In more than two decades of public life, former California Assembly Speaker Willie Brown has established a strong public image: dapper, cool and smiling, unflappable. But there he was one day in February, pounding on a podium, angrily denouncing Golden State voters as people who are "narrow-minded in many cases, who are only interested in just their little sphere." The San Francisco Democrat, arguably the most powerful figure in Sacramento for over a decade, told the reporters he had assembled that "everybody in here has been the beneficiary of preferential treatment at my expense—at every level of your lives, at every level of your lives."
Brown's anger had been set off by the California Civil Rights Initiative, an amendment to the state constitution that may appear on next year's ballot. Brown denounced the initiative as "totally phony" and "totally and completely a racist move." His charges have been echoed by other opponents of the measure. The measure's sponsors, on the other hand, say it will simply end the quotas that pervade the state's employment, education, and contracting programs and will restore the vision of a colorblind society that motivated the early civil rights movement.
As of this writing, the first of the 650,000 signatures needed to place the CCRI on the 1996 ballot hasn't even been collected, and the initiative campaign is still seriously underfunded. But already the measure has become perhaps the most controversial ballot initiative in California history, and it has sparked a national debate on affirmative action that may affect next year's presidential election. This battle has seemingly emerged out of nowhere. If the early rounds in California are any indication, the fight will be hot and bitter.
But despite the harsh rhetoric, the battle may ultimately turn on interpretation of the numbers on government hiring and education. And those numbers suggest strongly that affirmative action programs, especially in the state universities' professional schools, have promoted less qualified members of favored ethnic groups to the particular detriment of Asians and, to a lesser extent, of whites.
The text of the CCRI seems simple enough: "Neither the State of California nor any of its political subdivisions or agents shall use race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin as a criterion for either discriminating against, or granting preferential treatment to, any individual or group in the operation of the State's system of public employment, public education or public contracting." The initiative goes on to exempt affirmative action mandated by federal law or by existing court orders or consent decrees. Nor would it affect private-sector affirmative action programs.
Early polls show that the CCRI enjoys strong support among California's electorate. A statewide survey released by the Field Institute in March showed registered voters backed the initiative 60 percent to 35 percent, with only 5 percent undecided. Whites supported the measure 65 percent to 29 percent. Slim majorities of blacks, Latinos, and Asians opposed the measure, but even in those ethnic groups support for the CCRI was at 40 percent or higher. Republicans backed the measure by 75 percent to 20 percent, while Democrats opposed it 51 percent to 44 percent.
The emergence of the CCRI, and its huge popularity, has taken some politicians by surprise. After all, affirmative action wasn't an issue in the 1994 elections at either the state or national level. But others say they are not shocked that so many people say they will vote to overturn affirmative action.
"Having seen the results of public-opinion surveys and polls over the last few years, I'm not surprised by the popularity of this measure," says Alan Heslop, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. "The polls have shown a rapidly declining satisfaction with affirmative action. This decline is most pronounced among whites and Asians, but it's there to some extent with Hispanics, and even to a small extent among blacks."
David Bositis, senior political analyst for the Joint Center on Political and Economic Studies, concurs. "This issue has been out there for some time," he says. "Polls have shown that whites opposed affirmative action by a margin of about 75 percent to 25 percent for the last five years."
Why has this dissatisfaction with affirmative action gone unnoticed for so long? "I think that there was a real disconnect between the elites and the masses," says Frederick Lynch, a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and author of Invisible Victims: White Males and the Crisis of Affirmative Action. "This dissatisfaction has been out there, but no one has been willing to acknowledge it. Affirmative action is the Bermuda Triangle of social research. Only a handful of academics have even bothered to look into the results of the programs. Even the major conservative think tanks, which publish studies on every other area of public policy, have been reluctant to take on this issue."
A number of factors, some peculiar to California, seem to have brought the issue to a head. Lynch cites the emergence of talk radio as a forum for the masses to discuss the issues important to them. He and others also say the results of last November's election propelled conservative issues in general to the top of the political agenda.
And the mere fact that California has the ballot initiative is one reason the debate on affirmative action began here. Interest groups and regular citizens alike have long used the initiative process to bypass the state legislature when it has been reluctant to address their concerns. Most famously, in 1978 Californians approved by a large margin the property-tax-cutting measure Proposition 13. This vote helped launch a nationwide round of tax cuts. Last year, Golden State voters gave a big thumbs up to Proposition 187, a measure that cut off government services to illegal immigrants. "The success of Prop. 187 prepared the way for the California Civil Rights Initiative," says Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, a senior associate at the Center for Politics and Economics at the Claremont Graduate School. "It showed that issues of class and race were open to debate."
The authors of the CCRI, two academics named Tom Wood and Glynn Custred, say that before taking on this issue they were not political. "But after spending so many years in higher education, where these preferences are so aggressive, widespread, and institutionalized, we realized something had to be done," says Wood. Though Wood and Custred say they are nonpartisan, virtually all of the politicians supporting the measure are Republicans. Even Gov. Pete Wilson, who introduced racial and gender goals and timetables for city employment and contracts when he was mayor of San Diego in the 1970s, backs the initiative.
"This issue got hijacked by the Republicans, who see it as a way to appeal to and bring to the polls a certain segment—the so-called angry white males—that was so important to their victories last fall," says Jeffe. "The measure has taken on a life quite different from what its authors assumed."
The CCRI's backers deny that it has been "hijacked" by Republicans. "We gave the Democrats a chance, and they fumbled it," says Joe Gelman, campaign director for the California Civil Rights Initiative, referring to a vote last spring in which Democrats on the state Senate Governmental Organization Committee rejected a move to place the initiative on the March 1996 ballot. In April, delegates at the California Democratic Party convention voted overwhelmingly to oppose the measure.
The rhetoric of affirmative action's defenders has already heated up. Charges of racism flow easily from their lips. At the Senate hearings on the CCRI, Democrat Assemblywoman Barbara Lee said of arguments advanced by supporters of the initiative: "The Ku Klux Klan uses the same arguments to justify their positions. They are very active in this state, and they do purport to support the rhetoric of these bills." Wood says he is "very disappointed" by the "vehement and angry" rhetoric of his opponents.
Interestingly, none of the Democrats who hold major statewide offices has actually come out against the CCRI. "Many Democrats are looking for a third way, some way to defend affirmative action without supporting the status quo," says Jeffe.
One such Democrat is Assemblyman Louis Caldera. "The authors of this initiative have clearly touched a hot-button issue," says Caldera. "You can't manipulate people into caring about the initiative unless there is already existing concern. We need to address the legitimate concerns that people have about affirmative action, but this initiative is too broad and too blunt an instrument to do that."
Some, including Wood and Custred, have suggested rebuilding affirmative action on socioeconomic grounds, giving preferential treatment to people from poor or working-class backgrounds. Supporters of current affirmative action programs oppose this notion. "Discrimination in this country is based upon race, not economic class," says Allan Parachini, public affairs director of the ACLU of Southern California. "A 16-year-old African-American male driving a car in the wrong neighborhood is likely to be stopped and harassed by the police whether he is the son of a banker or the son of a poor person."
Some Democrats, however, are talking about adding class-based categories to existing affirmative action programs or means-testing programs to keep wealthy minority members from benefiting. "We need to make sure that there is opportunity for whites from disadvantaged backgrounds, and we could perhaps restructure the programs to keep minorities who have had lives of privilege from taking advantage of them," says Caldera.
While this approach has the cautious support of many affirmative action defenders, others worry that any talk of reform distracts from the more important goal of preserving affirmative action and may help weaken it. "We are aware that some people who think that they are on our side say that economic considerations should be added to affirmative action programs," says Parachini, "but we just don't think that this is a problem of anywhere near the magnitude of discrimination based upon race."
Early signs are that those seeking a third way will have a difficult struggle with their allies. At first, Willie Brown supported the idea of adding economic considerations to affirmative action. But Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton reported early this spring that Brown regaled some lunchtime guests with a story of how he told President Clinton, who has suggested "fine-tuning" affirmative action, "By the way, Mr. President, if you do decide to leave us on affirmative action, next time I see you on a bandstand, make sure you have a banjo rather than a sax." Brown's aides told Skelton that Brown was referring to the banjo-plucking retarded Southern boy in the movie Deliverance.
Ruling out reform of affirmative action, such opponents of the CCRI will try to portray the initiative as an attack on equal opportunity, not quotas. "We have to clarify that quotas are already illegal except in certain narrow cases ordered by the courts to correct proven past discrimination, and the California Civil Wrongs Initiative cannot overturn those court orders," says Joe Hicks, executive director of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Greater Los Angeles.
Then what will the CCRI get rid of, according to its critics? "It will eliminate any program that requires affirmative outreach to underrepresented minorities or women," says Michael Harris, a staff attorney with the San Francisco-based Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights. "Programs that require, for example, broader advertising to recruit a more diverse pool of applicants….It will also ban using race or gender as one criterion in deciding among a group of qualified individuals."
When asked why such programs are needed to ensure equal opportunity, defenders of affirmative action point to the recent federal "glass ceiling" report on women in corporate America or the small numbers of women and blacks at the top levels of California's largest companies. But whatever one thinks of those numbers, they don't seem to have much to do with the CCRI, which does not apply to private-sector affirmative action programs.
Still, if the supporters of affirmative action can successfully portray the programs as furthering equal opportunity, they will probably win the debate. Polls consistently show that a large majority of Americans oppose racial and gender preferences and quotas. But those same polls show that most people, including most whites, support the idea of equal opportunity. An April nationwide poll designed by Louis Harris for the Feminist Majority Foundation, for example, found initial support for the CCRI of 81 percent. But when people were asked if they would support the initiative if it ended programs that help women and minorities achieve equal opportunity in education and employment, support plummeted to 30 percent.
Opponents of affirmative action argue that many, probably most, such programs result in de facto quotas. Sometimes the quotas are open, they say, pointing to a California law setting a goal of giving 15 percent of state contracts to minority businesses and 5 percent to firms owned by women. But usually, argue the CCRI's backers, the preferences are hidden. They cite the state's higher-education system, particularly its medical schools, for evidence of reverse discrimination.
Officially, the University of California system has no racial quotas, and the universities jealously guard admissions and test-score data that might suggest otherwise. But the Los Angeles Times and other sources have reported that the Board of Regents commissioned a study of what enrollment would look like if affirmative action were abolished. According to the Times, if admission were based upon academic performance and economic need, black enrollment would drop by half, to less than 3 percent of the student body. Latino enrollment, now 13 percent, would drop to 11 percent. The number of Asian-American students would increase by between 15 and 25 percentage points, bringing the total at the system to between 48 percent and 58 percent, compared to the current level of 33 percent. White enrollment would increase by merely 5 percentage points.
The Wall Street Journal reports that Berkeley, probably the most competitive campus, has done its own study. If admission were based on academics alone, Asians would rise from 41.7 percent of the freshman class to between 51.6 percent and 54.7 percent. The white portion of the freshman class would increase from 29.8 percent to between 34.8 percent and 37.3 percent. Hispanic enrollment would drop from 15.3 percent to between 3 percent and 6.3 percent. Blacks would go from 6.4 percent to between 0.5 percent and 1.9 percent.
The situation isn't much different at the UC professional schools. Admissions officers at the University of California's five medical schools deny that race plays a part in admissions. "Candidates are judged by three equally weighted criteria: academic performance and test scores, clinical or research experience, and personal characteristics and experience," says Linda Grannell, an admissions officer at the University of California at Irvine's medical school. "This last would include their potential to render medical service to underrepresented populations."
But the numbers seem to tell a different story. The University of California officially considers four groups to be the "underrepresented populations" mentioned above: blacks, Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, and American Indians. Members of those groups have admissions rates far above whites and other minorities at the University of California medical schools. At the Davis campus, for example, researchers Jerry and Ellen Cook found that underrepresented minorities accounted for 10.6 percent of applications but 28.9 percent of acceptances from 1991 to 1993. Asians were 34.7 percent of applicants and 27.4 percent of admittees. Non-Hispanic whites, "others," and "unknowns" were 54.6 percent of applicants and 43.7 percent of those accepted. Underrepresented minorities had an acceptance rate 3.4 times that of Asians and whites. In 1993 at Davis, American Indians had an acceptance rate 11.8 times that of Koreans, and blacks were 13.7 times more likely than Koreans to be accepted.
In an attempt to eliminate differences in background other than race, the Cooks focused on medical school applicants from one undergraduate school, the University of California at San Diego. Between 1987 and 1993, underrepresented minorities made up 13 percent of the UC-San Diego undergraduates who applied to medical school at that campus but 32 percent of those accepted. Moreover, the average OPA and MCAT score of the affirmative action group ranked in the bottom 1 percent of the other UC-San Diego students.
In another study, the Cooks looked at 1993 applicants from the University of California, Irvine, to all UC medical schools. They found that the differences in admission rates and average OPAs and test scores between affirmative action students and non-affirmative action students were about the same as in the UC-San Diego study. But this time the Cooks had access to financial data on the applicants. They found that affirmative action students who were not classified by the schools as economically disadvantaged were admitted at four times the rate of non-affirmative action students who were classified as economically disadvantaged. (UC medical schools no longer publish general breakdowns of admissions by ethnic group, MCAT scores, and GPA, though prospective students can still get estimates of their likelihood of admission by giving officials their ethnicity, scores, and GPA over the phone.)
"The conclusion must be that race is not just one factor considered in UC medical school admissions," said Ellen Cook in her April testimony before the California Assembly's Higher Education Committee. "It is the major factor."
According to information on the 1993 freshman class at UCLA Law School, the average LSAT score for accepted whites, Asians, and "others" was 42.93. The average LSAT for blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans was 36.97. This places the average score for these minorities in the lowest 2 percent of the other students. The law school accepted 38 percent of black, Latino, and Native American applicants with GPAs between 3.60 and 3.79 and LSAT scores below 38. It accepted only 2 percent of Asians, whites, and "others" with comparable GPAs and LSAT scores. "There's no question that the UCLA Law School uses racial preferences in its admissions," says Allan J. Favish, an attorney who has studied the issue.
In the coming weeks and months, government hiring, education, and contracting numbers will be subjected to greater scrutiny than at any time in the past 30 years. When people look at these figures, will they see a system that doesn't do enough to provide equal opportunity for women and minorities, or will they see proof of bias against white men? When all is said and done, the battle will be fought with these numbers, not simply with charges of racism or reverse discrimination.
Contributing Editor Charles Oliver is a staff writer for Investor's Business Daily.