Oct 302008
Authors: Gregory Cendana

Diversity matters in an increasingly changing world that depends on people from many backgrounds and life experiences to make America’s global economy sound.

Next Tuesday, the people of Colorado will have an opportunity to affirm this principle, and show California, Washington and Michigan that the citizens of this great state are looking toward the future. The financial meltdown has proven that our nation needs every person from all races, ethnicities and backgrounds to contribute to the revitalization of our economy.

In 1996, 55 percent of California voters approved Proposition 209, the ballot initiative that bars the use of equal opportunity programs by state-funded educational and government institutions. Two years later, a similar initiative in Washington garnered 59 percent of the vote. Both states have suffered a rapid decline in minority enrollment and are feeling the impact in other areas of their economy as well.

The Colorado ballot initiative against equal opportunity programs in higher education, public contracting and hiring — Amendment 46 — threatens the prosperity of everyone, not just people of color. Students will be hit hard, but the state will be the greatest loser.

Back in 1961, 134,000 black students attended predominantly white colleges and universities around the country. Now millions do. This increased diversity has had a positive effect on our nation — socially, politically and economically.

But initiatives like Amendment 46 are not only a vote against fairness and opening doors to all, they undermine the possibilities yet within our reach.

Voters need to ask a simple question: If all equal opportunity programs ended today, would we have a level playing field for women, blacks, Hispanics and the chronically poor? Would programs that focus on college admissions, government contracts and employment fare better?

Equal opportunity programs under assault have made modest gains. Women and people of color are still underrepresented in contracting, college admission and employment.

Do you favor policies that reflect decades of discrimination? Or do you want to continue trying to right the system? Turning a blind eye to reality is not the answer. Pretending that there aren’t systemic problems with admissions and hiring practices won’t make those problems go away.

The California story is fundamental to understanding what could happen in Colorado if Amendment 46 passes. A year after Proposition 209 took effect, admissions of African Americans to University of California schools plummeted 12 percent from 1997 to 1998, while overall admissions rose 5 percent.

Enrollment nosedived nearly 20 percent. In 1995, blacks made up 4.41 percent of the freshman class throughout the UC system, compared to 3.47 percent in 2005.

The effects were more widely felt at UC’s top-tier schools.

At UC-Berkeley, admissions of black students fell 56 percent from 1997 to 1998 and enrollment took a similar dive. In 2006, there were only 96 incoming black students in an incoming class of more than 5,000 at UC-Los Angeles, the lowest numbers since the 1970s.

A sound rejection of the Colorado initiative will not only answer opponents of equal opportunity in the state. It will also send a message across the country for today and years to come.

Gregory Cendana is vice president of the United States Student Association and a graduate of UCLA. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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