The “diversity bake sale” by the Berkeley College Republicans and the resulting whirlwind of counter-protests prove yet again that Berkeley suffers no shortage of self-righteous ire, left or right. The irony is that the pending legislation lying at the center of the whole flap is essentially meaningless.
The Republicans staged their bake sale as a way of publicizing their objections to Senate Bill 185, which sits on Gov. Jerry Brown’s desk. The bill calls on the University of California and the California State University to consider race, gender, ethnicity and other factors when making admissions decisions. The problem, of course, is that the Legislature and governor can decide no such thing, since the voters already settled the issue.
In 1996, as everyone will remember, California voters enacted Proposition 209, which amended the state Constitution to declare that state and local governments, including UC and CSU, “shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin.” (I think the voters made a mistake, by the way, but that is their right.)
At some level, SB 185 is an attempted end run around Prop. 209. Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger acknowledged precisely that when he vetoed similar legislation last year. “The intent of this bill would be more appropriately addressed through a constitutional change of those current restrictions,” he wrote in his veto message.
At another level, the bill was written to avoid a head-on collision with 209, but the result is language that essentially signals the measure’s own impotence. The text of the bill states that universities should consider race and gender in admissions, “so long as no preference is given.” But preference is the only thing anybody cares about when it comes to college admissions. Did I get in? Did my kid get in? Did somebody get in because they were black or brown or yellow, or because they weren’t?
Supporters of the bill point to a couple of federal court cases dealing with admissions procedures at the University of Michigan, one regarding the law school and another regarding undergraduate admissions. One of those cases suggested that race could be considered in narrowly tailored ways to serve a compelling interest in achieving a diverse student body. But the question there was whether the Michigan procedures violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. Obviously, nobody raised the California Constitution as an issue in a Michigan case.
But they sure would here. SB 185 says that race should be considered “in conformity” with the provisions of Prop. 209, and given the plain meaning of 209, that would mean that race could be considered, well, not at all. Even the bill’s sponsor, state Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-West Covina, acknowledges, “Proposition 209 was so far-reaching that even targeted outreach programs to attract and retain qualified minority applicants are not allowed.”
The governor can sign the bill or veto it. Either way, it won’t make much of a difference when it comes to the student bodies at UC and CSU.