The man behind a controversial 1996 state ballot measure that banned race and gender preferences in state hiring and admissions said tonight that he thinks it will withstand a new legal challenge.
Ward Connerly said he thinks a lawsuit filed by the activist group By Any Means Necessary in U.S. District Court in Oakland today, which seeks to overturn part of Proposition 209, misinterprets rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court in affirmative action cases in recent years.
Proposition 209 bans public institutions from considering race, sex or ethnicity in public education, public employment and public contracting.
George B. Washington, the lead attorney for By Any Means Necessary, which was founded in 1995 to fight the University of California Board of Regents’ ban on affirmative action, said the suit seeks to bar the state from enforcing Prop 209 as it applies to admissions to the UC system.
However, Washington said the suit doesn’t seek to overturn other parts of Proposition 209.
Connerly, who is the founder and chairman of the Sacramento-based American Civil Rights Institute and formerly served on the Board of Regents, said similar measures in the states of Washington, Michigan and Nebraska were all challenged “but in every instance the courts found that there were no grounds for the challenges.”
Referring to the new suit filed today, Connerly said, “I don’t think it has any legs.”
Washington, a Detroit-based labor and civil rights attorney, said the percentage of black and Latino students admitted to UC has dropped dramatically since Prop 209 was enacted.
He said in 2007, Latino, black, and Native American students comprised 45.1 percent of California’s high school graduates but those groups comprised only 16.9 percent and 19.9 percent of new freshman admits at UC Berkeley and UCLA, respectively.
“This is an outrage and a social explosion waiting to happen,” Washington said at a news conference outside federal court in Oakland.
He said the small proportion of Latino, black and Native American students at UC Berkeley is matched only at the flagship universities of the Deep South states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.
Proposition 209 was upheld by federal appellate courts, but Washington said “the whole ballgame has changed” because of a 2003 U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding an affirmative action program at the University of Michigan’s law school and the dramatic decline of black and Latino students at the UC system.
But Connerly said he thinks Washington is “misinterpreting” the 2003 case, called Grutter v. Bollinger, and is ignoring a subsequent Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action.
Connerly said the high court has ruled that “universities may use race as a factor in admissions but they are not obliged to.”
He said that although the percentage of black and Latino students has declined at UC Berkeley, UCLA and UC Santa Barbara, the percentage of such students has increased at other UC campuses, such as those in Riverside and Irvine.
Connerly said he thinks that’s because those universities “are not as selective” and aren’t as focused on academic achievement.
He said he also thinks “you can’t say there’s a cause and effect between Proposition 209 and the decrease in black and Latino students at some UC campuses.”
Connerly said some black students may have decided to go to historically black colleges, some may have chosen to go to colleges in the state university system and others may have gone to private colleges or to community colleges.
“There are all kinds of explanations and you can’t hold Proposition 209 responsible” for the trend in enrollment percentages, he said.