New Focus on Affirmative Action

By Elizabeth Williamson and Valerie Strauss
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, November 17, 2006

The number of minorities -- particularly black Americans -- winning government contracts and being admitted to public colleges and universities in California has dwindled since a ballot measure was passed 10 years ago outlawing preferential treatment for minorities in those areas, according to a study released yesterday.

The report comes as the longtime controversy over affirmative action is gaining new attention. Michigan voters last week adopted a constitutional amendment essentially taking the same action as California, and the American Bar Association is facing criticism from some groups for strengthening its diversity requirements for accreditation of law schools.

The study of California's Proposition 209 shows that it has had a major effect, according to Ellis Cose, who wrote the report for the Institute for Justice and Journalism at the University of Southern California's Annenberg School for Communication.

At the University of California's two flagships, the campuses in Berkeley and Los Angeles, the impact of Proposition 209 was immediate: The number of black and Hispanic freshmen admitted the year after the law took effect fell by half.

In California's transportation system, the report says, two-thirds of the minority contractors certified to do business with the state when the law went into effect have folded. "Once Proposition 209 passed, the contracts just dried up," Cose said.

The study comes after Michigan voters approved a ballot measure that aims, through a constitutional amendment, to bar public universities and state and local governments from discriminating or giving preferential treatment based on race, sex, color, ethnicity or national origin.

The vote shows that "there is a huge sense on the part of white voters that affirmative action needs to end," said Cose, an author and columnist for Newsweek. Although the national implication remains uncertain, "if this thing is put before states where there is a significant white majority, it's likely to pass," he said.

Michigan is a textbook example of what Cose calls the "chipping away of affirmative action," a process that began in the 1970s and gained political steam in the 1990s. In 1974, the Supreme Court rejected as a throwback to "separate but equal" a Detroit plan to bus city children to suburban schools. In 2003, the court ruled that a diverse student body was important enough to support race-conscious admissions at the University of Michigan's law school.

"The measure in Michigan, as did the measure in California, passed along very clearly racial lines," Cose said, showing that "even though jurists see a legitimate state interest in diversity voters, at least white voters don't."

Opponents to last week's ballot measure promise a legal battle, as do proponents. Although the Supreme Court has repeatedly ruled in favor of affirmative action programs, the court's written opinions have signaled for years that the programs' end may be near.

The question, the California report says, is whether Americans, decades after Jim Crow, still feel legally obligated to help boost people whose race puts them at an economic and educational disadvantage. Affirmative action opponents say special treatment based on race implies lesser treatment of others based on their majority status. So by addressing one injustice, they say, the programs commit another.

Because college admissions of minority students have slid nationwide in recent years, many admissions directors have changed their recruiting focus to identify not only minorities but low-income students, including whites.

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