Perspectives: The Battle to Preserve Fairness & Ensure Equality for All Communities

Diversity matters in an increasingly changing world that depends on people from many backgrounds and life experiences to make America’s global economy sound. Next Tuesday, the people of Colorado and Nebraska will have an opportunity to affirm this principle, and show California, Washington and Michigan that the citizens of these great states are looking toward the future.

The financial meltdown has proven that our nation needs every person from all races, ethnicities and backgrounds to contribute to the revitalization of our economy.

In 1996, 55 percent of California voters approved Proposition 209, the ballot initiative that bars the use of equal opportunity programs by state-funded educational and government institutions. Two years later a similar initiative in Washington garnered 59 percent of the vote.  Both states have suffered a rapid decline in minority enrollment and are feeling the impact in other areas of their economy as well.

The Colorado and Nebraska ballot initiatives against equal opportunity programs in higher education, public contracting and hiring —Amendment 46 and Initiative 424 — threatens the prosperity of everyone, not just people of color. Students will be hard hit, but the two states will be the greatest losers.

Back in 1961, 134,000 black students attended predominantly white colleges and universities around the country. Now millions do. This increased diversity has had a positive effect on our nation – socially, politically and economically.

But initiatives like Amendment 46 and Initiative 424 are not only a vote against fairness and opening doors to all, they undermine the possibilities yet within our reach.

Voters need to ask a simple question: If all equal opportunity programs ended today, would we have a level playing field for women, blacks, Hispanics and the chronically poor? Would programs that focus on college admissions, government contracts and employment fare better?

Equal opportunity programs under assault have made modest gains. Women and people of color are still underrepresented in contracting, college admission and employment.

Do you favor policies that reflect decades of discrimination? Or do you want to continue trying to right the system? Turning a blind eye to reality is not the answer. Pretending that there aren’t systemic problems with admissions and hiring practices won’t make those problems go away.

The California story is fundamental to understanding what could happen if Amendment 46 or Initiative 424 passes.  A year after Proposition 209 took effect, admissions of African Americans to University of California schools plummeted 12 percent from 1997 to 1998, while overall admissions rose 5 percent. Enrollment nosedived nearly 20 percent. In 1995, blacks made up 4.41 percent of the freshman class throughout the UC system, compared to 3.47 percent in 2005. 

The effects were more widely felt at UC’s top-tier schools. At UC-Berkeley, admissions of black students fell 56 percent from 1997 to 1998 and enrollment took a similar dive. In 2006, there were only 96 black students in an incoming class of more than 5,000 at UC-Los Angeles, the lowest numbers since the 1970s.

If Amendment 46 and Initiative 424 passes, equal opportunity initiatives that ensure all communities get a fair chance to compete in education and the workplace will be banned. In states that have passed similar measures, programs that were at risk include equal opportunity initiatives that ensure that all communities get a fair chance to compete in higher education and employment, domestic violence shelters, breast cancer research and screening programs, educational programs targeted to disadvantaged youth; and college scholarships/fellowships.

Simply put, the passage of Amendment 46 and Initiative 424 would mean the American Dream for millions would be deferred or worse, forgotten.

A sound rejection of the Colorado and Nebraska initiatives will not only answer opponents of equal opportunity in the state; it will also send a message across the country for today and years to come.

Gregory Cendana is vice president of the United States Student Association and is a graduate of the University of California, Los Angeles.

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