Color Cleaves UC Campus · 31 May 2003

By Carrie Sturrock

BERKELEY - The subject of race is hard to avoid on UC Berkeley's campus. Sometimes, it's like a downed wire in a thunderstorm whipping around Sproul Plaza. Despite the end of affirmative action five years ago, race remains one of the most charged issues there, provoking anxiety and conflict on a campus where the number of black and Latino students has sharply declined. Signs of the tension, and debate over the changing makeup of the student body, suffuse the campus.

One late February morning, the Berkeley College Republicans held a bake sale, charging passersby different prices for chocolate-chip cookies based on their race. The provocative statement touched a nerve. People glared, some argued and others flashed "Way to go!" smiles. It snared the attention of a group of black upperclassmen who, visibly agitated, later denounced the sale in a packed African-American studies class where emotions ran high. Some criticized their classmates for even discussing such a stunt. "We're being reactionary now: We're so caught up in what they were talking about," said one African-American student. "They're not going to listen to a black person. ... I don't want to listen to this s---."

Affirmative action in admissions and hiring at public universities ended in 1998 when California voters passed Proposition 209. Since then, the percentage of African-American and Hispanic students has declined at UC Berkeley. Blacks now make up just 3.8 percent of the undergraduate student population, down from 6.1 percent in 1997, while the percentage of Hispanics has fallen from 13.2 to 10.2 percent.

Affirmative action could end at other public universities. The U.S. Supreme Court is poised to issue an opinion on whether the University of Michigan's undergraduate program and its law school may continue considering race as a factor in admissions. Should the high court throw out Michigan's policies, campuses across the nation might look to Cal for a sense of what to expect. The shifting racial makeup at UC Berkeley has made Asian-Americans the predominant ethnic group, forming nearly 43 percent of the undergraduate population. The change has altered the culture of the classrooms, dorms and public spaces in obvious and subtle ways. Different groups have experienced the changes differently.

The subject of affirmative action doesn't come up much in sophomore Catherine Chen's social circle. "Maybe because there isn't a need," said Chen as she surveyed Sproul Plaza from a table for the Chinese Student Association, of which she is a member. "Berkeley is so diverse it just works out. Berkeley attracts a lot of diverse people without affirmative action."

Freshman Raniyah Abdus Samad, on the other hand, thinks a lot about affirmative action. On Wednesdays she wears a black T-shirt that reads "REPRESENT" on the front and "less than 3.9 percent" on the back to draw attention to the campus's dwindling percentage of African-Americans. She chose to live on the African-American themed floor in the dorms for a sense of community. It seems to her that everyone at Berkeley is either Asian or white. "Every day I go out onto Sproul and I feel like 'OK. Take a deep breath,'" said Abdus Samad. "I don't see 'me' anywhere. And it's not because ... my community is not smart or anything else like that. It's because we're being given the short end of the stick all the time."

Cal's changing face California's university system is unique in that its crown jewel, UC Berkeley, is one of the nation's only public universities mentioned in the same breath as Harvard, Princeton or Stanford. Fees at Berkeley, however, are a fraction of those at Ivy League schools, so getting into Cal is a bit like winning the lottery. Since the end of affirmative action, the nine-campus University of California system has offered more African-American, Latino and Native American students a spot: They made up 19.8 percent of students admitted for the fall 2003 freshmen class, up from 18.8 percent in 1997. But fewer students in those ethnic groups are enrolled. The university system has seen an overall decrease from 18.5 percent in 1997, the year before Proposition 209 went into effect, to 16.8 percent last fall. Berkeley and UCLA, the most prestigious campuses, have seen the sharpest declines in traditionally underrepresented ethnic groups. At Berkeley, white students have remained steady at about 31 percent of the undergraduate population. The Asian-American presence has grown, from 40.9 percent in 1997 to 42.9 percent today. Asian-Americans represent just 14.9 percent of California's high school graduates, according to the California Postsecondary Education Commission.

A little over 30 years ago, Asian-Americans made up 12 percent of the campus. In 1989, in the face of sharp criticism, former chancellor Ira Michael Heyman acknowledged that the university had hindered Asian-Americans in admissions. The subsequent increase is perhaps most obvious to the casual observer on Sproul Plaza, where Asian-affiliated groups like the Vietnamese Student Association, the Asian Political Association and the Berkeley Hong Kong Student Association made up nearly half the groups distributing fliers on a recent morning. Some students take care to point out the "Asian" category that lumps students together for ethnic tallies fails to clarify that some groups, like Filipino-American, make up a tiny percent of the student body and often face the same socioeconomic hardships as African-Americans and Latinos.

Sophomore Mike Liao's San Jose high school was 60 percent Asian-American. His electrical engineering and computer science major at Cal has placed him in predominantly Asian classes. "Sometimes I kind of feel I need to reach out more -- take humanities classes to meet people who are non-Asian," he said. "Sometimes, I'm kind of afraid to go outside those bonds. That's why I'm comfortable with the Chinese Student Association."

The California Patriot is a glossy magazine that touts itself as "The Conservative Voice of Berkeley." Since its publication in April 2000, just two years after Proposition 209 went into effect, its writers have ferreted out what they consider anti-American sentiment at Cal and detailed the trials of living in a liberal stronghold. A number of its writers belong to the Berkeley College Republicans, which held the bake sale. The Patriot's February issue focused on the perils of affirmative action. "Activists of today's Civil Rights Establishment have mutilated Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream into a sticky pulp of racial preferences and divisions," wrote student Chris Warren. "They have deterred their aims from the 'Promised Land' of a color-blind society where an individual is assessed by the content of his character ... to enduring color-consciousness and race-based politics."

Administrators at the campus say the conservative voice at Berkeley grew louder after affirmative action ended, and they point to the Patriot as a prime example. "Since Prop. 209, the conservative voice on campus has emerged. It had been almost silent," said Karen Kenney, Berkeley's dean of students. "You didn't have a publication like the Cal Patriot. ... I think it's in part because students feel 'We can speak up now and we can share our views.' "

Conservative students are sharing their views in a more activist way: It contributes to a climate that ... some students perceive as hostile to students of color." Before affirmative action ended, Kenney said, the Berkeley College Republicans wouldn't have dared to invite David Horowitz, an outspoken critic of slavery reparations, to speak on campus. A month before his March 2001 visit, he created an uproar with an ad in the Daily Cal titled "Ten Reasons Why Reparations for Slavery is a Bad Idea and Racist Too." More than three dozen student protesters stormed the newspaper office, called the editor a racist for running the ad and removed papers from racks, behavior many found odd on a campus renowned as a haven of free speech.

Those who oppose affirmative action have faced charges of racism as well. Seth Norman, the Patriot's editor, said that's still happening, but to a lesser degree as time goes on. "We're still being called racist, but for the first time a lot more people feel comfortable saying, 'There are good intentions behind (affirmative action), but it's not working and it's not fair.'"

Striving for diversity

Efforts to increase the number of African-American students at Cal focus heavily these days on outreach in Oakland, Berkeley and Richmond high schools. Recruiters educate the students on how to compete. Georgia Webb, one such recruiter, talked rapidly as she explained to a room of 14-year-old African-American students from West Oakland how to get into Cal. She spoke with quick, intense urgency, almost as if she feared they might disappear before she finished what she had to say. "You need four years of English," she said. "You need three years, preferably four, of math. You need a foreign language and you need an elective." These freshmen from McClymonds High School, in one of the Bay Area's poorest communities, listened to her pitch inside a UC Berkeley dormitory lounge during an overnight visit.

Although outreach has become a cornerstone of the university's efforts to diversify its student body since affirmative action ended, it faces serious questions about its effectiveness, making it a prime candidate for deep budget cuts. But on this night, Webb was on a mission. She wanted the students to understand they could go to Cal if they work hard. The personal statement, she told them, is very important. It can be key. In another attempt to diversify in a post-Proposition 209 world, the university last year changed its admissions policies to include a "comprehensive review" of applications. Under the new guidelines, extracurricular activities and factors such as "hardship" are considered in the admissions process. Before, 50 to 75 percent were admitted based on grades and test scores alone.

Webb told the students that not everyone admitted has a stellar record: the university just decided to admit someone with a 3.3 GPA (on a 4.0 scale) who scored only a 1080 on the SAT -- both figures well below the average incoming freshman. The girl worked 20 hours a week and lived with seven siblings in a one-bedroom house. "We look at the whole person," Webb told the students in a tone of encouragement. "How much you have and how you work with that." The students had basic questions. One boy wants to know if the personal statement should be typed or handwritten. Referring to the SAT, a girl asked: "You could be the smartest person, but what if you don't take tests good?" Webb said she sees a lot of smart people like that and advised the students to practice their test-taking skills.

Tight-knit groups

Affirmative action leaves junior Graciela Gonzalez feeling ambivalent. Part of her believes that some students need the leg up it affords. And yet she likes that no one can legitimately imply she got into UC Berkeley because of her race, not her hard work. "That's kind of why I hate affirmative action," she said. But she wants to see more Latino students on campus. She joined a small Latina sorority of nine women at Cal called Lambda Theta Nu Sorority because the tight-knit group provides a comfort zone. She felt somewhat lost at Berkeley before. A molecular and cell biology major, she said her science classes are mostly Asian. And then she said she felt bad pointing that out. Latinos face discrimination, she explained, and she doesn't want to sound as if she's discriminating by making racial distinctions. Her sorority sisters work to promote Latinas.

One morning, Gonzalez and another woman held a small fund-raiser on Sproul Plaza in which they asked for a dollar to support Latino literacy. Sometimes they hand out fliers for parties. The Asian and white students never show up, Gonzalez said. But she's not all that interested in hanging out with non-Latinos these days, anyway. She wants to date only Latinos. She didn't learn about her ethnic history until college, and she's resentful that her white high school teachers didn't expose her to it. "I want to get more in touch with my culture and heritage," she said. "I don't feel in place any more when I go to a white party. That used to be my crowd. I prefer to be now with my Latina friends."

Premium on difference

As UC Berkeley history professor Richard Abrams sees it, one of the unintended consequences of affirmative action is that it placed a premium on difference. "It has positive and negative effects," he said. "The negative is that it tends to fragment society." Parts of Cal are still fragmented, he said. The African-American-themed dorm-room floor at Berkeley strikes him as a negative. But Abdus Samad, who lives on that floor, said she likes returning home to a place where she doesn't have to explain herself or black cultural differences like "Why don't you wash your hair every day?" She doesn't want to feel like she's speaking for the black community all the time. She had considered going to a historically black college after attending a mostly white high school in Southern California, but then the student-run Black Recruitment and Retention Center flew her up to Berkeley for a weekend. She fell in love. The black community was small but close, a closeness born of a certain sense of adversity, she said. By attending Cal, by becoming a part of the recruitment and retention center, she thinks that maybe she can help diversify Berkeley and stop the African-American population from dwindling further. Maybe, she said, she can make it a place her children will want to attend too.

The only visible counterprotest at the bake sale, aside from the individual students who debated the Berkeley College Republicans, was a lone freshman named Tracey Ross. A friend had e-mailed her about it the night before. She couldn't sleep. So she created a sign on her computer, "Free Cookies for Athletes" and stapled it to a stick. If we're going to talk about one kind of affirmative action, she said, we should talk about another: how stellar athletes have a competitive edge in the admissions process. "Free cookies" she said, her quiet voice swallowed up by the energy on Sproul Plaza. "Hey, have a free cookie!" Ross believes that affirmative action, where it exists, does need to change. Simply admitting someone solely on their race wouldn't account for the wealth and advantages that some middle-class blacks and Latinos enjoy. "Affirmative action has to evolve with the times, until it can evolve out, but that's not today" she said.

Although race defines so much about Berkeley, not everyone engages in the debates. Senior Deborah Girma bought two cookies at the bake sale. Since she's black, she paid 25 cents each. She called the sale ridiculous. But she was hungry, she said, and the cookies were cheap.

Originally printed in the Contra Costa Times June 01, 2003