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UCLA Sees Sharp Drop in Black Enrollment

ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS AND NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

The Supreme Court has agreed take up affirmative action again. Two new cases in Washington and Kentucky challenged the use of race-based preferences in public education. California is one of a few states that already prohibits such preferences. That's because of a statewide proposition passed in 1996, ten years after Proposition 209. UCLA has just announced its smallest class of African-American freshmen in more than 30 years.

NPR's Farai Chideya spoke with the man behind the end of affirmative action in California. Ward Connerly, chairman of the Civil Rights Institute, acknowledges the lack of diversity at UCLA is alarming, but he says that's the point.

Mr. WARD CONNERLY (Chairman, Civil Rights Institute): My own vision was that removing the Band-Aid, we would realize how serious the sore is and begin to deal with that sore. I see some very hopeful signs that we're doing that. In California, we went from looking at academic merit as being defined by standardized tests - and to a lesser extent, grade point averages - to looking at students comprehensively.

We started doing more outreach. We took the top four percent from every high school. We redefined merit, essentially. We're still in the process of getting more of our black kids academically competitive. There is a great tendency for everyone to rush to judgment and say that, oh, there are a few of them at UCLA and Berkley; therefore, 209 isn't working. I think you can't blame 209 for that profound achievement gap that we have between black and white, black and Asian. 209 simply underscores a problem that we have.

FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:

Would you agree to abolish the use of testing in admissions? And what do you think that would do to your plans around eliminating racial preferences?

Mr. CONNERLY: Well, absolutely not. I wouldn't abolish the use of tests. I want to make sure that tests are there. They are a way of measuring academic ability and potential and accomplishment. I believe that kids who are not achieving -low-income kids, black kids - they can meet those tests. We've given them their proper weight at the University of California when I was on the Board of Regents.

There are two different problems here. One problem is income. And I think that if it's costing a thousand dollars for people to get prepared to take those tests, that's an income problem. That's not a race-based problem. There maybe some intersection between race and income. But I think that if approach it as an income problem and we provide the financing for kids to be able to get themselves prepared to take those tests, that's a different situation than giving people preferences, if you will, or having different standards on the basis of race.

CHIDEYA: Maybe you can explain your distinction between affirmative action and preferential treatment, because you've use those two terms differently.

Mr. CONNERLY: It seems to me that affirmative action is using the power of government to reach out to people to make sure there is no discrimination by that institution that is making decisions about people's lives. Looking at job descriptions, making sure that they are fair, that they're impartial, making sure that you're going to all segments of the community - that you're advertising in black newspapers, and you're going to different events where you would reach a large assortment of people.

I know that I went to a local high school, Grant Union High School in Del Paso Heights, and I don't ever remember seeing anybody from UC going into the Heights. Preferences, on the other hand, are applying different standards - a duo track, if you will - one standard for underrepresented minorities, and another standard for Asians and whites. In the long run, that doesn't serve the interests of anyone. Why did these numbers down at UCLA and Berkley and San Diego and Santa Barbara? It underscores the fact that we had been applying a dual standard, and we went to a single standard, our black - and to a lesser extent Hispanic kids and Native Americans - simply weren't competitive.

CHIDEYA: That leads directly to the question of these two new Supreme Court cases. If you measure what students have done, you also have to measure the schools that they were in. And so tell us what your take is on these Seattle and Jefferson County, Kentucky cases which deal with the allocation of students of different races into a public school system that may have some very different educational experiences within its own system.

Mr. CONNERLY: These two cases - the one in Seattle and the one in Kentucky, the Jefferson County cases - they're not about equalizing educational opportunity or trying to somehow resolve inequities. They're about racial balancing and trying to achieve diversity at the K thru 12 level. I don't think that they address the basic problem of the inequities in the K thru 12 system or the lack of preschool for kids, which I think is a crucial problem.

So I don't think that it's relevant to the problem that we're faced with in a larger society in terms of education. If anything, it's this whole notion of trying to deal with racial balancing that got us to this mess in the first place. Give black kids in black neighborhoods a quality education and don't worry about whether the person sitting next to them is white, black, purple, green or yellow. I mean, give them a good education.

CHIDEYA: Ward Connerly, thank you for joining us.

Mr. CONNERLY: You're quite welcome.

GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya with Ward Connerly, Founder and Chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.