The class of 2003 at UC Berkeley’s Boalt Law School has finally enrolled. Minority numbers, which plummeted after the UC Board of Regents banned affirmative action from admission decisions in 1997, rose slightly from 22 percent to 29 percent. The small increase was due primarily to a rise in students of Asian and Pacific Islander descent.
However, the small rise still falls much lower than pre-1997 numbers when 37 percent of enrolled students were of non-white heritage.
According to Kevin Nguyen, spokesperson for UC Regent Ward Connerly, the small increase demonstrates that changed admission standards have spurred academic excellence in the K-12 school systems. Connerly, a controversial figure, chaired the California Civil Rights Initiative, which campaigned for the passage of Proposition 209 banning what proponents call “racial preferences.”
“Race preferences padded admissions.” says Nguyen. “Before the race ban, it was much easier for policy makers to grant a preference as opposed to investing in our K-12 programs and allowing students to compete naturally. Once we got away from automatic preference based on the presumption of social disadvantage, all students were able to compete vigorously in the new academic environment,” says Nguyen.
According to statistics provided by the university’s Public Affairs Office, in the four years since Prop. 209 passed, Native American enrolled students dropped 74 percent, African-Americans experienced a 72 percent drop, Latinos a 45 percent drop, while Asians gained 8 percent and whites 1 percent, when compared to affirmative action-era numbers. Specifically, blacks accounted for 7.75 percent of enrolled students at Boalt in the two years before Prop. 209 passed. In the four years since the passage of Prop. 209, blacks dropped to 2.15 percent of the student population. Native Americans, who were at 1.7 percent of enrolled students pre-209, tumbled to 0.45 percent and Latinos fell from 12.05 percent to 6.6 percent of enrollees.
At the same time, Asians grew from 15.5 percent to 16.8 percent, and whites from 52.55 percent to 53.15 percent of total enrolled students.
Bernida Reagan, executive director of the East Bay Community Law Center, the community-based component of Boalt’s program, claims that the drastic drops resulted from changed admission standards that left the unlevel playing field of education completely out of the equation.
“Prop 209 encourages wealth disparity and digital divide issues because it closes the door to people who don’t already have access to opportunity. When all you consider is GPA and LSAT scores in the admission process, those are factors which people of color don’t have opportunities to succeed in at the same level as whites,” says Reagan. “The result is fewer blacks and Latinos getting into Boalt these days.”
Nguyen disagrees. “The steep drops were indicative of the admission scale that was used for many years. It created artificial levels of admission not based on merit.”
Regardless, the consequences of fewer black and Latino law students is felt every day at Reagan’s clinic. Before Prop. 209, more students of color would come to her clinic to work with underserved communities. Now, she claims, “public work seems to be considered less important as students of color feel they have to compete for the corporate jobs, and the more mainstream issues that have little to do with their race.”
And as fewer students opt for social justice work, the issues of the under-represented get
“With less students to do the work,” says Reagan, “living wage, rent control, minority contracting, and immigration issues fall to the wayside.”
She characterizes Prop. 209 as a harsh expression of hostility to the gains that people of color made during the Civil Rights Era.
“It feels like things we took for granted in the ’70s and ’80s, all the gains of the civil rights era, people have become hostile to. It’s very possible that the largest number of civil rights cases have become reverse discrimination suits,” says Reagan.
“Think about it,” she said. “Schools should represent the populations they serve. If that’s not happening, we have to take a look at their admission policies and ask why that’s not the case. We’re at a point where we’re just trying to hold into the things that we have, and that’s a tough situation.”