California Pols Lose Touch with Reality over Affirmative-Action Ruling
In doing so, they ignore the real scandal in the state’s education system.
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Among the weirdest reactions to the Supreme Court’s June 29 decisions on affirmative action, those megaphoned by California’s political class may be the most unhinged.
Here’s the reality: California voters banned race-based admissions in 1996. But in the decades since, progressives have crafted multiple paths around that prohibition. The result is a uniquely evolved system, a steam-blowing, clanging, banging Rube Goldberg contraption of progressive-media activism, unsupervised agency rulemaking, and political grandstanding fueled by money and rage.
That system is now likely to become the national average.
But these deeper realities were absent from the end-times proclamations of California’s political leaders following the Court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard. Senator Dianne Feinstein, only recently called a racist by San Francisco’s school board, hit Twitter to declare that the “deeply disappointing decision . . . will do long-term damage to our ability to build diverse and robust institutes of higher education.” Democrat Barbara Lee, a congresswoman from Oakland who hopes to replace Feinstein in the U.S. Senate, called the end of race-based university admissions part of “a coordinated effort to uphold white supremacy.” In a tweet, former House speaker Nancy Pelosi said the Court’s ruling “narrows access to higher education & the crucial ladder of opportunity that it provides. Its impact will be felt imminently, diminishing hard-fought progress for racial justice.”
“This ruling bends to right-wing extremists and upholds white supremacy,” said Cecily Myart-Cruz, head of the United Teachers of Los Angeles. “This egregious decision is a direct attack on racial justice and widens inequality for working class communities of color across the country.”
But Governor Gavin Newsom beat them all for incendiary language. He went January 6 on June 29, comparing the majority to Klansmen:
The Supreme Court’s conservative majority has yet again upended longstanding precedent, changing the law just because they now have the votes to do so, without any care for the costs to society and students around the country. Right-wing activists — including those donning robes — are trying to take us back to the era of book bans and segregated campuses. As Justices Sotomayor and Jackson put it powerfully, no one benefits from ignorance: diverse schools are an essential component of the fabric of our democratic society. While the path to equal opportunity has now been narrowed for millions of students, no court case will ever shatter the California Dream. Our campus doors remain open for all who want to work hard — and our commitment to diversity, equity, and equal opportunity has never been stronger.
There were countless others like that, left-wing jeremiads amplified by a progressive commentariat that dominates what’s left of the state’s major newspapers. The Court’s decision “will have catastrophic effects” for minority students, the Los Angeles Times predicted. The Sacramento Beechose the adjective “devastating.” The Court’s decision summited “the height of conservative judicial activism,” wrote the Bay Area’s Mercury News.
But just beneath the hyperbole was a kind of calm, a peace that comes from knowing that the decision will mean little in California and perhaps elsewhere. As the Mercury News noted, “The experience of California — where affirmative action was eliminated by Proposition 209 in 1996 — shows that it still will be possible to have diversity in higher education, but it will take sustained effort and it will be difficult.”
That sustained effort has been relatively easy in California. But easy or hard, the pursuit of “racial diversity” as the central purpose of university education is absolutely essential to progressives’ broader social and political ambitions.
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If you want to know how post-affirmative-action America will look, consider admissions to California’s two university systems.
California’s reputation for excellence in K–12 education began its slow decline in 1975, when first-term governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that abracadabraed teachers’ unions from voluntary associations into the state’s most powerful political entities. The real-world effects of that single decision have been most savage in black and Latino school districts, where the teachers’ unions’ one-size-fits-all, industrial-scale processes have produced some of America’s worst outcomes. That’s in part because of poverty, of course, but also because union politicking locks poor kids into neighborhood schools where the worst (or merely least experienced) teachers are kept on the job, where principals wield only anemic authority over their staffs, and where political indoctrination trumps reading and math. It was Myart-Cruz, head of L.A.’s teachers’ union, who proudly declared that “our babies may not have learned all their times tables” but “they know the difference between a riot and a protest. They know the words insurrection and coup.”
The result: Just 30 percent of California’s black high-school graduates read at grade level; a mere 10 percent can handle grade-level math. But while student test scores fall, politicians and teachers’-union leaders celebrate the rise in graduation rates.
That ought to be a red flag. But state university officials since 1996 have mastered the art of pretending not to see the scam. Indeed, they’ve become willing collaborators. In 2021, with graduation rates rising and test scores falling, the University of California system — which includes Los Angeles, Berkeley, and San Diego — bowed to political pressure and scrapped the SAT and ACT for all applicants. “The settlement resolves a 2019 lawsuit brought by a coalition of students, advocacy groups and the Compton Unified School District, a largely Black and Hispanic district in Los Angeles County,” the New York Times observed. “The plaintiffs said that the college entrance tests are biased against poor and mainly Black and Hispanic students — and that by basing admissions decisions on those tests, the system illegally discriminates against applicants on the basis of their race, wealth and disability.”
A few months later, in early 2022, the separate, more modest California State University system followed suit.
But eliminating the SAT and ACT tests merely masked the K–12 failure. Predictably, when students from lousy high schools enter the state’s universities, they struggle or even drop out. They’re demoralized, and, when they leave, they’re poorer, too, thanks in part to student debt.
The political class responds to this scandal not with a return to academic rigor but with claims of systemic racism — most famously, per the state’s Reparations Task Force, time-traveling back to the 19th century where it finds an imagined slave history in the state that explains the origins of California’s educational crisis among black children.
This is America’s pedagogical future, and the Golden State’s university administrators are already laying out the road map for their counterparts in the rest of the nation. Much of their advice meets the standard laid out in the Court’s decision — that admissions cannot be based on race or ethnicity but may include (in a personal essay, for instance) evidence that an applicant had to overcome challenges that include race or ethnicity. California calls this “holistic review”; writing for the Court, Chief Justice John Roberts called it acceptable: “Nothing in this opinion should be construed as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration or otherwise.”
This is what the rest of the nation can expect in the world of “post” race-based admissions. There will be spotlights and cameras for public denunciations of disparate outcomes in the nation’s universities. But there will be silence around the pernicious impact of teachers’ unions on K–12 education as an explanation for those outcomes. And every failure will be met with more urgent calls for a progressive response.
The average American voter, legitimately outraged, will likely continue to find guidance from a consent manufactured by progressive activists. Progressive politicians, judges, journalists, experts, university officials, and activists will declare that the persistence of unequal outcomes is evidence of the lingering impact of “badges and incidents of slavery,” “white supremacy,” and “extremism,” bitter fruit from the tree first planted in 1619.
This article originally appeared in National Review.
Will Swaim is the President of the California Policy Center.