Legislation to allow affirmative action in California colleges halted

In response to backlash from certain community groups, California voters will not vote on a constitutional amendment aiming to allow race, gender and ethnicity to be considered in college admissions for California public higher education institutions in the upcoming election.

California Assembly Speaker John A. Perez announced on March 17 that Senate Constitutional Amendment 5 (SCA 5) would be sent back to the Senate due to a request by the bill’s author, Sen. Ed Hernandez (D-West Covina).

In a joint statement, Sen. Hernandez and Speaker Perez announced that they would be creating a bicameral commission to hold hearings tasked with moving forward policy proposals to increase access and opportunity to public colleges and universities.

“We hope to reach out to an administration and student representative from each of the higher education segments, legislators from both chambers and both parties, and public stakeholders that have expertise on issues, such as constitutional law, human rights, higher education, discrimination, civil justice and workforce supply,” Hernandez said in an email.

The move to halt the bill came after certain constituents — for example, some members of the Asian American community — expressed concerns that the bill would unfairly ostracize them in the college admissions process.

Three Asian American state senators — Ted Lieu (D-Torrance), Carol Liu (D-La Canada Flintridge) and former senator Leland Yee (D-San Francisco) — wrote a letter to Sen. Hernandez in response. They urged Hernandez to halt SCA 5 until he had a chance to address those concerns and meet with the affected communities.

“Prior to the vote on SCA 5 in the Senate, we heard no opposition to the bill. However … we have heard from thousands of people throughout California voicing their concerns about the potential impacts,” the letter stated. “As lifelong advocates for the Asian American and other communities, we would never support a policy that we believed would negatively impact our children.”

SCA 5 would repeal Proposition 209, a 1996 ballot initiative that prohibits the consideration of race, sex or ethnicity in state institutions. SCA 5 passed senate on Jan. 30 on a democratic two-thirds supermajority.

SCA 5 has been sent back to the Senate indefinitely, while the bicameral commission holds public hearings. If the legislation passes the Senate and Assembly, SCA 5 would be put before voters as a ballot measure. Hernandez said he aims for SCA 5 to be placed on the 2016 ballot.

Senate Minority Leader Bob Huff (R- Diamond Bar) issued a statement on March 17 announcing continued opposition of SCA 5.

“The people pushing SCA 5 repeatedly try to change the discussion with misinformation, saying that people don’t understand the issue. The opposite is true. There has been an outcry across the state, because people do understand the issue,” Huff said in a statement. “SCA 5 will allow once again institutionalized discrimination in our public schools.”

Professor Colleen Clancy, chair of the UC Davis Academic Senate, Affirmative Action & Diversity Committee and professor of pharmacology at UC Davis, said students should become familiar with the long history of racism, exclusion and quotas in higher education in order to educate themselves on the issue.

“It’s very important, from my perspective, to weigh pros and cons. Affirmative action did indeed help to diversify higher education (pro), but it was no panacea in terms of educating large numbers of underrepresented students (con),” Clancy said in an email.

ASUCD Ethnic and Cultural Affairs commission member Casey Nguyen, a second-year community and regional development and Asian American studies double major, said she believes students should be reading everything they can on the topic in order to form their own opinions.

Robyn Huey, an ASUCD senator and third-year landscape architecture major, is working with ASUCD lobby corps to hold an information session on SCA 5 for students. She said they are contacting professors, legislators and affected student groups to talk at the information session, which is tentatively scheduled for late-May.

“It is important for students to understand the implications of affirmative action and the history of underrepresented groups in relation to higher education,” Huey said. “Another important aspect is understanding how universities record data on different racial and ethnic groups on campus.”

Huey added that the categories used by the University often encompass a wide range of ethnic groups and looking at the breakdown of those categories is important to understand which groups are underrepresented in the public education system.

However, Clancy said she thinks race may not be the most effective way of measuring diversity in California’s public higher education institutions. She said in the 2000 census, five percent of California residents identified as “multi-racial,” and this percentage has grown since, so race may not be the right metric for the future.

“I personally support the idea of holistic review in the UC system that can account for other diversity aspects such as socioeconomic background, personal history and hardship,” Clancy said. “But these factors need to be given substantial weight in order to diversify the student population. I don’t think we’ve yet achieved good enough results with this method so far.”

Hernandez said he hopes the upcoming bicameral commission hearings clear up any confusion and misinformation about SCA 5 and act as a forum for anyone wishing to engage on these issues.

“Some of the petitions that circulated stated that SCA 5 would implement quotas, when quotas have been ruled unconstitutional since the 1978 Bakke v. UC Supreme Court Case,” Hernandez said.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) said he will bring together a forum in the upcoming weeks to discuss SCA 5 and affirmative action.

“We need a calm and intelligent discussion about what affirmative action is and is not. Affirmative action is not quotas. I am deeply concerned anytime one ethnic group turns on another,” Steinberg said in a statement. “Our state’s history and the continued challenges we face to improve relations between people are far too important to see a wedge driven between our diverse communities.”

Clancy said she believes a full college experience requires diversity at all levels of the community, but she added that the historical record of affirmative action provides a cautionary tale that needs to be taken seriously as part of the discussion.

“I do feel strongly that in order to fulfill the mission of the University via “advancing the human condition by improving the quality of life throughout California,” we must be able to provide access to education for all Californians — and especially historically and currently underrepresented groups,” Clancy said. “This is a very complicated issue.”

PAAYAL ZAVERI can be reached at city@theaggie.org.

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