Berkeley's New Colors

It's the first week of school at the University of California, Berkeley, and Sproul Plaza, the campus's main thoroughfare, is bustling with the usual lunchtime crowd: protesters clanging garbage-can lids and plinking cowbells; upperclassmen blaring boomboxes; a jazz ensemble luring potential recruits with a Miles Davis standard. It's a portrait of diversity in every way but one: skin color. A disproportionate number of the students walking around Sproul are Asian-American. Amy Tang, a third-year cognitive-science major, sits at a booth for the Chinese Student Association. "I came to Berkeley for the diversity," she says, surveying the plaza. "But when I got here and saw all the Asians, it was really weird."

Berkeley's rapidly morphing student body has sparked one of the fiercest debates in higher education. The school's Asian-American population had already been surging for years when, in 1996, California voters approved Proposition 209, a ballot initiative that banned affirmative action at all state institutions. At the time, the campus was torn by protests. And the result seemed to confirm the doomsayers' predictions: enrollment of African-American, Hispanic and Native American students plunged at Berkeley, while the Asian-American population continued to rise. Asian-American students now make up about 45 percent of incoming freshmen, white students 30 percent, Hispanic students 9 percent and African-Americans only 4 percent. And the drops in underrepresented minorities are even more acute at the grad schools. William Bagley, a university regent who supports affirmative action, insists that the university's most prestigious campuses--like Berkeley--have become "reverse ghettos, with Asians and whites and a lack of color."

What accounts for the shift? To start, the pool of eligible Asian-American applicants was already huge. Nearby San Francisco boasts the highest percentage of Asian-Americans in the continental United States. And Asian-Americans are many times more likely than other groups to graduate at the top of their high-school classes. At Cal, many Asian-American students attribute their academic success to family pressure and, in some cases, an immigrant mind-set. "There's such a push to succeed," says Marian Liu, a fifth-year student at Cal whose father was a Chinese immigrant. Ward Connerly, a UC regent who is one of the most vocal opponents of affirmative action, says that before 209, Asian-American students were discriminated against. "There was this fear that without the use of race, the whole campus would become Asian," he says.

It's a much different picture for Berkeley's African-American, Hispanic and Native American students. Even after they've been admitted, Berkeley has a tough time persuading them to enroll. Brett Byers, a fourth-year business major who runs the school's Black Recruitment and Retention Center, calls prospectives to try to persuade them to come to Cal. "When I call, they think there are no black students here," she says. Byers recently helped reprise a tradition--called "Black Wednesday"--where the campus's dwindling population of black students could relax, network and socialize on Sproul. "There was a time when students of color used to hang out all the time on Sproul," says Anya Booker, a friend and adviser of Byers's who graduated from Berkeley in 1989. "The shame is that it's been reduced to a single Wednesday." And students say the lack of underrepresented minorities is apparent in class--especially the grad schools. Serena Lin, a first-year law student who was also an undergrad at Berkeley, says she sat in on a drug-policy seminar when she was a prospective student. "They were talking about how U.S. drug policy affects minorities," she says. "And there wasn't a single African-American in the class."

These days Berkeley is trying to adjust to life after 209. The campus's biggest new buzzword is "outreach." The University of California is spending $150 million--more than twice the pre-209 number--in an effort to increase the pool of qualified underrepresented minority students. And Daniel Hernandez, editor of the school newspaper, says that despite all the changes, race relations on campus are relatively healthy. "Students are sort of settling in to the way things are," says Hernandez. But is that necessarily good? Underrepresented minorities have long been the backbone of Berkeley's political mood, energizing the campus. In gaining a new face, Berkeley will have to live with what it has lost.

Berkeley's New Colors | News