United States Supreme Court in Washington.
(Via Pixabay)
Opinion from Community Voices

What Santa Cruz can teach about the Supreme Court’s affirmative action decision

In its decision on affirmative action, Lookout politics columnist Mike Rotkin writes, the Supreme Court left open the possibility of other ways to achieve racial diversity in student admissions, and we need to take that as a serious opportunity. We can learn from how the City of Santa Cruz approached affirmative action when progressives took power in the 1980s.

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The attack on affirmative action by the U.S. Supreme Court feels like a body blow to those of us who have been active in the struggle against racism. It’s worse for millions of people of color in America.

As a symbolic issue, nothing could be a stronger indicator of the current court’s attempt to roll back the clock on progress than this decision.

I am appalled by the decision and everything its supporters stand for.

Nonetheless, I may be turning in my radical credentials in saying so, but the decision to end affirmative action programs at Harvard University and the University of North Carolina might not have as negative practical consequences as the justices intended.

The decision — which rules out using race as one of the criteria for college admissions — did reaffirm diversity, including racial diversity, as a reasonable goal for admissions policies.

It also, of course, explicitly prohibits saving spaces for those admitted based on race or admitting students from protected classes (underrepresented African Americans, Latinos, Asians, Pacific Islanders or Native Americans) who are less “qualified” than white or Asian competitors. That is the big policy shift.

The good news is that many colleges and universities have already announced their intention to find other ways to maintain diverse student bodies. This is exactly what most California institutions of higher learning did after affirmative action was ruled out in 1996, amid an anti-immigration wave.

By the time Proposition 209 passed in California, the City of Santa Cruz had already developed affirmative action plans that did not run afoul of the new restrictions.

We simply had to change the name of our diversity program.

Let me begin by saying that quota systems to achieve racial diversity, or any other kind of diversity for that matter, are not a great idea. Affirmative action can appear to many as that kind of system.

However, there are also ways to accomplish racial and other forms of diversity without relying on a quota. And quotas that require hiring or admitting individuals based on race or gender, irrespective of their other qualifications for a position, do often lead to undesirable outcomes.

Any college teacher (I teach at UC Santa Cruz) who has had to teach a student of any race, gender or nationality who clearly was unprepared and unready for college work understands this.

Similarly, anyone who has had to work with a colleague or be supervised by a person unqualified for the position and who clearly got their position based on quotas alone also understands this.

Be careful, however, not to assume that every racist individual who has a conflict with a workmate or boss is correct in blaming a bad hiring decision on affirmative action.

We can understand how positive affirmative action or achieving important diversity goals with respect to racial, gender and other demographic categories can be achieved by looking at the affirmative action programs created by the progressive majority on the Santa Cruz City Council in the 1980s. The Santa Cruz Metropolitan Transit District, Santa Cruz County and several of the other cities in our county also followed that model in the years that followed.

Effective affirmative action programs are not quota systems.

As a city council, for example, we did not tell the city’s public works director, “You need to hire X number new Black or Latino employees or Y number new women to fill your vacancies.”

We did, however, set goals or targets for the departments and for each hiring cycle.

These goals were based on accomplishing parity between the city workforce and the population of our area. The point is that to meet these targets over time, those making recruitment choices are not asked to hire less qualified candidates over more qualified candidates, but to make sure the hiring decisions are really based on the appropriate qualifications for each job. Decisions are not based on informal, often race-based criteria or personal “feelings” about who is most qualified or would “fit” most comfortably into the department.

Supreme Court nominee Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson adjusts her glasses.
Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson dissented in the case, saying the United States “has never been colorblind.”
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

If the general population was 54% women or 33% Latino, then the city workforce should eventually reflect those percentages.

It was also important that not just the department as a whole or the city as a whole reflect those percentages, but that rough parity would also be achieved at every level within the department or city (from the lowest-paid workers to the highest and in all of the different classifications within each department and the city).

Critical to this process was getting the department to present hiring boards or decision makers with real diversity in their hiring pools — because only with enough diverse applicants is it possible to choose the best-qualified person.

Affirmative action gets its name because it requires real, affirmative effort to reach out and find qualified applicants.

The city reached out to community groups, religious institutions, media, schools and political advocacy groups to help us advertise our job openings. And, of course, in doing so, we put a lot of energy into reaching out to groups that had been excluded in past city hiring efforts. This included hiring and training people to do this outreach work, and it took time and money.

Also important to this process was establishing clear and appropriate criteria for each position. What did the job actually require the applicant to know or be able to learn? It was not just “who felt right for this kind of work.”

What we discovered in this process is that past hiring by the city (or the transit district, etc.) often considered pools of only white or male applicants or those with some kind of personal or network connection to those making the hiring decisions.

In the public works department, for example, where many of the entry-level jobs did not require special skills or education, it was virtually impossible to be hired if you hadn’t served in the U.S. Navy or unless you knew someone who already worked for the city.

It wasn’t just that people of color were turned down because they weren’t qualified or because of personal racism, although of course that had happened. They just were never even included in the hiring pools.

And if they did get into the final hiring interviews, they just never seemed as comfortable or as able to relate to the interview panel as their white competitors. They just didn’t “fit in as well.”

Department heads and those in each department responsible for recruitment, and the human resources department, got new orders — to make steady progress improving the statistics that demonstrated racial and gender parity. They were never told they had to meet a particular quota in any specific hiring decision.

In about a decade, the city made significant progress in meeting its goals.

Santa Cruz went from 20% female city employees to a little over 50% and from virtually zero African Americans to close to parity with respect to the city’s admittedly small (about .9%) African American population. The city is also achieved close to parity with respect to hiring Latinos, Asians, Pacific Islanders and Native Americans.

The City of Santa Cruz now significantly overachieves parity in this area because it uses County of Santa Cruz population demographics to establish its parity goals for hiring and retention.

In order to retain a diverse workforce, it also was important to develop and implement employee training programs to make sure that the new, more racially and gender-diverse employees were welcomed and felt comfortable in their positions.

The easier (and none of this was easy) progress was made at the lower levels of employment and in job classifications that did not require extensive technical education or training. However, eventually, real progress was made, including racial and gender diversity among department heads and the hiring of a Latino city manager and a Latino police chief.

This is not a finished project.

We still live in a racist society, where social divisions exist among racial groups and maintaining parity in city hiring and racial diversity in the city workforce is an ongoing process that requires significant energy and resources.

For both local governments and institutions of higher education, a key to creating diversity is finding ways to help K-12 schools and training programs become more successful in preparing their students for entry to colleges, universities and career employment positions. Right now, in general, we do a terrible job of this.

We should not discount the impact of colleges and universities turning out more successful graduates of color on the educational aspirations of younger people of color.

Seeing successful professionals, governmental officials, etc. who look like them can have a powerful impact on the willingness of young people of color to commit to academic work. All too often, young Black or Latino students can’t imagine themselves attending an institution of higher learning.

Unfortunately, as I look at the demographic statistics related to city employment, I see that the highest-paid department heads still tend to be male and white and that some kinds of technical work still see overrepresentation by white employees.

But I am confident that this, too, will improve.

I don’t know anyone who thinks we really know how to decide who the “most qualified” students are for college or university admission.

Replacing race as a criterion for admission with reliance on essays has its own drawbacks.

On an individual level, perhaps some students can demonstrate unusual life circumstances and obstacles or achievements that make them a standout. But at the institutional level when a college or university is considering thousands of applicants, how do we know that the subjective reading of such essays will not introduce other forms of bias detrimental to applicants of color or other groups?

Just as with the City of Santa Cruz, creating diversity in institutions of higher learning will still require clear commitment to the goal of diversity.

These choices will not only affect the lives and opportunity of those accepted and their communities. They will also improve the quality of education for the other students and eventually — as the students seek jobs here and elsewhere — the quality and diversity of life for the rest of us.