BERKELEY, Calif. — The debate over colorblind admissions policies in California’s four-year public colleges is heating up again.
The passage of Prop. 209, the anti-affirmative action initiative passed by state voters in 1996, prohibited public institutions from considering race, sex or ethnicity.
SB 185, one of hundreds of bills currently before Gov. Jerry Brown awaiting his signature, would once again allow public universities to consider race and other factors in admitting students.
Tensions heated up on the campus of the University of California at Berkeley the week of Sept. 26 as the Berkeley College Republicans held a controversial bake sale to protest SB 185. The so-called “Increase Diversity Bake Sale” priced baked goods by race with white males charged the highest price ($2 per item) and Native Americans charged the least (a quarter per item).
The pay-by-race bake sale drew criticism from many campus groups.
Asian Americans, asked to pay the second highest price for baked goods ($1.50 per item), were mostly quiet during the Sept. 27 event.
David Ding, a third-year student, commented on the lack of Asian Americans taking sides on the issue.
“Well, I mean, where they at? [You don’t see them around]… but they’re a majority race on campus,” he said.
Henry Der, former deputy superintendent of the California Department of Education and former executive director of Chinese for Affirmative Action, believed the current crop of Asian American students at UC Berkeley did not have a strong voice on the bake sale or on SB-185 because they did not grow up at a time when affirmative action was being considered or implemented.
He said Hispanic and African American students are passionate about this issue because they do not see themselves as well represented on the campus as their Asian peers are.
Behind the Theater Rice (UC Berkeley’s Modern Asian American Theatre) table, Tiffany Chiao, a senior, continued surfing the Web and ignoring the loud protests as Ashley Gau, a second-year student, returned to their table munching on a cookie that she said she “got for free” by telling the sellers “I was Native American.”
While Asian American students arguably have the most at stake with the measure, their voices have largely been absent from the debate on it.
Here, at the University of California’s most elite campus, admissions policies in the era after Prop. 209 have been a big boon to Asian Americans.
The group, which accounted for about a third of UC Berkeley’s student body in 1995, grew to slightly more than 40 percent of the student population last year.
In 1995, blacks made up about 7 percent of the campus’ student body, whites made up about a third, Asian Americans (including Filipinos and South Asians) also made up a third, and Latinos/Chicanos made up roughly 18 percent.
In 2010, the racial/ethnic breakdown of the student body was roughly 3.7 percent for blacks, 32 percent for whites, 41 percent for Asians and 14.8 percent for Latinos/Chicanos.
But admissions data show that, university-wide, the percentage of Asian Americans admitted to the university stayed nearly the same — about 33 percent — from 1995 to 2010.
Associated Students of the University of California (ASUC) executive vice president Christopher Alabastro speculates that the lack of Asian American voice reflects their mixed views on this issue.
“We are all students of color,” he said, in a phone interview. “But because of our [large] numbers, some feel that affirmative action would reverse the number of Asian Americans [admitted to UC].”
Alabastro said his views on affirmative action changed when he examined his own privileged background. “Prior to Berkeley, I was against affirmative action,” he said. “I thought everything should be based on merit… but I realize that was because I came from a background of privilege… I wanted to have that pride of working hard and making it into college on my own. But [I realize now], I have to put aside that pride because a lot of students have had different struggles.”
Sydney Fang, ASUC senator and co-author of the ASUC bill in support of SB 185, emphasized that AB 185 is not proposing affirmative action; there is no quota or extra point due to racial preferencing mentioned in the bill. Rather, the difference is its rhetoric. During a phone interview, Fang said that the bill calls for factors such as race, gender, and socioeconomic factors to be taken into consideration during the admissions process. This, she claims, in contrast to racial preferencing, allows for a broadening of criteria and an increased sensitivity toward understanding how different factors affect one another.
Fang says that the category “Asian American” doesn’t offer a fine grain look at how subgroups are faring under current admission policies. “On paper, [it states that there are] 46 percent Asian and Pacific Islanders… but if you look further, Pacific Islanders are very underrepresented,” he said.
Klein Lieu, a fourth year tech director of the California College Democrats, asserts: “This policy will not directly benefit [Asian Americans]. You are supporting this policy to stand in solidarity with your fellow students of color.”
But, not all students voiced support for SB 185.
Jay Reddy and Gina Youn, two freshmen from Pleasanton, Calif., sat by the bake sale eating lunch. Both said they disagreed with the principles behind affirmative action.
Reddy compared affirmative action to the forced caste diversity demanded within the Indian government.
“It’s kind of the same thing… [because it’s forced], the standards are lowered; it’s not fair.”
“I don’t support this either,” Gina said. “Affirmative action sets races against each other.”