Jonah Rosenthal

In 1996, with a vote of 5,268,462 to 4,388,733, Proposition 209 was passed in California. The Amendment reads, “[California] shall not … grant preferential treatment to any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting.” Of any Proposition on the ballot in 1996, Prop 209 was second in voter turnout only to the Medical Marijuana Initiative. Prop 209 effectively halted progress made by affirmative action initiatives and policies, first implemented by President John F. Kennedy in 1961, which directly aimed to improve educational and occupational opportunities for marginalized groups. College admissions rates for African American and Latinx students had significantly increased as a result, and now, Prop 209 has barred them from use at the University of California (UC).

At UC Berkeley, Prop 209’s effects became immediately apparent after its implementation in 1998. African American students had accounted for 6.7 percent of all resident-enrolled freshman at UC Berkeley in 1995; three years later, this figure fell to 3.7. Today, African American students make up just 3 percent of UC Berkeley’s undergraduate population while Chicanx/Latinx students account for only 14 percent. Without proper racial representation, the university is not serving our state’s interest as it should. 

UC Berkeley, however, has taken measures to address racial disparities that have occurred as a result of Prop 209 while remaining compliant with its regulations. Along with the UCLA, Irvine, San Diego campuses, Berkeley has adopted holistic application review. Considering “income level, first-generation status, neighborhood circumstances, disadvantages overcome, and the impact of an applicant’s background on academic achievement,” according to the University of California’s Guidelines for Enhancing Diversity at UC in the Context of Proposition 209. The status of underrepresented groups is not directly considered in the admissions process, but may be one contributing factor in acceptance decisions. In addition, after the school’s Black Student Union demanded in 2015 campus culture be improved to better accommodate African American students, the UC Berkeley Division of Equity and Inclusion launched the African American Initiative (AAI) later that year. As a result of the AAI, the Fannie Lou Hamer Black Resource Center opened in February 2017, and in 2018, AAI scholarships were awarded to twenty-eight African American undergraduates who have and will continue to receive $8,000 annually for up to five years. 

Despite these steps towards racial equity, UC Berkeley’s African American undergraduate population remains 4 percent lower than that of the state of California, with six-year graduation rates for 2006-2010 cohorts 82 percent for women and 65 percent for men, compared to 93 percent for white women and 89 percent for white men during the same period. While the AAI and other diversity initiatives have supported and encouraged inclusion, racial disparities, not only at UC Berkeley but around the globe, are still evident and need to be fought against.

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