Controversy Surrounding California Senate Bill 185

By now the news is focused more on the contested UC Berkeley “Diversity” Bake Sale than the issue itself. The Berkeley College Republicans group has decided they will hold a bake sale that prices items based on race and gender, with items being more expensive for whites than for other minorities. For more information on this story see this article from the LA Times. The sale is a protest of California Senate Bill 185. What is SB 185?
This bill essentially changes the wording in the California Education Code to say that the University of California and California State University systems may take into account race, gender, nationality, ethnicity and “other relevant factors” when making decisions for acceptance into both undergraduate and graduate programs. Universities will report by November of next year on their implementation of this bill, including statistics and figures showing numbers of students that belong to a variety of memberships. For more information, see amended bill here.

Controversy stirs over whether the Berkeley students’ sale is racist. Media coverage has reported that the group plans to continue their sale despite the student senators’ unanimous vote that the sale is racist. Yet little attention is paid to the reason they are holding this sale in the first place, SB 185. The students from this organization are making the argument that the bill itself is racist. Which side is right?

Racism is a term thrown about without much thought these days. The primary definition of racism is “a belief or doctrine that inherent differences among the various human races determine cultural or individual achievement.” So is SB 185 racist? Is the Diversity Bake Sale racist? You could make a case for both sides in each of these events. But we’re totally missing the point here!
It is a fact that test scores for minorities are, on average, lower than their white (and sometimes Asian) peers. But a line of research in psychology has suggested that by simply NOT reminding these test takers of their race/ethnicity prior to an exam can erase much of this achievement gap. Other intervention strategies, including self-affirmation, role models, etc, can also change the way minorities perform on tests (for more on this see a previous Psychology In Action post). Does this mean that there is an inherent difference among the races? Probably not. What it does mean is that by paying too much attention to our differences, we exaggerate them.

So, then, will SB 185 help minorities? Or does it draw attention to their group’s performance differences, thus potentially making race salient? Could this cause more scrutiny towards minority students from their majority student peers? Does this really address a problem in public post-secondary education in California?

To focus on the UCs for a moment, I looked up rough estimates of the percentages of ethnicities and races for all of the UC campuses, in comparison to the California percentages.


White: 33.1% 40.1%

Asian: 26.44% 13%

Hispanic: 15.33% 37.6%

African-American: 3.4% 6.2%

This is not a comprehensive list, by any means, but just highlights what the UC campuses look like. In reality, whites are underrepresented at UC campuses across the state, as are Hispanics (by the largest margin) and African-American students. Asian students are overrepresented. So what does this mean? Although the information is not accessible on the internet, I wonder what percentage of minority students were not accepted. Is it the same as the number of white and Asian students? Or are minorities applying less frequently than their white and Asian peers? There are a variety of reasons for this, including cultural expectations, socioeconomic status, performance in high school and expectations of acceptance at the school.

In reality, the universities are only one small part of the racial achievement gap. Although I applaud the senators from California for attempting to address this issue, I don’t believe this begins to cover it. We need to start from day 1, in kindergarten, telling ALL students that they are capable of performing well, no matter their circumstances, and helping them to overcome those circumstances that could get in the way of their performance. We need to look towards the findings in psychology to determine policy, not just the numbers and passions of a few politicians. Then we may find roughly representative numbers of students applying to universities and make decisions based on eligibility.

We’re not there yet, and rich discussion of the racial achievement issue is certainly warranted. Let’s start here! If you have any comments or opinions, leave them in the comments here.