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UCLA Students Feel Tensions of Prop. 209

November 10, 1996|CARLA HALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Like many of his friends and classmates at UCLA, Ken Lewis was against Proposition 209. But just days after the measure passed, as University of California schools geared up to implement their color- and gender-blind admissions process, Lewis can see one positive side.

"Maybe now when I walk on campus," the 21-year-old black senior said Saturday, "people won't look at me as a product of affirmative action. They'll look at me as just a student."

Lewis, a math and computers major, added that he still supports the use of affirmative action to help promising students "from less advantaged backgrounds" and to make the school diverse.

The new admissions procedures will only affect prospective applicants--not Lewis or other current students.

But his lament speaks volumes about the underlying tensions, passions and perceptions UCLA students are grappling with in the wake of Proposition 209's passage and the UC system's announcement that, barring a court order, officials will implement it immediately.

"I think they should have waited until next year for everything to settle down," said Tracy Poindexter, an 18-year-old freshman. "After it [passed], people were walking around saying, 'I can't believe it happened.' It was like someone died. . . . I just wish it didn't exist," Poindexter said.

For weeks on the UCLA campus, there had been no escaping the specter of Proposition 209. One vocal faction held anti-209 rallies, and students plastered walls with fliers, most protesting the measure.

But on this blissfully warm and sunny weekend day, election issues were no longer a focus of attention. The grounds were awash in people strolling or sunbathing or hunkering down under shady trees with friends.

The only intense discussion about any kind of cultural diversity was left to some 1,200 high school students, crisply dressed and energetically striding around campus for a model United Nations conference. Topics there ranged from Bosnia to bans on biological and chemical weapons.

Some UCLA students didn't even realize Saturday morning that the university system had already taken action to institute the controversial ballot measure. "Nobody really knows it's being implemented," said Joe Aragon, 25, a third-year UCLA medical student.

"I was shocked," said Aragon, who read about the UC action in the newspaper Saturday morning. "I don't see how they can implement anything that fast."

Aragon said he had heard that the university was working on a plan to allow college applicants to declare themselves as "underprivileged--which is good. But your grades shouldn't be crap. Mine weren't. I worked my butt off."

Aragon said he is deeply opposed to Proposition 209. "I think from a medical school standpoint, it's going to be a public health disaster," said Aragon, who is Latino. "Studies have shown that more medical school graduates who are products of affirmative action went to practice in their own ethnic communities that needed them."

Aragon said he had not had time to be an activist on the issue. "You're too busy trying to pass," said Aragon who had just finished an oral exam. "I think that's the best thing a Latino or black med student could do."

Even though UCLA's anti-Proposition 209 rallies were publicized, student proponents of the measure believe they have plenty of company.

"My friends agree with me--but they're mostly Caucasian," said Pedram Yasharel, a 19-year-old junior. "I voted for it just because I think it's the right thing. Personally, I'm a minority, but I don't qualify," said Yasharel, who is of Persian descent.

"A friend of mine who's black got into Berkeley and I didn't," he said. "And I had better grades. I mean, I'm not mad at him. If the system's there, you might as well use it. I'm sure there are people who get in because of the program who do great. But it's still wrong."

On the sweeping lawn between Royce Hall and Powell Library, Melissa Carey was poring over Spanish homework, a copy of "501 Spanish Verbs" at her side.

"There's a lot of tension between minorities and whites," said Carey, a 21-year-old white sophomore who transferred from a Sacramento junior college. A Latino student in her dorm buttonholed her after the election.

"He said, 'Did you vote for Prop 209?' " she recalled. "I knew I was going to get shredded if I said yes, but I wasn't going to lie. I said, 'Yes, I voted for it.' He said, 'Oh, you're such a hypocrite.' He was half-joking, half not."

Carey said that despite her vote, her experience at UCLA has made her believe that affirmative action might be necessary for minorities hamstrung by bad economic conditions.

"I see people come clean our [dorm] and they're all Mexican and I see they can't get out. A lot of those blue collar and entry level jobs are where they're stuck," Carey said. "At the same time, I think two wrongs don't make a right."

Though Proposition 209 wasn't on the agenda for Model U.N. participants, students from Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach were eager to talk about it.

"I'm all for it," said Scott Hunter, a 17-year-old senior. "I think it's going back to the civil rights initiative of '64--which disallowed discrimination.

His classmate, 16-year-old Nazanin Agange, disagreed. "It's assuming many advances have been made and they haven't," she said.

The students weren't without political sensibility either.

"Can you read that back to me?" asked Hunter, stressing that he hoped Proposition 209 would end discrimination. "I don't want my mother reading this and going, 'What, are you a bigot?' "

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