The Unwanted Legacy of Prop 209

Jan 29, 2011 No Comments

By Anais LaVoie

While Cal Berkeley Democrats is just about over the hump of its mid-life crisis, the Smart Ass is still in its adolescence, complete with the rebellious spirit of its conception and the occasional glaring pimple.

At the time of its birth, our magazine responded to rally cries by Berkeley’s Democratic liberals, which we all know aren’t as left as some of the most vocal “activists” around campus.  These voices were angered when Daily Cal editors voted 6-to-5 to endorse Proposition 209, taking the position that race and gender-based affirmative action “causes more harm than good.” In 1996, opponents of Prop 209 stole nearly all 23,000 copies of the Daily Cal, which requested that the thievery be investigated as a crime.

After the election, members of Cal Berkeley Democrats published an amateur newsletter that would eventually become the magazine in your hands right now.  You can read more about the beginnings of the Smart Ass in our interview with Paul Hogarth, one of its founders. But right now I wonder, was it really that radical to oppose the Daily Cal’s endorsement?

At the two most competitive campuses of the UC, Berkeley and LA, admissions of African American students dropped by more than half in the first year after Prop 209, and today, they represent only 4% of the student body. And while the administration continues to claim its commitment to decreasing underrepresentation, to my knowledge, voters across the state seem to have few problems with the legacy 209 left us.  The argument holds that affirmative action blocks slots from more qualified students.  Well, shouldn’t the same constituents behind 209 be a little angrier about the increased admission of out-of-state students, arguably a fundraiser for our underfunded institution?  Are those not also slots that you, by some manner of thinking, deserve?

The California initiative process has a way of forgetting human rights in the name of a prejudiced majority.  Most recently, we saw this with Prop H8, but you don’t have to look very far into the mid-1990s to see what I mean.  Prop 187 in 1994 was meant to save our state by blocking undocumented immigrants from using health care, public education, or other social services.  Despite the fact that the undocumented use these the services the least, 187 passed with a vote of 58%.  Two years later, 54% of voters enacted Prop 209.

I worry that, in 2010, we are again in one of those moments where economic uncertainty may manifest itself into oppressive policy. I worry about the popular notion among white folks that institutional racism no longer exists—that everyone is afforded equal educational opportunity, when clearly we see that this is not at all the case. I worry about the actions of Arizona, with the banning of Ethnic Studies and the heinous immigration law passed last April. I worry about budget cuts and what may grow out of “operational excellence”, because the UC specifically is not in a state to continue decreasing access for students of color.

Whether passed by voters, written by legislators, or even overruled by courts, these examples tell us that we cannot trust those in power to support those who are not.  As Democrats, we must look at how this crisis of representation came to be.  We must question our own place within the structure.  But most importantly, we must not be too afraid or too diplomatic to stop a 2010 realization of anything like 209.

Fall 2010

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