campuses benefits not only students, but society as a whole."
Office of the Attorney General

She's talking about Grutter v. Bollinger, a 2003 case that ended with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that the University of Michigan could consider race as one of various factors in admissions, as long as it didn't implement a quota system. (Aka, 16 minority students must be admitted for every 100 white ones, or something equally set in stone.)

Grutter could never quite be used as an argument against Prop. 209, seeing as it merely OKed the consideration of race in admissions. It certainly wasn't a mandate that could contradict the majority of California voters.

However, as Attorney General Harris suggests, if an anti-Prop. 209 measure ever makes it onto our state ballot and succeeds, the Grutter decision -- or a new decision in the same spirit -- will be integral to fighting off the right-wing appeals that will inevitably follow.

The Fisher v. University of Texas hearing, in which a young white woman will argue that she was rejected from the Austin campus while less qualified minority students slipped though, could mean everything for efforts to level the playing field at universities across the country. In the fatalistic words of New York Times reporter Adam Liptak:

Now [Fisher's] case is hurtling toward the Supreme Court. That could provide a fresh opportunity to consider what we mean when we talk about diversity. It could also mean the end of affirmative action at public universities.

As it happens, current UC President Yudof was chancellor of the University of Texas system back when Abigail Fisher applied, and was rejected, in 2008.

Yesterday, his legal briefing makes the case that -- despite amped outreach efforts to minority high-schoolers and various initiatives on campus to make non-whites feel more welcome -- the university hasn't even come close to pre-1996 levels of diversity. (Although naysayers would argue that the graduation rate for those black students who are still admitted has risen significantly.)

At UC San Diego, where not 2 percent of the student body is black, a near-race riot broke out in 2010 when a group of white frat boys held a "Compton Cookout" party in mock celebration of Black History Month. When black students began protesting at the center of campus, the editor of the school's humor newspaper called them "ungrateful niggers" on live TV, and a noose was found hanging from a bookshelf in Geisel Library.

This kind of intolerance and insensitivity, argued the Black Student Association at UCSD, was bound to fester on a campus where everyone looked the same, and where white students remained ignorant to black history and culture. They felt threatened and voiceless in a community that did not understand them.

Yudof seems to allude to their frustration in yesterday's briefing:

In 2010, across eight UC campuses that surveyed undergraduates, from 12.9% to as many as 68.5% of African American students reported feeling that students of their race are not respected on campus (the comparable range in 2008 was from 20% to 51.9%). UC Riverside, the UC campus at which the greatest percentage of African Americans felt students of their race are respected (87.1%), was also the UC campus with the greatest percentage of African American students (7.8% of the undergraduate student body). Similar results obtained with respect to Chicano-Latino students... . In short, where critical mass is not achieved, the campus racial climate is likely to be significantly less hospitable to minorities.

Likewise, UC leaders argue that non-minority students will graduate far less prepared for the outside world (and far less likely to do right by humanity) without a realistic social experience at college.

Students such as, perhaps, Abigail Fisher -- apparently dense to the fact that as a white girl growing up in Texas, she already had a leg up, and would have likely encountered an array of white-girl opportunities at any old backup school. Which she definitely did, thanks in part to one precedent-setting Supreme Court case that seeks to set back her historically underserved brethren.

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