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Affirmative Action Crucible: UCLA Reluctant to Give Up Gains in Diversity

By Sam WalkerStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 6, 1995


THE student body at the University of California Los Angeles is one of the world's most colorful. Asians, blacks, whites, Latinos, and native Americans mingle on this sun-soaked campus like unwitting participants in a living tribute to Martin Luther King Jr.

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But the aura of racial harmony here does not win applause from all quarters. UCLA and other UC schools are under attack for an admissions policy designed to ensure such diversity.

The attack is part of a larger effort initiated by two academics at UC Berkeley to eliminate affirm-ative action in California. A referendum is likely to be on the 1996 ballot here; and a similar bill awaits consideration in the California Assembly.

The debate is reverberating nationwide, with other states and President Clinton also starting to review affirmative-action programs. The debate will determine not only who attends UCLA in coming years, but also how soon America's underprivileged minorities will achieve economic power to match their swelling numbers.

''I think this is the beginning of a showdown at the OK Corral over the issue of race in this country,'' says UC regent Ward Connerly. ''And I think it's about time.''

The current maelstrom centers around an admissions policy that has governed the seven-campus UC system since 1980. The policy stipulates that no more than 60 percent of UC admissions can be based solely on academic achievement. The remaining 40 percent of acceptances are granted on the basis of academics and a combination of ''supplemental criteria.''

UC officials say these include economic background, age, physical disability, extracurricular activities, work experience, race, ethnicity, and whether a student is the first in his or her family to attend college.

Supreme Court ruling

This policy was designed following the US Supreme Court ruling in 1978 that race could not be the decisive factor in granting or denying college admissions. Many Californians, however, including Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, say the UC policy still allows admissions boards to engage in decisionmaking based on race.

''We haven't yet achieved the ideal of a truly colorblind meritocracy, and we must do so,'' Governor Wilson said last month. ''It's not right or fair to replace one form of discrimination with another.''

Polls show that 73 percent of Californians agree. If anti-affirmative-action measures succeed, the state would be prohibited from using ''race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin'' as factors in granting state jobs, contracts, and college admissions.

Supporters of the measures argue that the policy has strayed from its intent to help African-Americans and now encompasses almost every group but white males.

''Women alone make up more than half the population,'' says Mr. Connerly. ''Add all the racial and ethnic groups and you're talking about protecting 70 percent of California's population. It's no wonder we're seeing such seething anger.''

While Connerly, who is black, credits affirmative action with bringing minorities along faster, he says it has also ''created a lot of resentment and made the credentials of all blacks in powerful positions somehow suspect.''

The civil rights movement succeeded in the past, he says, because it maintained the moral high ground. Now, he argues, the movement's insistence on affirmative action has begun to violate the basic belief in fairness that most Americans share.

Instead of affirmative action, he says, minorities should press for tougher anti-discrimination laws and advocate preferences based on ''economic disadvantage.''

Yet the UCLA administration remains unconvinced that the school's diversity program needs revamping.

''Affirmative action is not about redressing past wrongs or atonement for slavery,'' said longtime UCLA Chancellor Charles Young in an interview. ''And it's not something we give to other people. It's something we do for ourselves.''