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Interview with Graciela Elizabeth Geyer
U.S. Students Association

"Eliminating Affirmative Action
Is Re-segregating Higher Education"

Washington, D.C.

Graciela Elizabeth Geyer is the Student of Color Campus Diversity Project director for the United States Student Association (USSA). The interview was conducted for In Motion Magazine by Nic Paget-Clarke, July 2, 2001.

California: The repeal of SP1 and SP2

In Motion Magazine: Please give me an update on affirmative action in California, Texas, Michigan and Florida?

Graciela Elizabeth Geyer: This past May, the University of California (UC) regents, under pressure from student and community groups, finally repealed Standing Policies (SP) 1 and 2. SP1 and SP2 were initiated in 1995 under the direction of Governor Pete Wilson and UC Regent Ward Connerly to eliminate affirmative action in admissions and hiring at the University of California. They were a catalyst in pushing the anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 which was passed in the fall of 1996 by ballot initiative.

Even though the repeal of SP1 and SP2 does not allow the university to use race and gender in admissions and hiring decisions because Proposition 209 is still in place, organizing their repeal has been a student campaign since 1995. The repeal is seen as the first step in acknowledging the damage that 209 has done to the University of California.

The repeal itself was really exciting. I was there at the regents meeting in San Francisco and I would say about 250 students and community members turned up. It was great to see alumni come to the meeting and speak about the fact that without affirmative action they would not have been accepted into UC Berkeley Law for example. The other great thing was the incredible support in the legislature for affirmative action. Many legislators came to the Regents meeting, most of them UC alumni themselves, and brokered a deal the night of the meeting to re-write weak language, making a strong statement to repeal the policy. Until then, Ward Connerly and a few other regents had succeeded in watering it down and had the support to pass that version.

The point the legislators brought home was that many of their constituents, taxpayers, have been effectively shut out of the UC system. The state is now over half people of color. Legislators of color acknowledged that affirmative action was the reason they had the opportunity to attend the UC, and are now able to give back to their communities. Ironically, some of the most conservative regents made statements of support. One commented that his daughter at Boalt Law had mentioned to him that her “minority” friends had expressed that the UC was a hostile environment for them because of SP1 and 2.

Unfortunately, the repeals were not well covered in the national news. They were covered fairly well in California but you didn't hear much about them anywhere else.

Michigan: a compelling interest

In Michigan, they are still in the process of hearing an appeal to a Michigan law school case in which the use of race in admissions was ruled unconstitutional. Two separate judges heard undergraduate and graduate law school cases. The undergraduate case resulted in a positive ruling. The judge permitted use of race in admissions stating that the university had proved diversity was a "compelling interest " in education which merited using race and gender in affirmative action in admissions. The judge in the law school case ruled that there was no compelling interest - even though the judges are in the same circuit. Both cases are being appealed up through the courts and haven't quite made it to the Supreme Court yet.

Texas: addressing discrimination

In Texas, by the end of May, the Hopwood law school case had been heard several times in the 5th circuit for different reasons. It was re-heard again recently and the ruling found in favor of the university in the sense that the court agreed that the university had proved that the plaintiff would not have been admitted under a race-neutral system.

But, even though the court ruled in favor of the university, they still granted the plaintiffs legal fees, which according to the university would be a financial blow they could not sustain. The university appealed on the grounds that the ruling was contradictory since on the one hand this ruling says that the plaintiffs didn't have grounds to sue the university but then it rewarded them legal fees. Amicus briefs for that case were sent in by legal associations and higher education associations. The Hopwood case is unique because the argument in that case was broader than in the case in Michigan. Their appeal argued the need to include race in admissions for the sake of a diverse quality education, but also to address institutionalized discrimination in K-12 education, as well as historical discrimination in education in Texas. They also highlighted that the 10% program in Texas for undergrads, has no parallel “replacement” for graduate schools and law schools. The numbers there have been very low and have not re-bounded as a lot of the media reported.

Last week, the Supreme Court rejected hearing the Hopwood case, but most legal experts still expect them to be forced into taking either the Michigan case or another law suit, in Georgia, which is making its way through the courts. Or possibly re-hearing the Texas Hopwood case.

Unfortunately, the case in Michigan focuses solely on diversity's importance to the learning environment and doesn't address the fact that affirmative action is necessary to combat and to prevent discrimination.

The significance of the California repeals

In Motion Magazine: Why are the California repeals important?

Graciela Elizabeth Geyer: Enrolling a diverse class is made up of three steps: getting a diverse applicant pool, accepting a diverse class, and getting those students who have been accepted to enroll. Eliminating affirmative action has impacted all of these rates. The repeal was increasingly important to the regents because on top of the high drop in the acceptance rate, in the past five years students of color who were accepted to the UC were choosing to enroll at lower rates as well. Students and community have found that the university has become a hostile environment.

The repeal is also significant because the regents unanimously voted to repeal this policy. A variety of regents made statements such as, "We see the damage that it has done," and "We don't want to be a party to it". It has put the university admissions process in the spotlight and the legislature is getting involved in examining the process and pushing the university to publicly examine what exactly has happened to the admissions process. What are the barriers in the admissions process to students of color and under-represented students?

For example, there has been research, and even a lawsuit, regarding discriminatory admissions policies such as the over-use of the SAT because without consideration of race (or other disadvantage), the SAT can prevent students that would otherwise be successful from entering the university.

In addition, the university uses college-weighted GPAs for honors and advancement placement (AP) classes that are not equally available to all California students. A very small percent, 4 or 5 %, of students of California schools have up to 10 AP classes available for which they can get extra credit. On the other hand, 40% of California students have one or no classes that are available to them at their school.

These are just two examples of how racism is institutionalized in admissions and requires the consideration of race until race is no longer a significant factor in educational opportunity prior to college admissions. Because educational opportunity is not distributed in a “race neutral” manner, we need to consider race in admissions.

Accountable to the public

In fact, the admissions situation is now such that California students have switched their organizing focus onto the broader admissions policy. Along with the elimination of race in admissions, SP-1 included a clause which required 50-75% of the entering class be admitted on SAT and GPA alone. This clause was repealed pending an academic senate review, the body that administers admissions policy. However, prior to SP-1 the academic senate, also had “tiered admissions” to a lesser extent.

The “tiered admissions” process was the subject of lengthy investigation by the legislative budget committee for the university, concerned the SP-1 is not the only thing keeping students of color out of the university. One of the most exciting things that has come of this whole campaign is that the public university is being held accountable to the public again.

Legislators, along with the repeal, garnered a letter from the university president just short of promising he would ensure a “unitary” admissions process, where every applicant would be considered equally.

The focus has switched back (to some extent) to the purpose and mission of public universities. Who pays their bills? Who are they serving? Furthermore, the legislature is questioning assumptions made by exclusive admissions procedures like the tiered admissions process. What does “competitive” mean? Why are students with high GPAs and SATs, disproportionately from privileged backgrounds, given more access to the university than other eligible applicants who more accurately reflect the majority of the state? The legislature has clearly asserted that all UC-eligible students should have the same opportunity to go to a top school or the school of their choice. 

In terms of affirmative action, I think it's good for people to be thinking more broadly rather than just talking about the consideration of race and gender in admissions. It is good to be looking at the whole admissions process and other factors that might prevent disadvantaged students from being admitted.

In Motion Magazine: What is an AP class?

Graciela Elizabeth Geyer: An advanced placement class is a class that weighs more in your GPA. For example, if you get a B in an AP class or an honors class, you get four points, instead of three, because presumably the curriculum is harder. This is why the “average GPA of the entering class at UCLA is now 4.2 on a four point scale. On top of that, there are other parts in the admissions process that will give more weight to an AP class. For example, comparing students with similar GPAs. Students that have taken more advance placement classes are given more advantage in the admissions process.

Increasing the influence of corporations on education

In Motion Magazine: Have there been any changes in Florida?

Graciela Elizabeth Geyer: The important thing that has happened there is the Board of Regents has been dissolved or is scheduled to be dissolved this summer. It was a proposal of Governor Jeb Bush. Each school will have its own board of trustees. This will make it much harder for students to organize system-wide. Each individual board is empowered to set their own admission policy, negotiate with unions, and set tuition. Without a system, the accountability they each have to serve the whole state is infinitely reduced.

These universities will be competing against each other for state funding. The well-funded university will be the one that can raise the most money. This increases the influence of corporations and businesses on education, especially since they are the ones who are appointed to the trustee boards. Also, it makes it more difficult for unions. They will not be able to get system-wide contracts but will have to wage campaigns with each board. This is not an accident.

The “cascade effect” (used by the UC system) that clusters white upper-middle class students at the “flagship” schools and students of color and low-income students of color and low-income students at “lower tier” schools will only be magnified by this restructuring. It will only hasten the re-segregation already in progress in higher education. This also triples or quadruples the number of political appointments for Governor Jeb Bush, just in time for elections. It's interesting because the last policy the system-wide regents implemented, at the urging of Governor Bush, was to eliminate affirmative action.

Confusing definitions

In Motion Magazine: Since affirmative action has been battled over for about 40 years now, do the terms mean the same? When people say affirmative action is quotas and set-asides how do you respond to that?

Graciela Elizabeth Geyer: Legally, affirmative action cannot be quotas. The Bakke decision ruled, 5-4, that quotas were illegal and there can be no program where white students can not also compete. In terms of admissions, there are no set-asides. Set-asides is a term used in contracting.

There are no quotas or set-asides used in implementing affirmative action in admissions. “Racial preferences”, another term coined by the Right, assumes that there are not already “racial preferences,” for white people throughout our society that require a positive inclusion of people of color such as affirmative action does. But definitions are the crux of the problem. Because of the incredible amount of resources that conservative foundations and organizations have had to flood the media with their definition of affirmative action, the media regularly interchanges affirmative action and racial preferences.

Resegregating our society

Eliminating affirmative action is re-segregating higher education. When you get the “we may have needed it in the past but we live in a color-blind ...” tell them there are still states the federal government has not yet declared de-segregated in education. Affirmative action is a response to institutionalized discrimination. The Right has been able to weasel out of being responsible for that by talking about it on an isolated and individual level. But if we look at the numbers of undergraduate admissions and graduation, and beyond that, the number of lawyers and doctors in society that are of color, and we look at California and Texas -- the two public universities that graduate the largest number of Chicano lawyers and Black lawyers outside of historically Black colleges, we quickly realize eliminating affirmative action will effectively wipe out the small number of doctors and lawyers and other professionals of color in the U.S. Eliminating affirmative action is not just about resegregating higher education -- it's about re-segregating our society in general.

When we already have so much residential and occupational segregation, eliminating affirmative action aggravates the situation. I think that a lot of universities are worried about this and a lot of state legislators are worried about this. Particularly in states that are very diverse. When you have a public education system where more than 50% of the state is of color, then how are you going to respond to the voters, the changing demographics. The reason why the legislature was so involved in California is because of pressure from the community of not-served and under-served, their constituents.

Addressing institutionalized discrimination

If we don't consider race and gender in the admissions process then we are saying that people have equal opportunity regardless of race and gender and that is just not true. That's what we need to start talking about.

The way in which discrimination is currently discussed puts the burden of proof on the individual person who is being discriminated against -- when people that are discriminated against don't have access to the boardrooms to prove discrimination was intentional. In terms of employment, discrimination and affirmative action in contracting, it takes huge mistakes by a corporation before someone can prove that they had the intention to discriminate. The least we can do is put the burden on institutions to prove to us that they are not discriminating -- by creating programs that outreach to and include “underutilized” and underrepresented communities.

That's what we are talking about when we say institutionalized discrimination. Discrimination in housing, discrimination by banks in lending for mortgages, red-lining, all this is directly impacting how many students of color there are in the university and how many doctors of color there are. It's all connected. That's what institutionalized discrimination is about, systematic exclusion at all levels that feeds on itself. That's what affirmative action is addressing.

It's frustrating because it seems to be too much. But we must take concrete steps to try and address that, not let it overwhelm us.

Encourage the participation of under-represented

In Motion Magazine: What are the mechanics of affirmative action now? How are they targeted?

Graciela Elizabeth Geyer: Affirmative action is policies and programs that encourage the participation of underrepresented or underutilized groups. It can be as simple as outreach by a university that targets black students that are doing well in high school to let them know about the university and let them know about the admissions process. All the things that they need to do.

But, for example, in California, there was a ruling by the California Supreme Court which said that even outreach programs cannot consider race or gender. This is a huge decision. The Prop 209 campaign did not even imply this, I don’t think it is something even Californians who voted for it intended.

Back to square one

Obviously, the most direct impact affirmative action has had is to open up the old boys network, through race- and gender-targeted outreach. If they are not required to inform people outside of their network, i.e. other white men, about jobs and contracts, they won't. That's part of the problem. People of color are not able to get into those networks without policies like affirmative action.

The decision I just mentioned referred to a law in San Jose about contracting. The law said anyone who contracted with the city had to prove that they did outreach to people of color firms and businesses and women-owned businesses, it did not require that they hire them. The Supreme Court ruled that “racial preferences” used in Proposition 209 referred not only to hiring but outreach as well.

That's back to square one. It eliminates the ability to make the most modest attempts to prevent discrimination. Now it's up to the people, whose rights and opportunity have been limited and violated by businesses and government, to not only prove that they were discriminated against but prove intent. That's an incredible amount of burden to put on a person who is being discriminated against. Especially when you are talking about people who don't have the resources to pay for lawyers and court fees, or knowledge of the system to do it themselves.

In Motion Magazine: How do the outreach policies work?

Graciela Elizabeth Geyer: A lot of universities have outreach programs that specifically target students of color, women, or low-income students (but low-income is not under legal attack) by having a black scholar day or a tutorial program or programs for women in science, resources, things like that. Those programs are what's under attack. It's not justice college it’s effecting desegregation in elementary schools and high schools. A lot of school districts have busing programs, those busing programs are affirmative action programs. Even admissions to magnet schools -- as in one case in San Francisco. The school in question was a math and science school that took race into consideration to make sure that students of color and other under-represented students had the opportunity to go to that high school.

To erode the Civil Rights Act

At what point do you say that this student or that student is more or less qualified when they have only had six years of schooling? At what point do you say the differences in tests and grades are not just about ability, they are about income, they are about race, and they are about gender. Those differences are widespread. They are all over the country. It's not just a particular instance. These are persistent race and gender “gaps” that hold over all income levels. That's institutional discrimination. But the Right has been able to push the burden of proof on to the individual through court decisions and through the media to erode the Civil Rights Act in general, and specifically affirmative action.

Affirmative action policies and programs open the door and allow people of color and women, and people of disabilities to compete in hiring. To know about job openings. To know about university programs. To know about financial aid. Even to have girls in science programs in elementary schools, to encourage girls to go into science and math because in the sectors of the economy that are growing -- technology, engineering -- women are very underrepresented.

I think the real sad part of it is we haven't even got close to where we should be on combating discrimination. If we could do something as seemingly small as eliminating race from the admissions process and have such an incredible impact on access for so many students, then we have a long, long way to go. We can’t stop at the use of race in admissions, as crucial a tool as it is, we must push for aggressive inclusion programs for all students. At many of our universities that still use race in admissions, student of color enrollments continue at reprehensibly low levels. Every university has a five to ten year “diversity plan” but most are poorly, if not zero, funded. Tenured faculty of color have only barely increased in the last twenty years, while the country approaches one-third people of color. Worse yet, some universities are eliminating the use of race in admissions without lawsuit or threat of lawsuit, but simply because they can.

We must fight to hold our universities accountable, before what significant progress we have made since Jim Crow has entirely slipped away.

Also read:

Published in In Motion Magazine August 19, 2001.

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