(CN) — The University of California regents unanimously endorsed affirmative action Monday nearly two decades after the practice was banned throughout the UC system as institutions throughout the state and nation continue to grapple with racial equality in America.
During a special meeting on Monday, the UC regents endorsed an amendment to the California Constitution that would repeal Proposition 290, a voter-approved initiative passed in 1996 that forbids government preferential treatment for individuals on the basis of race, ethnicity or sex.
John Perez, chairman of the regents, said neutrality is not enough when oppression of certain people is so rampant in a given society.
“If we are going to be serious about creating a university that truly serves the public interest, we cannot be silent,” Preez said. “We cannot be neutral.”
California Assembly Constitutional Amendment 5 passed out the lower house of the state Legislature last week after hours of spirited debate. The amendment must be ratified by the Senate and then put on the November 3 general election ballot.
If a majority of Californians agree to amend the constitution, it is clear from Monday that the UC system stands ready to consider race during its admission process.
“Despite years of effort with race-neutral admissions at UC, UC enrollment of students from underrepresented groups and recruitment of faculty of color falls short of reflecting the diversity of California’s population,” said UC staff in a report on the amendment.
“It makes little sense to exclude any consideration of race in admissions when the aim of the University’s holistic process is to fully understand and evaluate each applicant through multiple dimensions,” said UC President Janet Napolitano in a statement after the vote was taken Monday.
“Proposition 209 has forced California public institutions to try to address racial inequality without factoring in race, even where allowed by federal law. The diversity of our university and higher education institutions across California, should — and must — represent the rich diversity of our state.”
Napolitano and members of her staff said they frankly recognized the UC system is falling short of diversity goals, noting the highest share of incoming freshmen from underrepresented groups was 37% in 2016, a year in which 59% of graduating high school seniors were from underrepresented groups.
When California passed Proposition 209 in 1996, it was the first major electoral test of affirmative action policies and was approved by voters with 54% of state residents voting for the measure.
The measure mandated that “the state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.”
The law has been the subject of several legal challenges with the U.S. Supreme Court repeatedly ruling that the law was constitutional as recently as 2010. Another similar law, passed in Michigan, which also banned the state from giving preferential treatment on the basis of race, also survived legal challenges and a Supreme Court decision.
But Perez and Napolitano said the law has prevented UC from pursuing policies that would enhance the representation of underrepresented minorities in the higher education system and has thereby prevented it from tackling issues revolving around racial inequality.
“There is amazing momentum for righting the wrongs caused by centuries of systemic racism in our country,” Perez said. “The UC Board of Regents’ votes to endorse ACA 5 and to repeal Proposition 209 plays a part in that effort.”
This is not California’s first foray into repealing Prop. 209 with an intent to allow for affirmative action at UC.
In 2012, State Senator Edward Hernandez introduced a constitutional amendment aimed at repealing Prop. 209 that specifically provided an exemption for university systems to consider admissions on the basis of race.
But Hernandez pulled the law after intense lobbying from Asian American groups. Asian Americans have been admitted to the UC system at the highest rates of any demographic group for much of the 2010s.
In 2019, Asians accounted for 30% of the freshman enrolled at the UC system, while whites accounted for 24%, Latinos made up 22% of the cohort and African Americans accounted for 4% of enrollees. Black people make up about 6% of the population.
Affirmative action prompts ambiguous reactions from the American public in polls.
Pew Research Center conducted a poll in 2014 that concluded 63% of Americans think that affirmative action policies designed to increase black representation in college and higher education in general are a good thing.
However, a more recent poll, conducted in 2019, showed that 73% of Americans believed colleges should not consider race when considering applicants. Majorities of people across demographic lines expressed the opinion that race should not be a factor, however, white people are more likely to hold the view than other demographics.