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Class Challenges Affirmative-Action Ban

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - In a federal class action, Hispanic and black students say California Proposition 209's ban on affirmative action "has created a racial caste system" by admitting a disproportionate number of white and Asian students into the University of California system.

The class compares Prop. 209 to the Tuskegee experiment - in which the government left poor black sharecroppers with untreated syphilis, so it could study the progression of the fatal disease - and Plessy v. Ferguson's notorious "separate but equal" ruling. It claims that Prop. 209 passed in 1996 only because California's white majority electorate "overrode the overwhelming opposition" of minority voters. "Proposition 209 promised a 'color blind' Constitution. But that was and is a lie," the complaint states. It says that Prop. 209 actually "has been the sentry at the gate, denying the plaintiffs the chance for an equal and integrated education as promised by the Fourteenth Amendment."

Also called the California Civil Rights Initiative, the campaign for Prop. 209 was led by African-American UC Regent Ward Connerly, an opponent of affirmative action and racial preferences, which he claims actually discriminate against minorities.

This class action, led by the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary (BAMN), claims Prop. 209 discriminates against poor minority students who are unable to inflate their grade point averages because their high schools do not offer the required advanced placement courses. (Advanced placement courses can offer a multiplier, so that an A may count as 6 points rather than 4, or a B as 4.5 points rather than 3.)

Most of the plaintiffs are applying to prestigious schools such as UC-Berkeley or UCLA, according to their attorney Ronald Cruz.

Cruz says his clients are concerned that their grade point averages will not be high enough to ensure their acceptance.

Cruz said in an interview that the average grade point average of a UC Berkeley student is 4.2 - an average impossible to attain without an AP multiplier.

The plaintiffs' grade point averages range from 3.0 to 4.25, Cruz said. He said many are worried that "they will be rejected because they can't compete" with white and Asian students from more prosperous school districts.

Plaintiffs who attend UC Berkeley and UCLA say they feel uncomfortable being underrepresented. "In class, if they are the only black or Latino student and race is being discussed, they are being looked at and expected to be the authority," Cruz said.

The University of California's enforcement of Prop. 209 "puts a stamp of inferiority on black and Hispanic students," Cruz said. He said that if affirmative action were reinstated, minority students "won't feel like they have to prove themselves or represent their entire race" on UC campuses.

The UC president's office said it is "too early in the process" to comment on the merits of the lawsuit.

But the office did say, "It's the law. If this opens up another discussion, that's well and good, but, as long as Proposition 209 is the law, we're obliged to follow it. Meanwhile, our academic preparation programs are helping underrepresented minority students fulfill our admissions requirements and compete for admission."

The class demands a permanent injunction preventing the UC system from enforcing Prop. 209. They are represented by George Washington with Scheff, Washington and Driver of Detroit and Ronald Cruz with Scheff, Washington and Driver of Oakland.

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