Reality Check: The Impact of Ending Affirmative Action in California

The Supreme Court issued decision Tuesday on the controversial issue of affirmative action.

The justices said in a 6-2 ruling that Michigan voters had the right to change their state constitution to prohibit public colleges and universities from taking account of race in admissions decisions.

While the decision itself wasn’t entirely surprising – it falls in line with rulings in 2003 and 2012 – it sparked demonstrations in the Bay Area and around the country with a number of advocacy groups accusing the High Court of “racism” and claiming that without affirmative action, minority students suffer.

Is the Supreme Court’s decision racist? And, what has the effect of ending affirmative action actually been on college enrollment?

The first question isn’t an easy one to objectively answer, but for many affirmative action supporters, today’s decision amounted to nothing short of the Supreme Court endorsing racism.

At a demonstration on UC Berkeley’s campus, Yvette Felarca of the group BAMN (“By Any Means Necessary”) explained to NBC Bay Area that the decision was racist “because it’s saying that any state could… let a majority white electorate vote away the equal opportunity and rights of an oppressed minority population.”

We spoke with UC Berkeley professor John Douglass, who is a supporter of affirmative action and has studied the issue for years, and he framed the decision in a different way: “I wouldn’t call it racism. I think this is an ongoing debate about the Constitution, the ability of individual institutions to make choices.”

As mentioned, there’s not really an impartial way to qualify or quantify whether the decision is racist or not. The reality is that affirmative action is stirs up strong emotions in both supporters and opponents of the policy.

But when it comes to evaluating the effect of affirmative action programs, well, that’s a much easier question to answer. We need not look any further than the evidence provided by the state of California, which put an end to affirmative action in 1996 when voters approved Proposition 209.

The numbers show the profound effect that affirmative action programs have had on minorities, especially Hispanics and African Americans, when applying to schools in the UC system.

Take UC Berkeley for example.

In 1990, Hispanics made up about 35 percent of California's college-aged students and 23 percent of Berkeley's incoming freshman class. Then, the affirmative action ban went into effect in 1998, and today Hispanics make up 49 percent of college-eligible students and just 11 percent of freshmen at Berkeley.

As for African American students at UC Berkeley, there’s been a similar trend. While the group's representation has remained consistent at 9 percent, black freshman have dropped from 8 percent in 1990 to just about 2 percent today.

At the University of California’s other major campuses, it’s largely the same story.

The reality of a colorblind admission process – i.e. banning affirmative action – is that minority enrollment plummets and student populations are not representative of a state’s overall population.

This reality might explain why California lawmakers have been recently tossing around the idea of reinstating affirmative action in the college admission process.

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