Education

California Democrats Want to Bring Racial Preferences Back

Students on the UCLA campus in 2009. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)
In 1996, Californians voted to end racial preferences at state universities. The Left has been fighting to restore them ever since.

Rather than focus on COVID-19 or the economic recovery, California liberals insist on pushing their pet issues. The “stimulus” bill rammed through the House this month by Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco was a liberal wish list of subsidies and spending. Now other California Democrats are ramming through an effort to repeal the state’s ban on racial preferences.

Two things often happen when a single political party dominates a state the way Democrats dominate California. First, an echo chamber of the dominant party convinces its leaders they can steamroll over any opposition. Second, that conviction leads to political overreach.

Caucasian Americans are now only 19 percent of UC students, down from 38 percent a quarter century ago — this change reflects the increasing ethnic diversity of Californians .

Next month, Golden State Democrats plan to use the two-thirds control they have in the legislature to push through a November ballot measure asking voters to end the ban on racial preferences.

They should remember what happened when this was attempted before. Last year, liberals in Washington State used a similar route to repeal that state’s version of Proposition 209, which had passed with 58 percent in 1998. Liberals vastly outspent opponents and won endorsements from leading establishment figures. But they still lost, as voters rejected preferential treatment 51 to 49 percent. Retrying that strategy in a highly visible California referendum would be dicey.

That’s also what California Democrats themselves concluded back in 2014.

The alternative — racial discrimination — is a sordid business. A lawsuit filed by Asian Americans against Harvard University has revealed just how arbitrary and subjective its admissions process really is. Asian-American voters are well aware their children face a rigged system at universities that don’t have Proposition 209 protections. Preferential treatment for some groups necessarily means discrimination against others.

All of this is likely to be exposed during any debate over ACA-5 — the California bill to repeal Prop 209. Asian-Americans will take the lead in opposing ACA-5, but a nationwide Pew Research poll last year found that majorities of all racial and ethnic groups say colleges should not consider race in admissions. Among Asian Americans, the opposition is 2 to 1 against.

In California, 14 percent of eligible voters are now Asian Americans (nationwide the number is 5 percent). By 2050, Asian Americans will account for a tenth of the nation’s voters and at least a fifth of California voters, according to Taeku Lee, a UC Berkeley scholar and a co-author of the National Asian American Survey.

Unusually high numbers of Asian Americans are neither Republicans nor Democrats. In California, about 40 percent are independents — the classic swing voter. In 2018, their swing to the Democrats was behind the party’s narrow capture of several ancestrally Republican House seats in Orange and Los Angeles Counties.

But they can swing back, as the special-election victory by Republican Mike Garcia for a vacant House seat in Los Angeles proved this month. Garcia won a ten-point victory, including a majority of independents.

“We’ve seen a lot more suspicion of liberal motives among Asians in Washington state since last year’s attempt to kill color-blind policies here,” John Carlson, a Seattle talk-show host and the original sponsor of Washington state’s color-blind college admission policy, told me. “People also know the liberals can now be beaten.”

Should liberals in California ignore the experience of their Washington State counterparts and push for the return of racial quotas, they will be stepping into a hornet’s nest.

While Asian Americans are a seventh of Californians, they represent 40 percent of University of California students.

“Those numbers are why bringing this issue forward now would inevitably divide Californians racially: Latino Americans and African Americans on one side, Asian Americans on the other,” former California congressman Tom Campbell, now an independent, wrote in the Orange County Register. “The politics are inescapably racial.”

California doesn’t need a new flare-up of racial division. Proposition 209 is working. As Richard Sander and Stuart Taylor Jr. show in their 2012 book, Mismatch: How Affirmative Action Hurts Students It’s Intended to Help, and Why Universities Won’t Admit It, Proposition 209, in the years immediately after its passage, had three effects on underrepresented minorities in the UC system. It increased 1) graduation rates, 2) grade-point averages, and 3) the number of science or engineering majors.

It’s true that some minority students shifted from the most elite UC campuses to other campuses. But as Gail Heriot, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, noted in a piece for RealClearPolitics: “Happily, ‘matching’ students to the right institution made improvement possible on all three fronts. . . . . California legislators want to throw all that away and bring back an ugly spoils system.”

Many universities — fueled by white guilt – have long ignored the Civil Rights Act’s prohibitions on race discrimination. But we now know there are hidden nonwhite victims of that guilt, whether they be minorities who often drop out if mismatched with the wrong university or Asian Americans denied admission on the merits.

When Justice Sandra Day O’Connor provided the critical vote upholding the constitutionality of the University of Michigan’s racial preferences in 2003, she wrote that the Court expected that affirmative action would need to continue for only another quarter-century.

Liberals in California’s one-party state are on an ideological crusade to continue a racial spoils system forever. They should realize how much of the country disagrees with them and how the politics of the issue could once again surprise them and blow up in their face.

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