View of Post-Affirmative-Action America

New University of California statistics show dramatic drop in minorities admissions.

For the past 16 months, California's charge into a post-affirmative-action era has been more word than action. Voters approved an end to racial preferences in public institutions in 1996, but the practice of hiring, contracting, and school admission remained largely unchanged.

No more. This week, the University of California at Berkeley, the state's preeminent public university, announced a dramatic decline in the number of minorities, other than Asians, admitted to this fall's freshman class.

Though the full weight of the initiative's impact remains years away, these figures mark the beginning of a transition from theory to practice - a process that will impact the politics of anti-affirmative action nationwide.

Already, with the emergence of the first faint changes in California, supporters of affirmative action are pointing to the loss of diversity on campus as one of the dangers of destroying racial preferences. Critics, however, say that the new admissions numbers only show how unbalanced and unfair the system had become with preferential treatments.

The differing perceptions are important. With neither major political party yet openly championing the cause of dismantling affirmative action, the future of the movement lies in the hands of the courts and grass-roots initiatives, like the one that has put the issue on the Washington State ballot this November. Thus, California's experience will affect how support for the movement evolves across the country.

But for now, the 1996 initiative - called Proposition 209 - is changing the face of public universities in the Golden State. Applying its new race-blind admissions policy, Berkeley accepted fewer than half the number of African-Americans, Latinos, and American Indians admitted last year.

Most other UC campuses have also reported declines in minority admissions, though a few of the less-prestigious campuses had increases in some categories.

Berkeley chancellor Robert Berdahl said he was "very disappointed" the incoming class would not match the diversity of the state because "I believe that students learn from each other as much as they do from their classes and professors."

For those who led the charge to dismantle affirmative action, the numbers told a different story. "They're just confirmation of how screwed up the system was," says Ward Connerly, a UC regent and leader of the anti-affirmative-action movement. He points out that all eligible UC applicants, defined as the top 12.5 percent of the state's graduating high-schoolers, will be admitted to one of the UC's nine campuses. If there is a "reapportionment" of the eligible minorities to the less prestigious campuses, that's the way the system should work, he insists.

Critics say the number of minorities overall will certainly decline, and those who remain will be, in effect, "resegregated" to the least-favorable campuses.

To soften the decline in minority admissions, a number of campuses have given more weight to application criteria beyond grades and test scores and have also expanded their outreach programs. Still, the minority pool is well below what the university would like.

Beyond the university system, Prop. 209 also made any preferential treatment in public hiring or contracting unconstitutional. But in those areas the only action has been in the courts.

Last month, Gov. Pete Wilson (R) terminated a primary state affirmative-action law after a lengthy court battle. State contracts can no longer be awarded with numerical racial and gender targets. He is also seeking to have a state court overturn four other key state statutes dealing with contracting and employment.

Opponents of affirmative action say the stage is now set for broad implementation of Prop. 209 among state agencies, which can only ignore affirmative-action laws after they are declared unconstitutional..

At the city and county levels, however, there has been no legal hindrance to complying. And while cities such as San Jose and San Francisco have said they are already in compliance, critics say there is broad institutional resistance that only an explicit court directive will change.

"We're extremely disappointed.... Municipalities have the clear authority ... to comply and haven't done so," says Michele Justin, an attorney for the conservative Pacific Legal Foundation.

Pacific Legal sued the city of San Jose for its contracting program and won in state court. The city has appealed the decision, and the case is widely regarded as a test case for what local governments must do - and not do - to obey 209.

"It took us 30 years to get where we are. There is such an economic interest in maintaining the status quo, it'll take us three to five years to get ... turned around," says Mr. Connerly

Opponents will spend the next few years trying to reverse Prop. 209 at the ballot box. For example, Ron Takaki, a professor in Berkeley's ethnic studies department, is attempting to get an initiative on the ballot in 2000 to, in effect, repeal it.

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