Affirmative action policies began in response to the 1960s and ’70s civil rights movement but remained a point of contention nationally.
Now in California, the Berkeley-based civil rights activist group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) filed a federal lawsuit in order to increase the number of African American, Latino and Native American students at the University of California.
The lawsuit against Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, the University of California Board of Regents and University of California President Mark Yudof seeks to reverse Proposition 209.
In 1996 California voters approved the Prop 209 constitutional amendment, which banned government institutions from using race as a consideration to increase the numbers of underrepresented minorities who are employed by the government or attend public universities.
Since then, African American, Native American and Latino admissions have dropped across the UC system. In fall 2009 African American students comprised 4.2 percent of freshman admissions, Latinos 23 percent, and Native Americans only 0.7 percent of total UC admissions. At UC Davis, all three groups combined made up approximately 21 percent of the school’s freshman admissions, according to UC Office of the President admissions records.
Attorneys George Washington and Shanta Driver are the heads of a legal team representing BAMN, while UC Berkeley law school graduate and civil rights attorney Ronald Cruz will also be working with BAMN on the case.
“Proposition 209 has created a regime of de facto segregation in the UC system,” Cruz said. “Faculty and chancellors of the different campuses have spent years devising ways to increase underrepresented minority enrollment without considering race … but none of them have had more than a minor effect on the fundamental trend of resegregation … Racist stigma of intellectual inferiority predates affirmative action and has only gotten worse after its elimination.”
Cruz added that African American enrollment at UC San Diego has dropped to 1 percent.
The movement to amend the California Constitution and ban affirmative action was led by UC Regent Ward Connerly who chaired the 1995 campaign to bring Prop 209 to ballot.
Connerly said it is the affirmative action policies that are actually racist. By using race as a consideration at all, the progress of the civil rights movement toward a color-blind society is threatened, he said.
“Proposition 209 is in essence the same language as the 1964 civil rights act,” Connerly said, referring to the 1964 federal legislation which banned Jim Crow laws.
Connerly is the founder and president of the American Civil Rights Institute, (ACRI), a Sacramento-based organization that has also worked to end affirmative action in other states by introducing similar legislation.
Proposition 209 has been challenged directly in California before. In 1997 the Ninth District Court of Appeals refused to hear the case, leaving proposition Proposition 209 unchallenged until now.
“This is basically the same lawsuit that was filed in 1997. The Ninth Circuit Court, which is very liberal, laughed at [the lawsuit],” he said. “They found that it was impossible that an initiative that guaranteed equality somehow runs amok of the 14th amendment. BAMN is probably one of the biggest enemies of civil rights today. They turn logic on its head. I don’t want to call individuals’ names, but the group is despicable.”
UC Office of the President spokesperson Ricardo Vasquez said the university system will continue to reach out to minority students through a number of student aid programs.
“Though it’s too early in the process for a response about the merits of the suit challenging Proposition 209 we have a general comment: it’s the law,” Vasquez said. “If this opens up another discussion, that’s all well and good, but, as long Proposition 209 is the law, we’re obliged to follow it.”
SAMUEL A. COHEN can be reached at email@example.com.