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At UCLA, shifting racial terrain

A professor recently quit the admissions board out of suspicion that black students were being disproportionately favored. But on campus, a search for reaction quickly becomes a lesson in itself.

September 30, 2008|By Sandy Banks

It's kind of hard to talk about affirmative action in college admissions when you have a black man from the Ivy League leading in the home stretch of the race for the nation's presidency.

How much more proof of equal opportunity do we need?


FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this column stated that black admissions at UCLA are beginning to climb "thanks to outreach efforts and a switch to a holistic admissions process that considers students' life circumstances, not just GPA and SAT scores." It should have said "thanks to a holistic admissions process in which applicants' grades, test scores, extracurricular activities and other factors are no longer reviewed separately."

But I was alarmed last month by the stance of a UCLA political science professor who resigned from the school's admissions committee because he suspects that "cheating" on the admissions process accounts for the recent jump in blacks. He quit in protest after UCLA officials, citing privacy concerns, declined to give him access to student applications to test his suspicions.

The number of black freshmen jumped from 96 students in 2006 to 235 students this fall. That's in a freshman class of almost 5,000.

Dwindling black admission at UCLA has been a source of hand-wringing for years, since the state voted to outlaw the use of race as a factor in admissions decisions. Now numbers are beginning to climb, thanks to a holistic admissions process in which applicants' grades, test scores, extracurricular activities and other factors are no longer reviewed separately.

I worried about the message the professor's protest would send to UCLA's black students. So I visited the campus Monday to find out how they were faring during this first week of classes.

Did they feel isolated, unwelcome, invisible?

I worried about not finding enough black students to talk to. What I didn't count on was my own confusion:

I couldn't tell who the black students were.

The first girl I approached looked at me blankly when I began my interview. Turns out she's not black, but Indian. The daughter of a convenience store owner, the first in her family to attend college.

The brown-skinned guy with big sunglasses and bushy hair? Not black, but Armenian.

The young man on the skateboard, wearing a polo shirt and an Afro pik in his hair, was black, but waved me off. He was late to political science class.

Most of the black students I spoke with didn't want me to use their names. "It's counterproductive to complain," one freshman from Long Beach said. "I'm here, I'm grateful for the opportunity. I'm not going to get caught up in what people think."

And I found myself pondering my own awkward position. How long do I hover, waiting to approach a black girl who is deep in conversation with a white classmate, to talk about racism and isolation?

It made my mission seem like an irony. And I felt like a dinosaur, trying to use my circa-1970s orientation to interpret today's shifting racial terrain.

I was looking for someone to "represent," to give voice to my own concerns and frustrations over black access to higher education.

They were worried about finding Haines Hall, cramming for the semester's first test, making it to biology class.

Then I spotted Steven Williams seated alone at a patio table on the commons near the School of Law. I figured he wasn't a freshman; not just by the gray in his beard but the look of detached bemusement on his face as he surveyed the bustling yard.

At 43, he's not your typical UCLA student. He's a Fairfax High graduate with a checkered history: a series of dead-end jobs, a 10-month prison term for passing bad checks, unrelenting family drama.

Four years ago, he got serious about education, enrolled in Los Angeles City College and resurrected his high school dream of becoming a Bruin. With a 3.75 GPA and a resume loaded with community service commitments, he transferred from City College to UCLA as a junior this fall -- one of 100 black students admitted as transfers.

Does the controversy over black admissions bother him? Yes, but he's a generation older than most new students -- closer in age to me than to them. "My first thought was 'Here it is 2008 and we're still caught up in this '40s mindset, people trying to hold us back,' " he said.

But like me, he got a quick reality check.

On his first day of class, he had a set-to with a professor over a scheduling error. He was fuming, until he encountered a black administrator who noticed his distress. She talked him down and shared another perspective.

"She told me it was just a difficult day for everybody. They were busy, frustrated . . . Not to take it personally. Because it wasn't about me at all.

"I was ready to believe it was racism, but she kind of took me behind the scenes to look at it from another way."

Chalk that up as the first lesson of the new semester, for the new student and the dinosaur.

sandy.banks@latimes.com

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