The battle to equalize education in America first erupted in the chambers of
the U.S. Supreme Court on May 17, 1954. Ruling on Brown v. Board of
Education, the court unanimously decided that segregated educational
facilities were unequal and, thus, violated the equal protection clause of the
14th Amendment of the Constitution. In doing so, the court
overturned its previous decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), which
allowed for "separate but equal" public facilities. The court's ruling in
Brown mandated desegregation of all public schools in the country and
began the process of school integration.
By the early 1970s, many college admissions policies included some form of
affirmative action. In 1974, the California State Legislature passed several
resolutions aimed at speeding up the integration process. One of the
resolutions essentially called for racial quotas, ordering the University of
California to match the racial composition of its student body to that of each
year's graduating high school class by 1980. But the UC schools never reached
that goal, in part because of several successful legal challenges that
classified affirmative action as reverse discrimination.
One of the first lawsuits charging reverse discrimination failed that same year
on April 23, 1974. In DeFunsis v. Odegaard, the U.S. Supreme Court
refused to decide whether the constitution allowed professional schools to give
preference to minority applicants. In a 5-4 ruling, the court decided that the
case of Marco DeFunsis - who alleged the University of Washington Law School
had denied him admission because he was white - was no longer valid because he
had since been accepted to another law school and would soon graduate. But a
similar case four years later would strike the first blow to racial
Allan Bakke was an engineer working for NASA who wanted to become a doctor. In
1973 and 1974, he had applied to the University of California at Davis Medical
School, which twice denied his admission, even though his test scores were
higher than many of the minority applicants the school admitted. Under the
school's admissions program, 16 of the 100 places in each entering class were
reserved for "disadvantaged" applicants, which the school defined as blacks,
Latinos, American Indians and Asian-Americans. Bakke sued, and the California
Supreme Court sided with him.
The school appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, but on June 28, 1978, the
justices ruled 5 to 4 that the school should admit Bakke. The "Powell Decision"
also stated that schools could no longer use racial quotas, though it left open
the practice of considering race in admissions to promote diversity. The ruling
put the University of California in a strange position because it was already
under orders from the state legislature to meet enrollment quotas by 1980.
After Bakke, racial preferences in college admissions left the headlines
for a few years. But by the late 1980s, admissions policies at the University
of California again came under fire, this time for allegedly discriminating
against Asians. In November of 1988, the U.S. Department of Education's Office
of Civil Rights announced it was investigating admissions procedures at UC
Berkeley and UCLA after receiving complaints that the schools were capping
admissions of Asian students.
The complaints centered on statistics that showed a sharp drop in the
percentage of Asian applicants throughout the decade, even though a higher
percentage of these applicants met UC's admissions standards than those from
other racial groups. Critics blamed the drop on the school's subjective
admissions policies, which they said placed too much weight on extracurricular
activities. The government also announced plans to investigate similar claims
In April of 1989, UC Berkeley Chancellor Ira Michael Heyman publicly apologized
for the drop in Asian admissions at the school. Though he denied that policies
had been put in place to deliberately restrict Asians, he vowed to make changes
to correct the error. In May, the University announced changes to admissions
standards that placed more emphasis on academic achievement, and agreed to make
its admissions process public for the first time.
In October of 1990, the U.S. Department of Education announced the first
findings of its investigation. The report cleared 75 graduate departments at
UCLA of wrongdoing, but said that the graduate mathematics department
discriminated against Asian students in 1987 and 1988. The findings were based
largely on statistical evidence, and UCLA criticized the investigation for
failing to take into account the weight it placed on personal recommendations
and the prestige of an applicant's undergraduate school.
At the same time the government announced these findings, alleged
discrimination against Asians looked to be a thing of the past, at least in the
Berkeley undergraduate program. In the fall of 1990, Asian students outnumbered
whites in the incoming freshman class for the first time in the school's
history. But federal investigators looking into the Asian admissions charges
began to turn up evidence of other infractions.
In September of 1992, the Department of Education announced that, from 1988 to
1990, Berkeley's Boalt Hall School of Law shielded minority applicants from
competition with white students in an effort to meet affirmative action quotas.
Investigators detailed a system in which the school divided applicants by race
and ethnicity and compared each applicant only to others within the same group.
The school denied any wrongdoing, but agreed not to separate applicants based
on race or ethnicity in the future. The department also announced that it found
no wrongdoing in its investigation of Harvard.
Three years later, affirmative action programs at all University of California
campuses came under fire. At the end of 1994, California Governor Pete Wilson
told reporters he favored ending race- and gender-based preferences in
government employment and college admissions. Weeks later, on January 19, 1995,
University of California Board of Regents member Ward Connerly announced he
would work to replace the university's affirmative action programs with
"something... that is fair." Eventually Connerly and Wilson worked together to
bring the issue before the entire board.
On July 20, 1995, after 12 hours of heated debate, the board of regents voted
15-10 to end race based preferences in admissions, hiring and contracting.
Wilson - who was board president but hadn't attended a meeting since 1992 -
showed up to cast an affirmative vote. At the time, Wilson was making a bid for
the U.S. presidency. The ban went into effect in 1996 at graduate and
professional schools, and in 1998 in the undergraduate division.
In 1996, affirmative action continued to lose favor both in and out of
California. On March 19, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals nullified a
University of Texas Law School admissions policy that sought certain
percentages of black and Latino students. In their opinion in Hopwood
v. Texas, two of the three appellate judges denounced the
practice of using racial classifications and scoffed at the importance of
creating a diverse student body. Unlike the decision in Bakke, which
supported some affirmative action measures, the Hopwood case nullified any
motivations for racial preferences. The Supreme Court later refused to hear the
case in 1997.
The day after the Fifth Circuit decision, the U.S. Department of Education
released findings from its seven-year investigation into alleged discrimination
at UC Berkeley. The report stated that investigators found no evidence of
discrimination against white students at the school, and no evidence of a drop
in academic standards due to affirmative action policies. It also said that in
1993 - the year studied in the probe - only 3 percent of the freshman class
were admitted without meeting the school's admissions standards. Governor
Wilson and other critics of racial preferences questioned the timing of the
release, suggesting it was designed to deflect attention from the Hopwood
Later that year, California voters gave Wilson a nod of support. On November 5,
54 percent of the electorate voted yes on Proposition 209 - a ballot initiative
banning all affirmative action in government employment and public education -
affirming the governor's earlier efforts to end racial preferences in the UC
system. The American Civil Liberties Union challenged 209, but the Ninth
Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law in April, 1997. The U.S. Supreme Court
later declined to hear the ACLU's appeal.
By 1997, both the regents' decision and 209 had gone into effect at UC's
graduate and professional schools, and allegations of discrimination started to
fly again, this time from minorities denied admission to the university's three
law schools. Several civil rights groups complained of extremely low minority
admissions at the schools, such as Berkeley's Boalt Hall, which admitted one in
four white students in 1996, but only one in 10 Latinos and one in 20 blacks.
On July 14, the U.S. Department of Education confirmed it was investigating the
law schools, based mainly on claims they gave extra weight to students who
attended elite Eastern colleges but ignored the prominence of schools like
Howard University, which is predominantly black.
Outside of California, the battle against affirmative action was just
beginning. In October of 1997, the Center for Individual Rights, a Washington,
DC based civil rights organization, filed a lawsuit against the
University of Michigan on behalf of two white students denied admission to the
school's undergraduate program. In December, CIR filed another, class-action
lawsuit against the school on behalf of white students denied admission to the
law school. Both suits charged that the university had a dual admissions
system, using higher standards to judge white applicants than it did for
minorities. Later, in August of 1999, the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled
that a group of minority students at the university could join the lawsuit as
co-defendants. The students felt that the school would not adequately defend
their interests, namely the preservation of affirmative action admissions
policies. The case has not yet gone to trial.
In 1998, California's ban on affirmative action went into effect in
undergraduate admissions, and the effect at Berkeley was considerable. In its
first year without race-based preferences, the school accepted its least
diverse freshman class in 17 years, admitting 56 percent fewer blacks and 49
percent fewer Latinos than in 1997. Six months later, in February, 1999,
several civil rights groups filed a class-action suit against the university on
behalf of 750 minority students denied admission in the fall. The suit focused
on the school's policy of weighting grade point averages with credit for
Advanced Placement (AP) classes, and pointed to the fact that many minority
students attend high schools without AP classes. The school countered that it
had no other way to differentiate between all of its applicants with 4.0
averages. In 1998, more than 14,000 students with 4.0 averages applied for just
8,400 spots in the freshman class.
In July, the ACLU filed a related lawsuit against the State of California
alleging discrimination against high school students in low-income and minority
neighborhoods. The ACLU charged that schools in affluent areas offered far more
AP classes than those in low-income areas, disadvantaging many poor and
minority students in college admissions. Both lawsuits are still pending.
who got in? |
the race issue |
sat & test prep |
history of the sat
the screening process |
test score gap |
getting in to berkeley |
tapes & transcripts |
pbs online |