Reversing Course

A broad repudiation of Prop. 209 surfaces at Berkeley

When a group of UC Berkeley students and professors walked out of their classes for two days in late October to protest Proposition 209, they formed a checkerboard of sit-ins on Berkeley's Sproul Plaza. A curious visitor, passing from group to group, could hear about the "prison-industrial complex," the CIA's role in smuggling cocaine, and the unnatural effects of capitalism on La Raza since Columbus' arrival.

Each sit-in's lesson amounted to a rationale for reviving affirmative action: This is what minorities endure, this is why Prop. 209 -- which outlawed race and gender preferences by the state in 1996 -- should be reversed.

The movement to upend it is being led, more or less, by a professor of ethnic studies at Berkeley named Ronald Takaki. He's drafted a "California Equality Initiative," which reverses the language of Prop. 209 almost word for word.

Takaki wanted to place his initiative on this November's ballot, but tabled that idea and threw his support behind a group of Boalt Law students who were gathering signatures for their own measure. The Boalt initiative faltered, another disorganized movement by Berkeley undergraduates, and for now Takaki's text remains the strongest measure yet drafted to bring affirmative action back to state institutions and universities.

The difference between his approach and that of the students is one of scope. While the students have focused on restoring affirmative action only in college admissions, Takaki's draft includes state employment and contracting. "I want to completely overturn 209," he says.

Takaki, in fact, wants to go even further than that. His initiative calls for the state to consider not only race and gender, but also socioeconomic class when deciding who to admit to state colleges or put on the public payroll.

(The full text of Takaki's measure reads: "In order to act affirmatively in promoting equality of opportunity, it shall be lawful for the state to consider race, gender, or socioeconomic class disadvantage in the selection of qualified individuals for university admission, employment and contracting. This law does not permit the use of quotas, but does allow the use of considerations based on the above three categories.")

None of the other nascent efforts to reverse 209 have mentioned "socioeconomic class disadvantage," and some argue that by including it Takaki is clouding the issue.

Michael Trevino, an assistant dean at the Richard & Rhoda Goldman School of Public Policy, spoke at one of the recent teach-ins, and rejected the (usually conservative) distinction between class and race. "People that make the argument [that inequality is a class issue] miss the point," he says. "The reason we're having this discussion is because we value diversity. It's about diversity and what goes on in the classroom."

But Takaki says he sees a shortage of working-class white students at Berkeley, kids who might be "disadvantaged because of low SAT scores, or because they can't take Advanced Placement courses." He wants his initiative to apply to everyone, and his favorite adage in this debate comes from Lincoln: "If we believe that we belong to a nation 'founded and dedicated to the proposition of equality,' we have to open it up to equality not only in terms of race and gender, but also class," he says.

Oddly, though, Takaki's language about class may not even be necessary. Eugene Vololkh, an acting professor of law at UCLA, helped draft Prop. 209. Vololkh carefully analyzed Takaki's initiative in a recent phone interview. "The universities already can consider socioeconomic background. Nothing in 209, nothing in the federal Constitution, nothing in state or federal law prohibits them. We don't need a Takaki initiative in order to allow this. In fact, 209 supporters have long argued that socioeconomic status should be considered," he says.

Vololkh explained the mechanics of both race and class consideration in UC admissions. "Pre-209, each school had its own table that said you get this many points if your parents make below this amount of money, you get this many points if your parents didn't graduate from high school, this many points if they graduated from high school but not from college, and also this many points if you're black or Chicano, fewer points if you are Latino but not Chicano, and a few points if you are Filipino, etc. That was their numerical system. Post-209, race was just thrown out of that. ... Now, UCLA Law School has set up a very thorough, and I think quite worthy, system of consideration of socioeconomic status. And that is a big factor in our admissions."

Boalt Law has also made changes since 209 was passed. Its admissions office has stopped factoring extra points into GPAs from top undergraduate schools like Harvard and Yale, on the theory that those extra points were affirmative action for the rich. Takaki would like to see the UC undergraduate system scrap its extra grade point for Advanced Placement classes, too, because of the advantage this tends to give to kids from suburban high schools, which offer more AP classes than inner-city schools. He'd also like to see the system of SAT-style testing scrapped because the scores, he says, select for family income more effectively than for merit.

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