Passed by referendum in 1996, Proposition 209 barred the state of California — including its public colleges and universities — from giving preferential treatment on the basis of race. The 1998 freshman class was the first within the University of California system to feel the effects of the ban.
While minority admissions as a whole have risen sharply, the number of African-American students admitted has plummeted — particularly at the UC system's two flagship schools, UCLA and Berkeley.
Nearly 10,000 African-American students graduated from high school last month in Los Angeles County. This fall, only 96 of them will attend one of the state's most prestigious universities, the University of California, Los Angeles.
The number of black students at UCLA has been falling for years, partly due to a ballot measure that ended racial preferences in admissions. School leaders now say something has to change.
African-Americans will make up nearly 2 percent of incoming freshmen at UCLA this fall. Senior Sofia McFoy, an anthropology major, says that's too low for her to feel as if she really belongs.
"When I first started here, I was asked what sport I play, and I was like, 'Um, I don't play any. Actually, I got here on academics,'" McFoy says. "Or they'd assume I'm an African-American studies major. You'd think it would be different here because it's L.A., but it's not."
Los Angeles County is home to more than 1 million blacks; it's one of the largest African-American centers in the country. Yet African-American enrollment at UCLA has dropped to its lowest level in more than 30 years.
Fallout from Proposition 209
"We agree it's a crisis — absolutely," says Yanina Montero, vice chancellor for student affairs at UCLA.
Montero is well aware that UCLA is a public institution financed by taxpayers. She says the university is failing its mission to educate a cross-section of California's citizens.
"We are not able, with these numbers, if they continue to decline, to have a critical mass of African-American students on campus to provide them with a positive experience, as well as maintaining the quality of the educational environment," she says.
Many critics put the blame squarely on Proposition 209, a ballot measure backed by former UC Regent Ward Connerly, which outlawed racial preferences in admissions. Since the law took effect a decade ago, black enrollment at UCLA has dropped 57 percent. But Connerly says inferior schools are at fault, not his law.
"It's much more convenient to blame 209, and to blame the university's requirements, than to do the heavy lifting of getting our students prepared so that they can compete," Connerly says.
According to Connerly, the prestige of a UC diploma has upped the ante for everyone. Last year, more than 45,000 students applied to UCLA. Connerly says there are simply too few blacks who make the grade on the only standard that should count: academic merit.
A Faulty Admissions Policy
UCLA sociologist Darnell Hunt agrees that too many students from poor, urban schools don't have the skills to compete. But he counters that some black students have overcome great obstacles to succeed, and they still can't get in.
"We have example after example of incredibly talented, 4.2 GPA, 1400 SAT, athlete, piano player — I mean, all the things that one would expect to see in a well-rounded student — who've been rejected by UCLA," Hunt says.
How can that be? Because other applicants come from affluent suburban schools with college coaches and scores of advanced-placement courses that can raise student GPAs even higher.
Hunt is the director of the Bunche Center for African-American Studies at UCLA, which recently published a report on declining black enrollment. In it, he says that Proposition 209 is a problem, but so is UCLA's own admissions process, which fails to take a student's background into account. Hunt says the University of California, Berkeley, which has a higher percentage of black students, takes a more holistic approach when reviewing an applicant's file.
"They look at grades and SAT scores in the context of the high school the student went to," he says. "They also look at the numbers in the context of the family situation."
Hunt wants UCLA to adopt similar standards. But Proposition 209, which forbids schools from using race as a criteria for admission, also forbids changing admissions standards in order to increase those numbers.
For now, administrators say their hands are tied. And although everybody seems to agree that action must be taken to reverse the decline, there's no solution in sight.