by stephanie wong
How Proposition 209 stifles diversity in education
Some students may attend a four-year university for the promise of a better career. Some may have parents or teachers remind them of college-bound futures before they can even understand basic algebra. Some may have never questioned why they want to attend a higher education institution, except for the notion that it is what everyone else does. But none of the students at any public education institution in California has been placed in that institution with consideration of their race, sex, or ethnicity, since the passage of Proposition 209 in late 1996. Therefore, only a few students who want to go to college in hopes of a better career or out of a passion to learn must combat multiple obstacles in making their pursuit of higher education a reality.
On Feb. 13th, a multicultural student coalition attended a hearing at the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to rally for a repeal of Prop 209. The civil rights activist group By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) challenged Prop 209 under the Equal Protection Clause of the Constitution. When California voters approved Prop 209, also known and strategically pushed as the California Civil Rights Initiative, state government institutions, such as the UC system, could no longer consider “race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin” in public education, public employment, or public contracting. Basically, it was an anti-affirmative action act that used the rhetoric of anti-discrimination to offset its discriminatory-by-colorblindness policies; yes, I just coined that term.
Colorblind policies essentially neglect any characteristics, histories, and experiences associated with certain racial and ethnic groups. I am not referring to stereotypical characteristics that are oftentimes used to undermine or poke fun at a certain group or groups of people. I am referring to social, economic, and political obstacles pertinent to certain minorities.
By ignoring a person’s history and experiences, we neglect any of the struggles that may have put a person on a different route and experience. We thereby discriminate their strengths or capabilities, especially with approaching challenges. Experiences and histories of struggle should not prove a point about a group’s weaknesses. Instead, they can shine light on a student’s power in strength, capabilities, and resilience. Although not all API students have gone through these moments or periods of struggle, family or community struggles from earlier generations can transcend throughout future ones. We need these sorts of perspectives in the classroom. Until there is greater diversity on my television shows and movies, in my classrooms, in my government that reflects the diversity of this state and country, I don’t believe that race and ethnicity are not factors that keep certain groups persistently at the bottom. Merit and performance are not biological.
Another way in which members of the API community are stripped of their histories and experiences within and out of America is through the umbrella-term: Asian. Beneath this umbrella, there are a variety of subgroups that have different histories and experiences within the United States. These differences in stories should be even more a testament of what we need to hear in order to diversify our conversations in the classroom, to challenge the ways we understand foreign or domestic policies, economics, theories, and solutions.
Most news coverage on the recent student rally focused on Prop 209’s effects on students from black, Latino, and Native American communities. However, according to the Fall 2010 University of California Statistical Summary of Students and Staff, Filipino, Chinese, Japanese, and “Other Asian” groups have all decreased in UC Berkeley’s undergraduate enrollment from 2009. Whereas, the UC Berkeley’s international student enrollment from 2009 to 2010 has increased 32 percent for total undergraduate enrollment.
According to CalServe senator Sydney Fang, there was not a very high turnout from the Asian Pacific Islander (API) community, but she also pointed out that one difficulty in organizing rallies is that some of the students most affected cannot make it out to the events due to other commitments or obligations.
Fang wishes to see greater solidarity within the API community. She said, “As students of color, we face a lot of the same struggles and have common histories, so being in solidarity means that when one community or [a member of the API community] excels or rises above, then we all do well.”
Furthermore, in response to the criticism that affirmative action steals the placement of well-qualified students like Abigail Fisher, whose case will be considered by the U.S. Supreme Court and who believes that because of affirmative action she was not accepted into the University of Texas at Austin, CalServe senator Fang said, “It’s not about competing against each other, but it’s about how do we open the doors for more people.”
Whether or not the Court comes to its senses to repeal Prop 209, our commitment to our siblings’, cousins’, children’s, our nation’s future in holding their own dreams, should include affirmative action, diversity, and quality education in K-12 levels. Here at Cal, there are APA support groups for current youth in local areas, like Oakland Asian Students Educational Services (OASES) and Recruitment and Retention Centers (RRCs) under the bridges coalition. Perhaps these can be our next steps in supporting diversity in higher education.
Why not reconsider why you are attending a four-year university? Instead of considering your grade-point average, SAT score, or extracurriculars and rather than focusing on the high-paying career you might want after college, consider why you want to be here. Is it the prestige of attending the “No. 1 Public University?” Is it a place to connect with others who come from similar backgrounds and think like you?
What is the purpose of higher education?
No matter what our reasons are for attending higher education, higher education institutions, like Cal, should bring together a mixture of students from different backgrounds, with different interests and perspectives so that we can unite in becoming problem-solvers and innovators in whatever fields we choose, for the sake of our future—or at least that’s a big part of hope.