Affirmative Reaction

Even with Proposition 209, there are proven ways to help minority kids get to college

"If you take everything into account," says Swanson, AVID's founder, "including the tutors the schools pay for, everything, the staff development the teachers get, it's less than a dollar a student a day."

What's hard to understand is that there's been almost no push from the left for this kind of program. A Jesse Jackson march for AVID would be unimaginable. In an interview after his August demonstration, Jackson insisted that the way to make California a more inclusive state in the wake of Prop. 209 is simply to fight the law, to stage marches and register voters. And the push from the right has been just as perfunctory -- Wilson wasn't burning to fund AVID in the early '90s.

The aftermath of Prop. 209 reveals only a smattering of semiprivate programs that attend to the problems of culture and class. But education, more than hiring and contracting, can be geared to let people earn their opportunities. So why hasn't it been? Why, in the 30-odd years since the term "affirmative action" was coined, have state institutions mustered not much more than a skin-deep policy that's never been comfortably constitutional?

Almost two years ago, UC Berkeley's former chancellor, Chang-Lin Tien, set up a program called Berkeley Pledge as a response to the Board of Regents' ban of preferences systemwide. "Berkeley Pledge is sort of an umbrella program to coordinate all of the outreach programs into a systematic outreach in K-12 schools," says Jesus Mena, UC Berkeley's director of media relations.

The program not only yokes Berkeley's scattered outreach efforts into an organized minority recruiting system; it also offers scholarships and sets up mentoring programs in local high schools to give kids professional role models -- meaning engineers, lawyers, musicians, sometimes Nobel laureate scientists -- who can offer career advice. It tries to do everything that has arguably needed doing since before the 1960s, but ex-Chancellor Tien appropriated the money in late 1995, after the regents decided to junk preferences.

"The way we see the issue," says Jesus Mena, "is that affirmative action, regardless of its problems -- I mean I'm a minority; I can tell you anecdotally I know of places where affirmative action was misused -- [but] regardless of its flaws, Berkeley in particular had used it very successfully, in terms of diversifying and yet preserving academic excellence."

"But now it's gone, so now our challenge is to find creative ways to work with other ways which preserve diversity."

UC's Berkeley campus could work as a microcosm for the rest of California. In the same way its scattered root-level programs have been orchestrated by Berkeley Pledge, the rest of the state's college prep and outreach programs could be coordinated and multiplied to form a net of de facto affirmative action. The regents' own Outreach Task Force was formed to study how the UC system as a whole can do that. And one idea comes straight from Berkeley Pledge: Each UC campus would use its professors to bolster local schools. Berkeley science professors might, for example, help im-prove the Bay Area's weaker high school science programs.

Robert Pickus, the World Without War Council president who supports Prop. 209, believes that if these programs had been used for the past 30 years instead of preferences, "we would not have come as far, in terms of changes in the society; but we would have made steady progress without cutting the ground out from the whole idea of 'you as a human being,' is what I'm looking at. ... Everybody acknowledges that race is a myth. And everybody treats it as though it's real."

Prop. 209 may be nothing but an excuse for lawsuits. The clash between the proposition and federal affirmative action mandates has set the state floating in shallow water, waiting for a potential tsunami of discrimination suits from people of every color. The Supreme Court recently allowed an appellate decision upholding Prop. 209's constitutionality to stand. Unless the proposition is overturned in a subsequent case, or until Congress passes, and the president signs, a law similar to 209, minorities in California will have a federally mandated right to be hired by the government partly because of their race or gender, and white men will have a state-mandated right not to be passed up because of theirs.

"I would have called it the Attorneys' Full Employment Act," quips Jim Lewis, a public relations man at the California Building Trades Council.

This is why Ward Connerly founded his American Civil Rights Institute in Sacramento late last year. He wants to solve the legal impasse by pushing a federal version of Prop. 209 on Capitol Hill. Connerly supports programs like AVID but admits that he has no time for them.

"If I had to find some national movement that would be the moral equivalent to getting a man on the moon," he says, giving the idea some high-sounding lip service, "it would be convincing every black and Latino kid that they have to go to college."

But minorities won't have anything approaching universal access to higher education until Connerly and Jesse Jackson -- until both sides of the Prop. 209 debate -- spend more time on programs that help the underprivileged get to college, and less on legal infighting and flaming racial rhetoric.

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