The Supreme Court is expected to rule this week on a case that may shake up race-conscious admissions in higher education. The justices could change the shape of affirmative action or even strike it down altogether.
California is one of eight states that have already scrapped affirmative action. That means state schools can no longer consider the race of its applicants. At the University of California, Los Angeles, the change has been messy, ambiguous — and sometimes a little ugly.
After the state passed the ban in 1996, the percentages of black and Latino students at UCLA quickly began to fall. Things came to a head in 2006. That year, in a freshman class of nearly 5,000 students, just 96 were African-American.
Corey Matthews — one of the "Infamous 96," as those students came to be known — said it shaped his experience at the huge school. Even in lecture halls filled with hundreds of students, he says, he was often the only African-American student.
UCLA realized there was a problem, so it decided to start something called "holistic review," taking into consideration a wide range of factors in its admissions decisions — from GPA, to family income, to whether an applicant was the first in the family to go to college. Race was not one of the factors, but indeed, the percentages of black and Latino students began to rebound.
Then things got complicated again.
Last year, a UCLA professor released a study claiming the school was letting some black and Latino students in at higher rates than white or Asian students who should have ranked just the same under the new holistic review.
In other words, the study said, UCLA was breaking California law and instituting affirmative action.
In response, student groups led rallies to protest the study and the Daily Bruin. They said a reference in an op-ed to an "undue percentage" of minority students was offensive and minimized those students' hard work.
"The reaction was not pretty," James Barragan, the paper's editor in chief, tells NPR's Rachel Martin.
"I got a long email calling me an embarrassment to my race because I wasn't supporting the cause," he says.
Barragan, whose parents are Mexican, says he agrees that the goal should be to get more racial diversity on campus — but only if it is done fairly.
"We feared at the paper, once we saw the study, that this diversity was coming at a cost of other students who were also qualified to be there and maybe weren't getting the same opportunity," he said.
UCLA says it stands by its admissions policy and points to a review by faculty that refutes the study's findings. A school spokesperson told NPR that UCLA's holistic review is not only legal, but also a fairer and more equitable way to evaluate applicants in an increasingly diverse state.
If the Supreme Court finds affirmative action unconstitutional this week, a lot of schools could wind up facing the same dilemma UCLA has dealt with for nearly two decades.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
So, gay marriage is one big case in front of the Supreme Court right now. Another case before the court involves race-conscious admissions at the university level. Affirmative action, what form it should take and whether it should even exist. Eight states have already scrapped affirmative action altogether, including California, and that has affected admissions policies at state schools there.
This morning, we're going to spend some time at the University of California, Los Angeles. The change at UCLA has been messy, ambiguous and sometimes a little ugly. California banned affirmative action in 1996, and that, of course, meant UCLA and other California state schools could not consider the race of its applicants. After that happened the percentages of black and Latino students at UCLA started to fall - fast. 2006 was a turning point. That year, only 96 out of nearly 5,000 freshmen were African-American.
COREY MATTHEWS: Hi, I'm Corey Matthews, part of the Infamous 96, freshman class, 2006.
MARTIN: Corey Matthews told us there were protests on campus and a lot of news coverage, and all of it changed how people talked to him.
MATTHEWS: You know, in conversation: Oh, you're one of the 96 the Infamous 96. What's that like? Or: Do you all know each other and do you all live like in the same area? There was this mystery around who we were and what we were doing on campus.
MARTIN: And Matthews says it is a big campus.
MATTHEWS: Tons of student organizations, tons of sports, thousands and thousands of people, huge lecture hall - 250, 300 students, group projects, discussion sections, and still and all of those, you are most likely the only African-American student.
MARTIN: UCLA realized there was a problem pretty quickly, so it decided to start something called Holistic Review, which essentially meant taking into consideration a wide range of factors all at once; from GPA to family income, to whether you were the first in your family to go to college. Race was not one of the factors. But the goal was to make UCLA a more diverse campus. And it worked. Black and Latino student's percentages began to go back up.
But then last year things got complicated again, when one of UCLA's own professors put out a study.
So what was the reaction on campus to the study?
JAMES BARRAGAN: Well, the reaction was not pretty.
MARTIN: That's James Barragan, who just graduated from UCLA, and he was the editor-in-chief of the school's newspaper, the Daily Bruin. Barragan says the study claimed that UCLA was letting some black and Latino students in at higher rates than white or Asian students who should have ranked just the same. In other words, the study claimed UCLA was breaking the law - admitting solely based on race - essentially reverting back to affirmative action
The Daily Bruin published a news story on the study, but it also ran an opinion piece suggesting that the school reevaluate its admissions policy. That sparked a lot of anger on campus. Here's Barragan again.
BARRAGAN: I think we thought we were prepared but it was kind of hell when it all broke loose.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANTING PROTESTERS)
PROTESTERS: I'm fired up. We should be here. I'm fired up. We should be here.
BARRAGAN: Some student groups held a rally outside of the Daily Bruin. People were saying that the paper was a rag.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: All day people kept coming up to me asking if I had read the Daily Bruin, if I had seen the article. The words minority constitute an undue percentage of the freshman class just kept floating around in my head.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: Undue percentage, it felt like a slap in the face.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: It was. It was.
BARRAGAN: And they actually asked me to come speak. And I got up there and spoke and people were yelling at me. I got a long email the next day calling me an embarrassment to my race because I wasn't supporting the cause.
MARTIN: We should say you have Latino background? Is that right?
BARRAGAN: I do have Latino background, yes. So just things like that and I got a lot of interruptions while I was speaking - just yelling shame, shame.
MARTIN: That must've been hard.
BARRAGAN: Yeah, especially because it was a lot of students that I had known previously in the years before, and it was the same folks that, you know, were patting me on the back the previous year for exposing the truth out there. And then one year later, calling me a shame and calling the newspaper that I was running a shame.
MARTIN: Did you expect any of this backlash?
BARRAGAN: Yeah. Yeah, we knew it was coming. You know, obviously everybody wants more African-American students and Latino students, so that we can have a more diverse campus, including myself. The issue was that feared that the paper - once we saw the study - that this diversity was coming at a cost of other students who were also qualified to be there and may be weren't getting the same opportunity.
MARTIN: For its part, UCLA and a number of professors there dispute the legitimacy of last year's study. A school spokesperson told us that UCLA's admissions policy is legal, fair and equitable.
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to rule on affirmative action this week. If they strike it down, a lot of schools around the country could wind up facing the same dilemma UCLA has dealt with for nearly two decades.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.