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A California State Senate initiative that would allow considering factors such as race, sex, color, ethnicity and national origin in California state universities’ admissions processes has failed to move forward, making the affirmative action initiative ineligible for this November’s elections ballot.
Senate Constitutional Amendment No. 5 (SCA 5) was authored by Senator Edward Hernandez of the 24th District, located in Los Angeles County, and was intended to overturn California Proposition 209, which banned affirmative action in public universities and colleges in California. Prop 209 banned affirmative action in any state institution, whereas SCA 5 will have added an exemption for universities. However, SCA 5 did not receive the two-thirds vote needed in the State Assembly to progress, with three state senators halting the effort after reversing their votes to oppose the bill.
Throughout the month of February, a “Vote No to SCA 5” petition began spreading throughout the state and drew over 114,000 signatures on the online petition platform change.org. The initiative was primarily opposed by Asian-American organizations — including about 20 regional and national groups representing Chinese Americans — as well as some freedom groups, such as the American Civil Rights Coalition and other opponents of affirmative action efforts.
Many advocates of the Asian American community opposed the bill with claims that it could potentially give preference to other racial groups and overlook academically strong applicants. After initially voting in favor of the bill, three Asian American senators recently reversed their support, including Senators Carol Liu, Ted Lieu and Leland Yee, the same state senator who is now facing charges for corruption and gun trafficking. Currently, Asian Americans make up the most represented racial minority in the UC system, according to University statistics.
However, many statewide and national groups have upheld support for SCA 5, including organizations representing California teachers and doctors as well as advocacy groups for African Americans and Hispanic Americans, in addition to AFSCME, the largest union for UC workers.
Democratic Assembly Member Das Williams said he does not agree with the concerns surrounding the proposed revisions to SCA 5. Williams said Prop 209 is in need of a sort of reversal and he refuted claims that SCA 5 could hurt future admission numbers for California’s Asian American students.
“There’s no doubt that Prop 209 needs to be changed, and SCA 5 is one of those vehicles to do it,” Williams said. “We have looked at the numbers, and I see no numerical evidence that affirmative action would hurt Asians as a whole. In fact, it would help underrepresented Asian subgroups such as Filipinos.”
Despite SCA 5’s failure, Williams said he is hopeful for another type of solution that will help underrepresented groups gain fair opportunity in the college admissions process.
“I’m hopeful that even though SCA 5 seems to be stalled, there will be another solution that is multiethnic — [one] that will allow outreach to take place in the university system,” Williams said.
Robert Oakes, Legislative Director and Spokesperson for Senator Carol Liu, said the senator was asked to hold off the initiative to give the opposition ample time to express their concerns. Oakes said Liu supports all students having equal access to higher education, even though she decided to put a hold on the initiative.
“[Liu] supported consistently for education for all students in California,” Oakes said. “Our office started getting opposition emails, saying they opposed it. So she asked for a hold-off to give the people with opposition time for an explanation.”
While saying the senator is “supportive of creating more advantage for all students,” Oakes also said Prop 209 has “become unfair to some groups.” He added that there needs to be a more thorough analysis of whether or not SCA 5 gives advantages or disadvantages to certain groups before the proposed amendment moves closer to the state ballot.
“We definitely think there should be a discussion, particularly if there is any group being disadvantaged of the process,” Oakes said. “It has been a long time since we talked about it, and it’s overdue; it’s time to have a discussion.”
According to Senator Hannah-Beth Jackson, who voted for SCA 5, Prop 209 has barred the enrollment of racial minorities in the University of California and California State University systems since its passing in 1996. Progression of SCA 5 is necessary for these campuses to see greater diversity in their student bodies, Jackson said.
“I’m very concerned about the drop we’ve seen in underrepresented minority student enrollment at our UCs and CSUs in more than 15 years since Proposition 209 was passed,” she said.
Although Jackson said UCSB has managed to gain greater levels of diversity than other campuses, she said there is still a disproportionately smaller representation of racial minorities at UC campuses.
“While UC Santa Barbara has fared better than other institutions in achieving diversity, the UC system as a whole has a persistent enrollment gap, where underrepresented students of color make up over 50 percent of high school graduates but only 30 percent of freshmen UC enrollees,” Jackson said.
According to Jackson, affirmative action programs in the past have proven “critical in advancing equal educational opportunities for minorities and women.” Furthermore, she said the recent controversy surrounding SCA 5 is “prompting an important public discussion about inequities in our public universities” that could potentially help the bill move forward as it becomes “the focus of bicameral commission hearings.”
According to A.S. On-campus Senator Nikki Calderon, who is also a representative for Campus Democrats, the halting of SCA 5 is a disappointment. Calderon said the proposed amendment was a “huge step in the right direction” toward a campus population that “accurately represents the state of California.”
“It would have created fairer opportunities for students to attend university by taking into account their backgrounds,” Calderon said. “Without taking into account gender or race, one is unable to really recognize personal struggles a student may have had based on their backgrounds.”
A version of this story appeared on page 1 of Wednesday, April 2, 2014′s print edition of the Daily Nexus.