Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Affirmative Action in California: Looking Back, Looking Forward in Public Academe

Academic journal article The Journal of Negro Education

Affirmative Action in California: Looking Back, Looking Forward in Public Academe

Article excerpt

This article offers an overview of the context and consequences of affirmative action in California with regard to faculty hiring and student admissions for African Americans and other Californians of color. It first outlines the policy's philosophical framework and basic premises. It next reviews the several criticisms that have been lodged against it in the nearly three decades since its implementation. The discussion highlights data indicating that (a) representation of African Americans and other minorities in public postsecondary education increased while affirmative action was in force; and (b) minority representation is certain to decrease in the absence of affirmative action.

The problem of the 20th century is the problem of the color line. (DuBois, 1903/1989, p. 10)

In the near-century since its first utterance, W. E. B. DuBois's prophecy has proven true. What this visionary critic may not have envisioned, however, was the likelihood that the problem would remain for us to solve in the next millennium. To be sure, at times during this century there have been bright moments for people of color, as evidenced by the emergence of strong leaders who clearly and forcefully articulated the hopes and wisdom of their people, the enactment of civil rights legislation, the increase in the educational levels attained by African American men and women. Yet, as the 20th century comes to a close, the United States is experiencing what amounts to a national retreat from issues of equity. The problem of the color line remains as important to us today as it did when DuBois first wrote those words almost a hundred years ago. Few examples of this are more potent than those pertaining to affirmative action, especially as it relates to matters of faculty hiring and student admissions in academe.

In 1995, prior to announcing his decision to run for president, California's Governor Pete Wilson orchestrated a meeting at which the University of California's (UC) Board of Regents decided that the nearly 30 years of affirmative action had impaired rather than improved the quality of teaching and learning at state-supported institutions of higher education. The regents subsequently voted to end the practice as it applied to student admissions in the UC system (Wallace & Lesher, 1995). Then, in 1996, the oxymoronic California Civil Rights Initiative (CCRI) was placed on the state ballot, passing with 54% of the vote. The chief argument of proponents of that measure was that affirmative action did not create an equal playing field for all of California's citizens; that it blocked minorities from being seen as successful on their own merit and resulted in their being perceived as needing a crutch in order to obtain certain positions or status; and that the quality of the state's institutions and businesses depended upon their freedom to hire the best people without consideration of race or gender inequities (Custred & Wood, 1996). Such criticisms formed the scaffolding for a full-scale attack on affirmative action in California. The consequence of the Regents' decision and the CCRI-if the latter's passage is upheld in the courts, where the final decision currently rests-will be that affirmative action, insofar as faculty hiring and admissions at all of California's public institutions of higher learning are concerned, is over. Few battlegrounds have seen more action on both these fronts than those in the state of California.

Any policy that has been in existence for a generation deserves investigation and analysis. Contexts change; what worked yesterday may not work today, or perhaps particular aspects of a policy need to change. Thus, the following analysis offers an overview of affirmative action in California and a consideration of the consequences of this policy. It begins by outlining the basic premises of affirmative action and reviewing the several criticisms that have been lodged against those premises. …

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