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California faces a watershed election issue – Proposition 209

A bottle — and rock-throwing melee at a California college last month returned the spotlight to the state’s initiative to end affirmative action.


The confrontation was between supporters and opponents of the “California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI),” or Proposition 209, a ballot measure which will be decided by California voters on November 5. It occurred outside the building at California State University-Northridge housing a debate between former Klan member David Duke — arguing for the initiative — and civil rights activist Joe Hicks — arguing against.


The point of Proposition 209 is to wipe out all affirmative action programs for women and minorities in state government — including state colleges and universities. Leading in the polls by about 17 points, it is expected to pass easily in the Nov. 5 election, a result that could affect affirmative action throughout the nation.


Adding to the controversy of the campaign is the outspoken, tough-guy chair of the CCRI campaign, Ward Connerly, a well-to-do African-American businessman and University of California regent, who is a close friend and financial backer of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. Connerly, who led the successful fight to abolish affirmative action from the University of California system last year, argues that race- and gender-based affirmative action discriminates against white males and is inherently divisive and unconstitutional.


Opponents of the measure say that racism and sexism is still pervasive and that dismantling specific mechanisms for eliminating discrimination will turn back the clock on gains made by women and minorities over the past three decades.

The proposition reads in part: “The state shall not discriminate against or grant preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operating of public employment, public education or public contracting.” if passed. it would


abolish all goals and timetables for increaasing the number of women and minorities in public jobs, colleges and universities, and government contracts:


end public contract set-aside programs for business owned by people of color and white women;


outlaw all special recruitment efforts by public schools and jobs to hire people of color and white women; and


end scholarships aimed at people of color and diversity programs at state schools. Some argue that it would even eliminate magnet schools.

The Vocal Opposition


Opponents fear that an endless possibility of backlash exists if the measure passes, and most civil rights leaders and women’s rights activist groups — including the National Organization for Women (NOW), the Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), the Feminist Majority, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), and numerous businesses — have come out against it.


In the middle of October, the presidents of 105 community colleges, private colleges, and universities across the state denounced Proposition 209 as a threat to participation by minorities and women in higher education and a “death sentence to outreach and tutoring programs that target underrepresented groups.”


Proposition 209 would be “an enormous blow to outreach programs, educators and students across the state who believe in diversity and the importance of fostering a broad spectrum of perspectives on campus,” said John Maguire, president of the Claremont Graduate School.


“Without programs to ensure that women and minorities have an equal opportunity to compete and succeed in colleges and in the workplace, our economy and our society will suffer,” said Augustine Gallego, chancellor of the San Diego Community College District. “A healthy and prosperous California depends upon a well-trained workforce, and the largest and fastest growing share of new labor market entrants are women and minorities. “


The presidents, who spoke as individuals and not necessarily for their institutions, said that they believe that Proposition 209 will cause college enrollment by African Americans and Latinos to plummet.


According to Read Scott-Martin, communication director for the Campaign to Defeat 209, relatively little money is being spent on both sides of the campaign and people are focusing on the issue very late. “What we are looking at is a very late campaign that only got started the day that David Duke arrived on campus,” said Scott-Martin.


He attributes the measure’s lead in the polls to confusion on the intent of the measure caused by the use of the words “civil rights” in the name of the initiative. “When people understand that the measure eliminates affirmative action, they oppose it,” he says. “The more people know about it the more uncertain they are about it. That’s a favorable prescription for us.”


His campaign expected about $6 million and has raised only $2 million, which will be spent for TV and radio ads running in late October through the election. The California Democractic party has given resources but little money to defeat 209, he said. “If the Republican Party had not contributed $700,000, the CCRI campaign would be broke,” he said.


Scott-Martin says that unless CCRI gets another infusion of money it won’t be able to compete with his last-minute media blitz. But the eleventh-hour opposition to this measure is probably too late, even with the nationally televised statements against it by Vice President Gore and Colin Powell, the former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.


“Something Unfair Going On” in College Admissions “There is a belief on the part of the people in California that there is something unfair going on, particularly with admissions to the University,” says Assemblywoman Marguerite Archie-Hudson (D-Los Angeles), former chairwoman of the Assembly’s Higher Education Committee.


“The fundamental issue is this,” says Archie-Hudson. “The state law says that in admissions at institutions of higher education, there is a specific set of criteria that everyone must meet A student must have a 2.8 GPA (grade point average), must have taken certain requirements which are math and science and English, and must have taken the SAT and ACT. Once a student meets those criteria, that student has to be admitted to UC. Students with a 2.8 and 4.0 are all part of the same qualified pool and campuses can pull anybody from there that they want to.”


The University of California sets aside 6 percent of its slots for students who don’t meet those requirements, provided they meet additional criteria such as having artistic talent or athletic ability, being children of alumni or graduating from rural schools. Proposition 209 would permit those exceptions to be made hut would eliminate gender and race considerations.


Such considerations are already on the way out in the UC system. Spearheaded by Connerly, the regents ordered an end to the practice last July, and the campuses are developing new admissions standards beginning with the 1998 entering classes.


Before the controversial UC Regents decision to eliminate affirmative action, the UC system gave extra points to African Americans, Latinos and Native Americans who were qualified for UC, but did not have high enough GPAs to gain admissions to UCLA or Berkeley, the two most competitive campuses.


In the latest statistics, for 1994, African Americans, who are 7.4 percent of the population of California, accounted for 4.3 percent of the freshman class entering the UC system — 1,347 students out of a total 3 2, 377.


“Those percentages have not changed in eight years,” says Hudson. “To say we are overrun with Blacks and Latinos is stupid. Of professors who are tenure track at UC, 94 percent are white males.” Connerly, 55, argues that racial “preferences” foment hostilities and that it would be fairer to consider socio-economic status rather than race and gender. Nothing in Proposition 209 would prevent schools from outreach, he says, just as long as there was no special treatment given to people based on race or sex.


“They (opponents of the measure) believe that discrimination is the remedy for discrimination,” Connerly says. “They are obsessed with ridding the country of prejudice disguised as quotas and timetables filling the nation with even more prejudice.”


Connerly, who lost his mother at age four and grew up in a very poor area in Sacramento, left employment in state government to start a land-use consulting business on the advice of Wilson. Critics charge that he gained several high-ranking appointments by Wilson because he is Black. But Connerly says patronage appointments are different from employment opportunities and college admissions. He says affirmative action is being used by some minorities as a crutch which imbues them and whites with an attitude that they are inferior and can’t compete.


“I sort of reject the rationale that we have to compensate for past discrimination anymore,” he says. “There reaches a point where the debt is paid. It’s a political decision as to how long it takes to pay the debt. I’m saying 30 years of race-based affirmative action is probably long enough.


“I believe that the only way we are going to snake the rest of the journey is to try to win the hearts and souls of white America and everybody else in this nation,” Connerly continues. “You can’t snake somebody like you. I believe with every bone in my body that we have gone as far as we can with programs which legislate with numbers.”


Numbers tell the story Recent UC projections obtained by the Sacramento Bee predicted that enrollment among African Americans and Latinos could drop by half or more at UC’s top campuses if 209 passes.


Connerly called the projections “scare tactics” and “flawed” because they did not account for other UC’s recruitment efforts and new admissions standards that will give preference to applicants with a low socio-economic status. But many of California’s top educators are not convinced.


“The effects [of the regents’ policy] and Proposition 209 on the enrollment of African-American, Chicano-Latino, and Native-American students at Berkeley will be profound,” said Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien in a recent confidential memo. Donald Gerth, the president of California State University, Sacramento and presidents at several other campuses in the state system also have publicly voiced their opposition.


Still, Connerly argues passionately that affirmative action for women and minorities has reached the “point of diminishing returns” and that “preferences” in affirmative action have created ill-will and a backlash from white males. Connerly, who donated $100,000 to Wilson’s ill-fated bid for the presidency, repeatedly refers to the measure as a “defining moment in history.” He says that history will show him to be on the right side of this debate.


But to some critics, he is little more than a pawn in the hands of powerful whites behind the scenes who seek to put a “Black face on a white issue.” “You cannot take a position (in favor of Proposition 209) without being called a sell-out or an Uncle Tom,” Connerly said at a recent debate before the Comstock business club in Sacramento. “Race is seeping out of every pore in this state. We have to eliminate this obsession we have with race.”


But, David Oppenheimer believes race is the core issue. “The explanation for this bill is purely racism and sexism,” said Oppenheimer, a law professor at Golden Gate University in San Francisco and author of a major study on affirmative action and discrimination published Oct. 7 in the Hastings Constitutional law Quarterly. The study presents the details of more than 100 other studies and demonstrates the prevalence of discrimination against women and minorities in the areas of education, employment, housing, health care, economic opportunity and the criminal justice system.


“The only justification for ending affirmative action as a remedy against past discrimination is if it can be proven that discrimination has ended,” says Oppenheimer. “If people honestly look at the facts, it’s clear that discrimination against women and minority groups is pervasive. And to suggest that discrimination is a thing of the past is laughable — if it were not so painful.”


The attack on affirmative action in California has national import because — as House Speaker New Gingrich (R-Ga.) has been quoted as saying — “the winds of change start in the West and blow East. “


The Backers of the Initiative


In a twenty-minute, September teleconference with Wilson and dozens of state business executives, and overheard l by Los Angeles Daily News reporter Rick Orlov, Gingrich explained his support for the measure as a way to mobilize Republican energy and the reason the business executives should support it financially.


“From my vantage point,” Gingrich said, “the California Civil Rights Initiative is vital because we have to be competitive in California to keep control of the House…. I think this is as important as any single resource in the campaign.” The bill was authored by Tom Wood and Glynn Custred, who are members of the conservative California Association of Scholars.


Howard Ahmanson, heir to the Home Savings fortune, is CCRI’s primary individual campaign contributor, donating $75,000 to the CCRI campaign, according to campaign contribution statements filed with the state for the period between Jan. 1 and March 31. Two weeks later, he contributed an additional $100,000.


Reported contributions to CCRI by Pittsburgh publishing magnate Richard Mellon Scaife, heir to the Mellon fortune, total $50,000 to date, according to campaign finance records.


Anthony Platt, a professor of social work at California State-Sacramento and author of numerous articles on civil rights and affirmative action, recently organized a “Day of Dialogue” on Proposition 209 at California State-Stanislaus.


“It’s a very mean-spirited moment of history that we are right smack in the middle of. I was an affirmative action hire. I made it into UC-Berkeley when there was institutional racism,” says Platt, a white native of England who taught at UC-Berkeley for eight years before moving to CSUS. “I graduated from Oxford and everybody was white when I came to the school. All of us were able to do this without being engaged in full competition with students of color and women.


“We have just began to change the structure and policy, color and gender of a place like the universities and this will take us back to the pre-civil rights era. We have had 16-1/2 generations of organized white supremacy and segregation and one generation…to try to change the culture of racism and transform these institutions. And just when we begin to make these changes, remedies started to be abandoned. The little that is left of affirmative action will be destroyed by 209.”


Fahizah Alim is a columnist with the Sacramento Bee.


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