By Thuy Vu
If a state senator has his way, Californians may once again be asked to vote on an emotionally charged issue that has divided people for decades — affirmative action in higher education. State lawmakers are considering SCA5, a proposed constitutional amendment that would give voters a chance to repeal parts of Proposition 209 and restore racial and gender preference in college admissions.
In 1996, voters approved Prop. 209, which prohibits public institutions from granting preferential treatment to any group or individual in hiring, contracting and college admissions. Since then, admission offers to black students have dropped 49 percent at UC Berkeley and 16 percent at UCLA, two flagship campuses in the UC system.
State Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, author of the proposed amendment, spoke with KQED “Newsroom” about why he is seeking to reinstate affirmative action.
“If you look at the master plan for the state of California, it clearly says that our institutions should reflect the diversity of the state. It is not doing that,” Hernandez said. “If we’re going to get prepared for the next century…we have to make sure we have a diverse population, but more importantly, a diverse workforce.”
Hernandez has tried amending Prop. 209 before. When he tried changing the law at the state level, the bills were vetoed by Govs. Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
This year the overall UC system is roughly 36 percent Asian, 28 percent white, 28 percent Latino and 4 percent African-American.
The current proposal by Hernandez has drawn fierce criticism from opponents of affirmative action, and an online petition is circulating to defeat it. Some of the sharpest comments have come from Asian-Americans who fear that, despite getting good grades, Asian students will be denied spots at California’s top colleges to make room for students of other ethnicities.
“I think the petition they’re signing on to is based on a lot of misinformation,” said Hernandez. “We’ve been getting calls into our office that their kids won’t get in because now there’s going to be quota systems. That’s not true.”
A Personal View
This debate is especially interesting to me because I have personally experienced affirmative action on both sides of the fence. When I applied to UC Berkeley, well before the passage of Prop. 209, I was told by numerous people my Asian race would be a negative since Cal already had “enough Asians.” I was admitted anyway.
When I graduated, my race would once again be a focal point. I was applying for my first professional job, and my ethnicity made me eligible to apply for a “diversity fellowship” at KQED Radio for a one-year reporting stint. Nearly 100 people applied, and I was offered the job.
That was nearly 20 years ago, when there were far fewer Asian-Americans in the media. It was, and still is, a profession that needs to be diverse to effectively serve an increasingly diverse population. My experiences illustrate the complexity of the debate over affirmative action. When does it work? When does it fail? How do we go about creating equal opportunity when the roots of inequality are deep and not necessarily color-blind?
The Senate has already passed the constitutional amendment by Sen. Hernandez. Next steps include whether the Assembly will take it up and where voters stand if it gets to the ballot box.
Thuy Vu is the host of KQED “NEWSROOM,” a weekly news magazine program on television, radio and online. Watch Fridays at 8 p.m. on KQED Public Television 9, listen on Sundays at 6 p.m. on KQED Public Radio 88.5 FM and watch on demand here.