Effort to reinstate racial preferences puts affirmative action into new light


An effort to reinstate affirmative action in California highlights the paradigm shift that is happening with respect to the purposes and effects of affirmative action.  The affirmative-action paradigm is that affirmative action allows universities to admit racial/ethnic minorities over more-deserving Caucasian students – or at least to admit racial/ethnic minorities that would get denied if they were Caucasian.  Several high-profile U.S. Supreme Court cases fit into one of those two patterns.

A little background: In 1996, California voters enacted Proposition 209, a state constitutional amendment that bans preferences based on “race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”  Recently, California lawmakers proposed a state constitutional amendment that would partly repeal Prop. 209 to allow such preferences in public education, although not in public employment or public contracting.

However, the proposal to partly repeal Prop. 209 puts a twist on the paradigm patterns of affirmative action.  The twist is that affirmative action will indirectly discriminate against Asian-Americans, which has caused Asian-Americans to take to the streets in opposition to the attempted repeal.  They fear that reinstating affirmative action will lead to reduction in the state-university enrollment numbers of Asian-American students, who comprise between 35 and 40 percent of students in California’s public universities and only 15 percent of the state’s population.  By contrast, Caucasians, African-Americans, and Latinos are all “under-represented” in California’s public universities.  Thus, the fear is that increasing enrollment of “under-represented” groups will necessarily cause a substantial decline in admission offers for Asian-American students.  That outcome would be especially shameful in light of the history of discrimination against Asian-Americans, especially in California.

That scenario shows that the affirmative-action paradigm of benefitting racial “minorities” at the expense of the “majority” race is changing in many ways as our society becomes more diverse.  Indeed, the notion of which group constitutes a racial/ethnic “minority” is changing.  California has no majority racial or ethnic group, and Latinos recently surpassed Caucasians as the largest racial or ethnic group in the state.  Nonetheless, lawmakers that support the partial repeal of Prop. 209 argue that racial/ethnic preferences are needed in order to increase enrollment of African-Americans and Latinos.

Thus, affirmative action in California would not help “minority groups” or even “under-represented minority groups,” because Latinos are the largest group in the state.  Moreover, that group cannot be considered a “minority” in terms of student population, either: Latinos account for relatively large percentages of the student bodies of California’s public universities.

And there is one aspect of reinstating racial/ethnic preferences in California that is sure to bother even the most ardent supporters of affirmative action: Caucasians could get racial preferences.  After all, Caucasians have experienced the largest enrollment decline in California public universities since 1996.  Moreover, Caucasians and Latinos both account for almost 40 percent of the state’s population, almost 30 percent of the University of California system student body, and around 25 percent of the California State University system student body.  So, if Latinos were to receive admission preferences based on those numbers, then Caucasians would seem to as well.  Perhaps other factors (such as socio-economic status, which is currently used for admission preferences at California public universities) would be used to allow admission preferences for Latinos and not for Caucasians.  Nevertheless, the fact that affirmative action conceivably could be used to benefit Caucasians shows how dramatically the affirmative-action paradigm has changed over the last several decades.