The year was 1969, the college was the University of California at Los Angeles, and the event was a reading by the famous African American poet, LeRoi Jones. As students entered the hall, they were confronted by the yellow tape dividing the room into front and back portions. And guarding it was a squadron of armed beret-wearing Black Panthers—the era’s reigning radical black militia—looking downright scary.
The great poet, we were told, had expressed the desire to look out from his podium upon a sea of black faces. So for the next two hours, those of us with faces of a different hue—myself included—occupied the back two rows of the auditorium as Jones spewed out a slew of angry words referring, among other things, to the “stench from the back of the room.”
One hot-headed white boy objected and was immediately strong-armed out the door. So the rest of us kept quiet, succored by the certainty that we had scored, if not first-row seats, at least 17th or 18th-row seats at an event both historic and profound.
As a radical fellow traveler, I understood the message. African Americans, after all, had come to America centuries earlier in chains. Until a few years before, in fact, they’d still been riding—both literally and figuratively — “in the back of the bus.” So it was only fitting that a handful of white UCLA students now be relegated to the back of the classroom.
All that happened a long time ago in an era of social unrest fueled by leftists and liberals—of which I was one—determined to ease what they viewed as institutional racism. So it made perfect sense to practice a new concept called “affirmative action” introduced a few years earlier by President John F. Kennedy. What it amounted to was legalized favoritism in business, government and, especially, university admissions towards minorities deemed historically disadvantaged.
Then things changed. Whites began complaining of racial discrimination aimed at them. The lot of minorities seemed to improve, with some characterizing affirmative action as nothing more than counterproductive patronization. And in a landmark 1978 case called Regents of the University of California vs. Allan Bakke, the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed racial quotas resulting in reverse discrimination. Finally, in 1996, California voters overwhelmingly approved a proposition amending the state constitution to specifically prohibit government discrimination based on “race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin…”
Ah, but history moves in cycles. Or, as one otherwise-obscure French writer so aptly put it: “the more things change, the more they remain the same.” Fast forward to 2020 when, inspired by Black Lives Matter, a new generation of California progressives, rediscovering so-called institutional racism (now renamed “systemic” racism), came up with a brilliant idea; hey, they reasoned, why not bring back government-sanctioned racial discrimination? Specifically, they suggested, let’s remove the protective 1996 clause making it illegal. The goal, of course, was to reactivate affirmative action.
Not surprisingly, some minority groups adamantly opposed the notion proffered by Proposition 16; most notably Asian Americans, including Filipinos. One glance at recent college admission statistics explains exactly why; Asians comprised fully 44.7% of this year’s University of California freshman class, considerably more than the percentage of qualified Asian high school seniors. Whites, on the other hand, were slightly under-represented, while blacks were slightly more numerous than indicated by those high school statistics.
In other words, almost everyone—but especially Asians—were doing just fine. In the end what did surprise me was that so many Californians—regarded as among the most left-leaning and “progressive” of Americans—took heed; the measure got rejected by over 1.5 million votes. And that in the same state that gave Democrat Joe Biden a 68% plurality in the recent presidential election.
“What a shame,” lamented the Los Angeles Times regarding the survival of constitutional protections against racial, gender and ethnic discrimination.
“The way I explain it,” a Sonoma State University political-science professor told the New York Times, “is the California voter is a paradox wrapped in a contradiction that presents a dilemma.”
To which I have but one thing to add: thank God and amen!
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David Haldane is an award-winning American journalist, author and radio broadcaster. His latest book, a short-story collection called “Jenny on the Street,” is due out in January. A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, Haldane lives in Surigao City with his Filipino wife and their two children. http://felixr28.sg-host.com
Originally Published in Mindanao Gold Star Daily