An Appearance of Discrimination

Proposition 209 in California abolished state-sponsored affirmative-action programs; affirmative-action in admissions for the University of California and the California State University had been eliminated earlier by a vote of the board of regents. The first reported results of the new policy were for law school admissions within the UC system, and they showed modest to drastic decreases in minority admissions; later results for other graduate and undergraduate programs showed smaller, but still significant, decreases. While those who unequivocally favor affirmative action insisted that the results proved the folly of proposition 209, I and others believe they are more properly viewed as an indicator of how ineffective affirmative action has been at addressing the problems underlying poor minority enrollment and achievement.

This essay was submitted to the San Francisco Chronicle and the San Jose Mercury News but was never published. In one part, I question whether the poor admission statistics were exacerbated by a decrease in applications — information which was not reported until some time later. It turns out that such a decrease is not obvious, but the data on both applications and admissions are somewhat ambiguous because the number of applicants declining to state any racial affiliation has increased sharply, making it more difficult to determine the actual racial statistics for either applicants or admits.

18 May 1997

According to a report released this week by the University of California and widely reported in the local media, the acceptance — and presumably the ultimate enrollment — of “underrepresented” minorities into the UC Berkeley law school has dropped by 80% in the first round of admissions after passage of Proposition 209, the ban on government affirmative action programs. Other UC law schools reported similar, if smaller, decreases. Law school administrators and advocates for minorities quickly laid the blame directly and unambiguously on Proposition 209, and cited this as evidence that the proposition should be overturned and affirmative action programs reinstated.

On the surface, it seems a reasonable conclusion. There are, however, questions which were not answered by press reports of the announcement but which bear directly on whether we should accept or reject the simplistic explanation that has been offered:

How do offers of admission compare to applications for admission? Are minority applicants being accepted at a lower rate, or are minorities merely applying at a lower rate?

If it is applications which have declined, we should examine the cause before proposing a solution. It is possible, but unlikely, that the prospect of becoming a lawyer has suddenly fallen out of favor among minority college graduates; if so, it is not a problem but a blessing that so much of that talent will be redirected into more productive endeavors.

It is, however, also possible that potential minority applicants have been deterred from applying by a perception of bias against them. If so, the problem would seem to be as much with the opponents of Proposition 209 — who have vigorously reinforced the notion, asserted but unproven, that minority applicants cannot and will not be treated fairly by the UC admissions process — as with Proposition 209 itself. If significantly more potential minority applicants feel they will be passed over because of their skin color or gender, might that not be because of the many civil rights activists and UC administrators and liberal politicians — those who purport to defend minority interests — that have said frequently and passionately that it is so? And shouldn’t those activists and administrators and politicians, rather than wringing their hands about the unfairness of it all, be expending their energies recruiting those applicants, convincing them that is it better to try and hope than to give up and sink into a self-fulfilling despair?

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