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Countdown in California: students offer voter initiative to counteract Proposition 209 – measure to restore affirmative action

Members of Students for Educational Opportunity, a Berkeley-based
group working against the clock to restore affirmative action in
education. By the end of March they had gathered 200,000 signatures to
place a new initiative on California’s November ballot. The initiative,
which is designed to counter Proposition 209, states that California
may “consider the economic background, race, sex, ethnicity, and
national origin of qualified individuals.”

Angela Guerrero, a Boalt Hall law school student, is co-chair of
the group and co-author of the Equal Educational Opportunities
Initiative (EEOI). She believes affirmative action is still needed.

“With the repeal of affirmative action, the problem of inequality
has worsened,” Guerrero said. “We believe that hard-working and
talented students are unfairly being denied access to public education.

“Since the [University of California] Regents instituted their own
affirmative action ban for professional school admissions two years
ago, there has been a staggering 60 to 70 percent drop-off in already
under-represented students,” she continued. “At the law school, we’ve
gone from being the most diverse to one of the least.”

Students for Educational Opportunity chose the initiative process
because they believe that the California courts and legislature have
been unsympathetic to the issue of educational access. The group is
depending on a network of volunteers across more than thirty campuses
to gather the 750,000 valid signatures needed.

“We’re the only one’s out here challenging the re-segregation of
our schools,” Guerrero explained. “We have no press consultants or paid
signature collectors. We’re doing this without much money, and it is an
uphill battle getting petitions returned.

“But what’s interesting about this campaign is that there are a lot
of folks coming forward who are not leaders of organizations,” she went
on. “They are individuals who are frustrated. We’re seeing a lot of
fresh faces … folks who have never organized or been involved in
politics. This issue is politicizing them and motivating them to lead.”

If the students and their off-campus supporters miss the April 17
deadline, they may have a chance in June to file the signatures for an
election in 1999 or 2000.

Ethnic studies professor Ronald Takaki believes that there is a good chance the initiative will be placed on the ballot.

“The fight over [Proposition] 209 isn’t over. Many of us never had
confidence in the courts for resolving this issue,” Takaki said.
“[Proposition] 209 passed by 54 percent, but that’s not a wide margin.
Also, exit polls showed that people were not clear about the impact. If
Blacks and Latinos disappear from [University of California campuses],
I think this will strike many Californians as unfair, immoral, and
politically unacceptable.”

Proposition 209 banned discrimination and racial preferences
without mentioning affirmative action. Its effect on the University of
California (UC) system is becoming clear as all campuses have reported
the racial makeup of next year’s undergraduate classes. Except for
UC-Riverside, which reported an increase in African Americans and
Mexican Americans, all other campuses showed stark declines for
under-represented students.

EEOI supporters say that if Proposition 209 is unopposed, there may
be a “push-down” effect. In other words, students who under the old
rules would have gotten into the UC system will now be forced into the
California State University system. Students who would have otherwise
gone into the CSU system will then be pushed down to the community
colleges. The ultimate effect would be that the poorest students would
end up displaced completely.

Until recently, the EEOI effort hasn’t actively reached beyond the
school environment for support. Now that news of the initiative has
reached the mainstream press, unsolicited endorsements are coming in.

“The California Teacher’s Association supports us,” said Adam
Murray, the initiative’s originator. “We were at the State Democratic
convention three weekends ago and collected 1,000 signatures in
two-and-a-half days.”

In addition, he said, the United Farm Workers union has expressed
support, and Reverend Jesse Jackson was scheduled to speak on the issue
in the Los Angeles area on April 6th. The initiative is also endorsed
by the state NAACP, the American Civil Liberties Union, the Gray
Panthers, and the National Lawyers Guild.

“There are some people who won’t care about this issue, who are
comfortable in their bubbles of privilege,” said Murray, “but the
society I want to live in doesn’t live like that or look like that. I
am a White, heterosexual male and I care about diversity in the
classroom — especially in a place like Boalt Hall where people will go
on to make an impact on public policy. To exclude an entire perspective
cheapens the educational process.”

COPYRIGHT 1998 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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