California Voters Have the Opportunity to Put Proposition 209 on the Trash Heap of History

In 1996 voters in California passed Proposition 209 which banned the consideration of race in admissions decisions at California’s state-operated colleges and universities. Nearly 55 percent of state voters approved the measure. Immediately after the ban on race-sensitive admissions was enacted, Black enrollments at the most prestigious campuses of the University of California plummeted. And today, nearly a quarter century later, Black enrollments at these campuses remains far below the level that existed prior to Proposition 209.

Over the past 24 years, several efforts have been made to overturn Proposition 209 in the legislature and through litigation, but nothing has succeeded. There has been widespread opposition in the Asian American community in California because it is presumed that large numbers of Asian students will be denied admission to the most prestigious campuses to make room for more Black and Latino/a students. Asian Americans make up about 15 percent of the California population but Asian Americans make up 35 percent of the undergraduate student body at the flagship campus of the University of California, Berkeley.

But now the California legislature has voted to place a referendum on the November 3 ballot that would once again allow public universities in the state to consider race in their admissions decisions. The State Senate passed the measure by a vote of 30-10, following approval by State Assembly by a vote of 60-14.

Janet Napolitano, president of the University of California, stated that “it makes little sense to exclude any consideration of race in admissions when the aim of the university’s holistic process is to fully understand and evaluate each applicant through multiple dimensions. Proposition 209 has forced California public institutions to try to address racial inequality without factoring in race, even where allowed by federal law. The diversity of our university and higher education institutions across California, should — and must — represent the rich diversity of our state.”

If the measure is approved by voters – and most observers believe that it will be – the state’s public universities must still adhere to the “narrowly tailored” provision of the Supreme Court’s Grutter decision, which was handed down eight years after Proposition 209 was enacted. Conservative litigation groups undoubtedly will keep a close eye on admission rates and initiate lawsuits if in their opinion the state universities push their new powers to consider race too far.

As a result, repealing Proposition 209 will in all probability increase Black enrollments at public universities in California, but they may not rebound to the level that existed prior to the passage of Proposition 209.

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