California Torpedoes Affirmative Action

The passage of Proposition 209 could havedire consequences across the country

Voters in California recently passed the California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) by a comfortable margin (54% to 46%). The CCRI prohibits consideration of race, gender or ethnicity in all areas of the state’s system of public employment, education and contracting. (Shortly after the vote, U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson issued a temporary restraining order preventing enforcement of the initiative. It now appears the matter may be headed to the U.S. Supreme Court.) A specific target of this initiative is the admissions policies of the University of California system, including the schools of law and medicine. And this may be just the beginning, since similar initiatives have been proposed in other states. If these CCRI clones are passed, admission policies that consider the race or ethnicity of an applicant could soon be a thing of the past in publicly funded colleges and universities.

The popularity of the CCRI in California derives, in part, from three common myths about the initiative and affirmative action, as practiced in university admissions.

Myth one: Affirmative action requires the use of racial quotas. This type of affirmative action was illegal long before the passage of the CCRI.

Myth two: Affirmative action results in the admissions of a larger number of unqualified students. In fact, California state law mandates that only the top 12.5% of graduating high school seniors are eligible to be admitted to a University of California (UC) campus. Ninety-five percent of the students admitted to each UC campus must meet this standard. The 5% who don’t are typically talented artists, athletes, and musicians. At UCLA, the majority of students admitted by exception were white.

Myth three: CCRI eliminates affirmative action policies that establish quotas or that admit students otherwise ineligible for admissions. However, the impact of the CCRI is much broader. Under the CCRI, an admissions officer, faced with two candidates who offer identical academic credentials, could not choose the African American female over the white male, in the interest of achieving campus diversity. Indeed, if the African American female is admitted in preference to the white male, the burden of proof could fall on the admissions officer to show that race was not a factor in the decision.

What are the economic and social ramifications of ending affirmative action in university admissions? For minority undergraduates, the short- term effects will not be dramatic. The total number of African American students admitted to the most selective UC campuses was small, even under pre-CCRI admissions policies. Since all of the students admitted under the old policy are eligible for university admissions, there is, in principle, a place for them at other UC campuses.

But there are fewer options available to the students denied admission to a publicly funded law or medical school. The end of race-based affirmative action in professional schools is likely, in the long run, to reduce the supply of African American physicians and lawyers. This could have dire consequences for the African American community, particularly in the field of medicine. On average, black physicians care for nearly

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