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Prop.209 battle neglects issue of diversity

By Daily Bruin Staff

Dec. 1, 1996 9:00 p.m.

Monday, December 2, 1996


Showdown surrounding initiative paints sad picture

of California voters’ attitudesBy Andy Zelleke

and Phil Wang

Like the Rodney King and O.J. Simpson verdicts, Proposition
209’s approval by California voters is another watershed event
certain to trigger a wave of commentary on the status of race
relations in the nation’s most diverse state. For those who have
equated opposition to affirmative action with racism, Proposition
209’s passage makes a horrific statement about the quality of
contemporary race relations. But now that Election Day has come and
gone, it’s time for everyone, including those of us who support
affirmative action, to take a deep breath and admit that there are
principled positions on both sides of the issue. The unfairness of
labeling the majority of Californians racists based on their
rejection of affirmative action is exceeded only by its

There is, however, one disturbing conclusion about race
relations that can fairly be drawn from the results of the
referendum and the nature of the debate that preceded it; at a time
when voters rank education as the single most important issue,
Californians are at best indifferent to the notion that racial
diversity on a college campus contributes meaningfully to a quality
education for the entire student body. According to well-publicized
studies by the University of California, without affirmative action
the percentage of African Americans and Latinos admitted to UCLA
and UC Berkeley will drop by 50 percent to 70 percent. (In recent
years, with affirmative action in effect, African Americans have
made up only 4 percent of the UCLA student body.)

Nonetheless, the great bulk of the Proposition 209 debate on
college admissions ignored diversity as an intrinsic value in
education and instead focused on clashing conceptions of fairness.
The majority of Californians concluded that fairness requires that
applicants be neither discriminated against nor benefited by race-
or gender-based preferences; and that so long as the admissions
process is fair to each applicant, the student body’s racial mix
should be determined by letting the chips fall where they may.

Ever since Gov. Pete Wilson resolved to roll back affirmative
action in his state and began lobbying the UC Regents, the
diversity-based argument in support of affirmative action has
rarely been articulated by anyone other than university
administrators. Chancellors Charles Young of UCLA and Chang-Lin
Tien of Berkeley have been among the most eloquent champions of
campus diversity, imploring regents not to neglect the educational
value to all students of spending four years learning from a
diverse peer group in and out of the classroom.

Other national education leaders have expressed similar
sentiments. Harvard University President Neil Rudenstine devoted
his 1995 President’s Letter to an impassioned reaffirmation of
diversity’s contribution to Harvard’s educational excellence,
characterizing it as an "educational resource comparable in
importance to the faculty library or science laboratories."

Educators like Young, Tien and Rudenstine also fervently believe
that an important part of the mission of our great universities is
preparing the next generation of society’s leaders. Since our
neighborhoods and schools remain largely segregated, college is
often the first time young Americans systematically live, eat and
work alongside people of other races. As Tien has written, "In the
dorms, students from barrios, suburbs, farm towns and the inner
city come together."

Given this country’s present demographics and the trends
forecast through the next century, effective leadership in the
United States will increase the ability to build bridges across
racial, ethnic and religious lines. If our college campuses are no
longer able to provide young Americans with a crash course in
getting along despite our differences, which of our institutions

What does it say about contemporary American race relations that
these considerations carried such little weight with California
voters? Has the belief that our diversity enhances our collective
experience evaporated to the point that both sides of the
affirmative action issue have essentially written off "diversity"
as a mantra for the hopelessly naive? If so, that’s Proposition
209’s most troubling statement about race relations.

Andy Zelleke, formerly a lecturer at the School of Law, and Dr.
Philip Wang, a research associate at the Harvard School of Public
Health, are principals of Zelleke & Wang, a management
consulting firm.

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