'Race does matter': Why Latino advocates are pushing for affirmative action in California

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Al Seib/Los Angeles Times/TNS

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — For the first time, Latinos represent the largest ethnic group among freshmen admitted to the University of California system this year.

The milestone comes 25 years after California passed Proposition 209, which among other provisions banned consideration of race or ethnicity in public education.

But Latinos affirmative action advocates say it’s not enough.

“How many years, how many decades … were Latinos not given an equal opportunity?” said state Sen. Maria Elena Durazo, D-Los Angeles, who is supporting a November ballot measure that would once again allow affirmative action in California. “Let’s not confuse one time with the many decades where there was no equality.”

Durazo, vice chair of the California Latino Legislative Caucus, believes the momentum from the Black Lives Matter Movement that has spurred national dialogue around racial disparities in the U.S. could propel today’s electorate to support Proposition 16.

The measure seeks to repeal Proposition 209, approved by voters in 1996. That initiative barred the state from discriminating against or granting preferential treatment to any person or group based on race, sex, ethnicity or nationality.

Laura E. Gómez, a law professor and co-founder of UCLA law school’s critical race studies program, said affirmative action arose during the President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration during the 1960s.

While it’s likely affirmative action was aimed at increasing African American representation, Johnson who grew up in Texas, was familiar with Mexican American issues at the time, according to Gómez.

Throughout the years, attitudes about affirmative have fluctuated, she said. Today, especially after the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement over the killing of George Floyd, a black man who died in police custody in Minnesota, Gómez said people are much more willing as a society to say, “Race does matter.”

She said the state’s electorate has changed dramatically since 1996. About 30% of eligible voters in California are Latino, according to the Pew Research Center.

“I think that the major difference is that Latinos were a much smaller part of the population, and therefore a much smaller part of the electorate,” she said.

Both the California Legislative Latino Caucus and the California Asian Pacific Island Legislative Caucus officially support repealing Proposition 209. Views in Asian American communities on the issue of affirmative action, however, are divided, the caucus acknowledged in a letter.

Sen. Ling Ling Chang, R-Diamond Bar, is an opponent of repealing Proposition 209 and has said it could lead to more discrimination.

“California is the most diverse state in the nation. We value pluralism and diversity. In fact, the University of California just admitted its most diverse class in history,” according to a statement from Chang. “While we do have dark parts in our state’s history where laws and even the state Constitution were used for explicitly racist objectives, the idea that in 2020 we would decide to combat modern discrimination by legalizing it is poor public policy.”

Latino sentiment nationally has been similarly split.

A 2019 Pew Research Center study found that 65% of U.S. Hispanics said colleges should not consider race in admissions compared with 58% of Asians, 62% of Blacks and 78% of whites.

Survey respondents were more likely to say high school grades and standardized test scores were top factors that should be considered in college admissions. Factors like race or ethnicity, gender and whether a relative attended the school were rated the lowest.

In the Legislature, views break along party lines.

“Most of us were beneficiaries of affirmative action and have watched as the next generation of Latinos, African Americans and women have missed out on equal access to college and contracting opportunities,” said Democratic Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, who chairs the Latino caucus.

Republican Sen. Melissa Melendez opposes any change.

“The admissions process that created the most diverse class of freshman at the University of California shows the system already works to provide opportunities for all our students, without the necessity of affirmative action measures or the big hand of legislative interference,” she said.

While demographers say U.S. Latinos are graduating high school and enrolling in college at greater numbers, they are less likely than other groups to obtain a 4-year college degree. Latinos have the lowest educational success rates in California, according to a 2018 Campaign for College Opportunity report.

The report found about 18% of Latinos in California have an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, compared with 52% of white people in the state.

“The gap in degree attainment between Latinx and white students is larger in California than any other state in the nation,” according to the report.

UC enrollment numbers show Latinos, who represent 39% of the state’s population, made up 24.8% of students enrolled in the fall 2019 semester. At Stanford University, 17% of students admitted in the 2019 fall semester identified as Latino.

In its 2020 report, the U.S. News & World Report ranks UCLA and UC Berkeley as the highest ranking schools of all UC schools. The lowest are UC Riverside and UC Merced.

Admission among Latino freshmen was greater in lower-ranking schools like UC Merced, 54%, and UC Riverside, 37%, than top-ranking schools like UCLA, 23%, and UC Berkeley, 29%.

Camila Chávez was 19 years old when she attended a California college in 1996.

As a student at Mills College in Oakland, Chavez balanced her roles as a student and activist, following the footsteps of her mother and uncle, civil rights activists Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chávez.

It’s why she’s embarrassed to admit that in 1996 she mistakenly signed a petition to get the so-called California Civil Rights Initiative, or Proposition 209, on the ballot that year. The initiative sought to repeal affirmative action and prohibit state institutions from considering a person’s race, sex or ethnicity from public employment, education and contracting.

Because of its name, she thought the proposition was one that championed representation. One that she believes helped her older brothers get into colleges and later joined medical and law fields.

Chávez, now the co-founder and executive director of the Dolores Huerta Foundation, said there’s more work to be done, especially around increasing African American representation across job sectors and universities. For her, reinstating affirmative action is a step in that direction.

Gonzalez has called herself “a product of affirmative action,” and said she would not have attended Stanford University and gone on to Georgetown University or UCLA’s law school without it. She said affirmative action was repealed during her first year attending law school.

“Make no mistake, everyone is affected by Prop. 209,” she said. “But the group of people affected the most are Latinas.”

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©2020 The Sacramento Bee (Sacramento, Calif.)