By 2UrbanGirls, Contributing Writer
SOUTH LOS ANGELES — A local student set the foundation for voters to have an opportunity to restore affirmative action throughout the state of California.
Kawika Smith sued the UC Board of Regents alleging standardized tests were biased against minority students. Along with four other students, their lawsuit drew national attention and the backing of local educators including the Compton Unified School District.
“The repeal of Proposition 209 would be one of the most direct and effective reforms in the fight for equity,” said Micah Ali, president of the Compton school board. “The passage of Proposition 209 created a false perception that there was not a need to keep in place policies that counteract the current and historical impacts of racism in our educational systems.
“The recent, harsh reminders experienced in the streets and witnessed on televisions across our nation plainly reveals that chip-stacking against Black students still persists. Re-introducing race-based considerations in college admissions will open the door for our students at all levels to finally be given a fair chance.
“My hope is that we can eradicate the long held burden of having to be twice as good as everyone else to be given an equitable chance at opportunity.”
After prevailing in the lawsuit, the UC Regents took a broader and surprising approach to level the playing field for minority students particularly those in low-income communities.
On May 21, the University of California Board of Regents unanimously approved the suspension of the standardized test requirement (ACT/SAT) for all California freshman applicants until fall 2024.
“The decision by the board marks a significant change for the university’s undergraduate admissions,” said UC President Janet Napolitano. “We are removing the ACT/SAT requirement for California students and developing a new test that more closely aligns with what we expect incoming students to know to demonstrate their preparedness for UC.”
The UC Board of Regents unanimously endorsed the repeal of Proposition 209 in June.
“There is amazing momentum for righting the wrongs caused by centuries of systemic racism in our country. The UC Board of Regents’ votes to endorse ACA 5 and to repeal Proposition 209 plays a part in that effort,” said John Perez, chairman of the UC Board of Regents and a former Assembly speaker. “As we continue to explore all the university’s opportunities for action, I am proud UC endorsed giving California voters the chance to erase a stain, support opportunity and equality, and repeal Proposition 209.”
In 1996, a ballot measure was put before California voters asking them to make it illegal to consider race in awarding contracts, in hiring for public jobs, and in deciding who is admitted to state schools. Proposition 209 successfully passed with 55% of the vote.
Enacted in 1996, Proposition 209 — which was marketed to voters as a civil rights initiative — removed essential tools to fight discrimination against women and people of color. Far from leveling the playing field, it set up obstacles to success for millions.
Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, is leading the charge to repeal Proposition 209, and restore affirmative action, with Assembly Constitutional Amendment No. 5 (ACA 5) on the November ballot. Weber believes divisions are driven by inequality and the coronavirus crisis has made it clear that there is an urgent need to address this law that perpetuates inequality.
“The fate of Prop. 209 will now be in the hands of voters on Nov. 3,” Weber said. “While it was sold as a civil rights law when it passed in 1996, Proposition 209 has cost women- and minority-owned businesses $1.1 billion each year, perpetuated a wage gap wherein women make 80 cents on every dollar made by men, and allowed discriminatory hiring and contracting practices to continue unhindered.
“Far from being colorblind, the bill has set up barriers to women and minorities to share in the economic life of California. Proposition 209 has hindered public policy, thwarted opportunity and maintained economic disparity long enough. It’s time to give voters a chance to right this wrong.”
The inequalities in education are profound and makes it difficult to obtain entrance into the state’s top colleges and universities, particularly in the UC System, according to a report issued by the UC Office of the President.
People from underrepresented groups who applied to UC Berkeley after Prop. 209 were 31% less likely to get accepted. UC Berkeley witnessed a “marked drop in the percentage of Black students” following Prop. 209, said Chancellor Carol Christ, who was working as a campus provost when Prop. 209 passed.
UC Berkeley’s Black student enrollment among incoming freshmen fell from roughly 7% to 3% and has hovered around that figure ever since. In fall 2019, 2.8% of admitted first-year students identified as Black. Many say that figure drops significantly lower if athletes are not included.
The number of African-American freshmen enrolled at UCLA fell by nearly half — from 264 in 1995 to 144 in 1998, the first year the ban took effect. At Berkeley, over the same period, it dropped from 215 to 126.
Wenyuan Wu, whose organization, the Asian-American Coalition for Education, is part of a broader alliance of Asian-American groups trying to stop ACA 5.
“If it passes,” Wu says, “Asian-American students will be further scapegoated and penalized in college admissions.”
In the six years that followed Prop. 209’s passage, contract awards to women business enterprises dropped from 6.7% to 3.8%. In the following two decades, California’s minority and women business enterprises lost the potential equivalent of $1 billion annually in public contracts.
This reversal will make the playing field more level in education, hiring and the awarding of contracts that ensure the economic stability of minorities throughout the state, especially in South L.A., which boasts a large minority population.
According to 2010 Census data, the 59th Assembly District is 75% Latino and 19% African-American, and stretches from the University of Southern California, through South Los Angeles.
Despite his victory against the UC system, Smith has enrolled in Morehouse College.
“I strongly believe that my generation is the generation to shake things up and move humanity in the right direction. Gone are the days where youth have something valuable to say but are told to ‘stay in a child’s place,’” Smith said. “All in all, I will devote my career to pushing for equity, equality got us here, equity will move us further.: