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Will Outreach Programs Be the Next Target?

July 28, 1996|Ruben Navarrette Jr. | Ruben Navarrette Jr. is the author of "A Darker Shade of Crimson: Odyssey of a Harvard Chicano" (Bantam) and editor of the forthcoming newsletter, Reconciliation

SANGER, CALIF. — In 8th grade, my best friend threatened to sue. As a white male, even one 13 years old, he claimed he had suffered "reverse discrimination" at the hands of an outreach program designed to introduce minority students to the University of California. Sixteen years later, the future of UC-administered outreach programs has quietly emerged as a vital, yet largely unexplored component of the debate over affirmative action.

There are about 850 such programs, costing taxpayers about $100 million annually. The 1996-97 state budget allocates an additional $1 million for "academic outreach." About a quarter of that will go to existing programs in the still underserved San Joaquin Valley, where only 3.5% of the area's high school graduates enroll at a UC campus, compared with 7% for the rest of the state.

Outreach critics are less interested in the programs' cost-effectiveness than in their colorblindness. Gov. Pete Wilson wants to eliminate those outreach efforts that are race-based, but he has not mentioned gender-based programs that aim, for example, to increase the number of female high school students in science and math courses.

The outreach issue will not be settled at the ballot box. The California civil rights initiative, which would end racial preferences in admissions, hiring, promotion and contracting, omits any reference to outreach. That fact has not prevented CCRI opponents, including Colin L. Powell, from trying to convince voters that doing away with racial preferences implicitly entails ending race-based outreach. His point is mistaken, but reflects a good tactic. Jettisoning outreach efforts, seen by many as benign, is a far tougher sell than banning preferences. When presented with the issue of outreach, many voters simply shrug and wonder what's the harm in making underrepresented groups aware of existing opportunities.

Some critics of race-based outreach programs root their opposition in a longing for public policy that is colorblind and fair. Yet, there are more complicated views, like those advanced by UC Regent Ward Connerly, who spearheaded the UC Board of Regents' move to dismantle the university's affirmative-action programs.

Connerly says he is a long-time advocate of outreach, because for many African Americans and Latinos, going to college is still "unfashionable" and information about universities is "just not there." But he has reservations concerning race-based programs. For one, students of all colors who need outreach should get it. Two, some university administrators, such as UC Berkeley Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien, have used outreach programs to circumvent the regents' will. Finally outreach may give some students an unfair leg up in admissions.

"It is possible," Connerly suggests, "that a UC admissions officer might assume that a minority student who participated in an outreach program is not qualified to be admitted on academics alone." The student could then be considered for one of the 6% of UC slots reserved for a less stringent "admission by exception." Connerly claims that 16% of African American Berkeley freshmen are admitted by exception, compared with 1% of Asians and 2% of whites.

The debate over race-based outreach programs will probably outlast the one over affirmative action. Should voters approve CCRI, those who were, all along, concerned primarily with claims of "reverse discrimination" will consider the battle won. For those, however, concerned with preserving racial diversity in our universities, that new day will indeed be, as Connerly puts it, "when the heavy lifting begins." Some of that lifting must include the creation of a thoughtful, responsible and comprehensive public policy that allows for the sense of possibility provided by outreach programs, perhaps even some that are race-based, and a restored sense of standards to co-exist in the post-affirmative action world. That being a world in which 8th-grade boys and girls of all colors may aspire to be lawyers but not necessarily hire them.*

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