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SANDY BANKS / Life as We Live It

When Shoe's on the Other Foot, It Hurts

April 17, 1998|SANDY BANKS | * Sandy Banks' column is published Mondays and Fridays. Her e-mail address is sandy.banks@latimes.com

I could hear the disappointment in his voice, tinged with bitterness and resignation. The letter they'd been waiting for had come. And the news wasn't good, he said.

His son--with the 4.0 average and SAT scores in the stratosphere; the saxophone player, after-school tutor and all-around good kid--had been rejected by the college he'd been planning all his life to attend.

"We are sorry . . . ," the letter from UC Berkeley had read. So many strong applicants pushing standards so high had left thousands of students like my friend's son on the sidelines this year. It wasn't supposed to work out this way--not with the demise of affirmative action, not after Proposition 209 leveled the playing field for smart, white kids like his son . . . kids like he had been 30 years before.

Then, his good grades had earned him a place at Berkeley. And he'd worked hard there, graduated with honors and gone on to earn an MBA, build a successful business career and raise his children amid the kind of privilege he could only have dreamed of when he was a kid.

And now, wrestling with anger and betrayal, he was studying admission statistics, calculating ethnic ratios and trying to figure out what had gone wrong.

*

We'd been down this road before, my friend and I.

Three years ago, his oldest daughter had been turned down by UCLA. When we had talked then, I'd wound up feeling on the spot, as if I were vicariously to blame.

No offense and all, he'd said, but if it weren't for affirmative action--and all those unqualified black and Latino kids hogging spots at the state's best schools--then truly deserving kids (like his) could claim their rightful place in the university system that his tax dollars helped build and support.

It was about the end of preferences and the triumph of merit, about raising standards and giving everybody an equal chance, he said later, as he applauded the UC regents' vote to scrap affirmative action, and championed Proposition 209 as a way to seal the deal.

But it seems now, as he casts about for someone to blame, that what he was really voting for was a system that he thought would safeguard his child's future. That it was less about principle than progeny.

And when you dig deep enough, isn't that what it's most often about when we step into the voting booth and pull that curtain behind us? We vote self-interest. Our paychecks and pocketbooks. Our kids. Our tribe.

We act often not out of high-minded interest in society's good, but from primitive emotional desires for self-preservation, protection of our privileges, or a new order that might finally put us on top.

And we blame whomever we perceive to be a threat, whichever group might block our way.

A friend who went to UCLA in the '60s remembers the complaints back then among WASP families, like his.

"So many Jews are getting in," my friend recalls people grumbling at the time. "They ought to call it Jew-CLA," the carping went.

In the late 1970s came affirmative action, and the number of black and Latino kids at the state's top colleges began creeping up. And when push came to shove, the spotlight turned on them . . . though finding them was no mean feat; their numbers on campus were still pitifully small.

Now affirmative action is officially over. And, so far at least, the ethnic group that has gained the most from our new allegiance to fairness and high standards has been Asian Americans.

Their numbers have been climbing steadily; they now outnumber all other groups in freshman classes at UCLA and UC Berkeley, the most sought-after campuses in the UC system. They were the only group to register an increase in admissions at both schools this year.

And I've got a bit of advice for those kids and their parents . . . now that kids like mine aren't the problem any more.

Take a good look at history and at who is getting in and who is not, and brace yourself to take the blame.

*

UCLA received nearly 33,000 freshman applications this year, more than any other university in America. Only 10,600 have been invited to attend. At UC Berkeley, only 8,100 high school students, nearly one in four among the 30,000 who applied, got acceptance letters in the mail.

Among those turned down, thousands were straight-A students with high SAT scores. Some were black, some Latino, some Asian American, some Native American, some white.

Equal opportunity rejection. Disappointment, without regard to race.

That's what the proponents of Proposition 209 wanted, isn't it?

So how come it doesn't feel so fair when it's your kid on the outside looking in?

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